Yin Yuan founded the temple and breathed new life into Japan. Over three hundred years later I found the temple and wondered if I would feel the breath, as refreshing now as ever.
Yin Yuan arrived in Japan in 1654 and took on the Japanese name Ingen. As a monk of great renown he was invited by the 4th Tokugawa Shogun, Ietsuna. By 1661 he had begun the founding of Manpukuji temple and along with his many disciples, was injecting fresh new art, architecture, learning, philosophy, calligraphy and cuisine into a Buddhist culture that was then stagnating.
I arrived in Uji on a pleasant October morning, but I wasn't hoping for
'pleasant'. If all I had wanted was 'pleasant' I would have wandered around
a random Kyoto temple like all the other tourists. I wanted something more.
I wanted something new. I wanted to discover the invigorating new culture
that Ingen had infused into the Japanese.
Yin Yuan, or Ingen, had lived the exotic blend of Chinese and Japanese culture even as he was establishing it. For him it was life. For me it seemed to be distant history and on that morning I wondered how the tour could possibly make it feel any closer.
|Wrapped In Tradition
I wore cut-off shorts, skate shoes, a black tee and a rusting chain around
my neck. It was hardly the clothing that would immerse me into the cultural
experience. So the first step was to transform my girlfriend and me. The
tour began at "I love Kyoto" a quaint little kimono rental shop
where my girlfriend and I were served and dressed like royalty.
The abundance of brilliant robes was overwhelming but eventually I made a decision and the expert hands set about renovating me. The obi, the sash style belt, sat low and tight, cinched around my hips and became a constant reminder that I was now wrapped in a tradition different from my own.
I enjoyed the process of selection and my own change but even more stunning for me was seeing my girlfriend transformed before my eyes. Swathed in a striking kimono her hair came up and was pinned with exquisite hanging ornaments. Enveloped now in a rich culture we were anticipating the chance to strut through Kyoto and then, to stride along a dragon's back.
Striding The Dragon's Back
We arrived at the temple. Manpukuji. Japan had welcomed Yin Yuan and his creative influence and now So-Mon, the temple's outer gate, welcomed us. A guide was awaiting us and the history she revealed to us as we walked enriched our experience, yet even without her insights the place was evidently replete with Ingen's novel influence. Unique Chinese architecture was married to Japanese sensibility in what amounted to a fresh new temple experience.
I learnt, among countless other interesting things, that the pine trees in the temple were signs
which indicated that they would welcome weary travellers. I was far from
weary though, Ingen had created a beautiful piece of China in the middle
of Japan and I was really enjoying its inimitable style. There were swastika
structured balustrades that looked like they were straight out of a kung
fu movie. There were fascinating figures, eighteen of them carved and lining
a great central statue, each with a venerable visage and each with its
And there was a dragon. In typical Chinese fashion the temple complex had been arrayed in the shape of a dragon, the gate its mouth, the pond its eye and the paths its spine. Diagonal stepping stones ran up the centre of these paths and we were told that originally only the head monks could step upon the great beast's backbone. Draped in a kimono though I felt immersed in the scene and on that day I strode along the dragon's back.
All of this was beautiful but at regular intervals through the tour my
eyes were drawn from the temple to another exotic sight. My girlfriend,
gliding along the wooden temple balconies in her beautiful kimono was a
stunning sight and I almost forgot my own name, let alone what year it
Unfortunately I had also forgotten to eat breakfast that morning. When we stood and admired a giant wooden fish hanging from the ceiling our guide informed us that it was used as a gong to announce a celebration or feast. It also reminded me that I was starving.
Tasting Fresh Tradition
Fortunately satisfaction was literally across the road. Hakuunan awaited us, promising to serve a fine meal. As a Zen Buddhist, Ingen did not believe in the eating of meat and when he poured his country's culture into Japan one of the innovations he brought was a special vegan cuisine - fucha ryori. In Australia we consider a good, satisfying meal to be a huge chunk of cow slapped down on a plate with a few vegetables sprinkled alongside as an afterthought. So, though curious, I was afraid that the restaurant's fucha ryori would not be filling enough. I was also afraid that, like the shojin ryori I had eaten months earlier, it would be the kind of meal which left my tastebuds under whelmed.
I was very surprised when they arranged the spread, barely having enough room for it on the long central table. 'Fucha' can be translated as 'everyone having tea together' and this was reflected in the lay out before us. We sat in our kimono, on tatami matting, all sharing from the same plates. The view from our private room overlooked the gardens which enclosed the restaurant and further enhanced the feeling of peace and unity initiated by the design of the food. And design is not as strange a word to use for this food as it may seem. The presentation was deliberate and the preparation of the food exquisite. In true Chinese fashion our fucha ryori was built around the ideals of the five elements. The five colours are well represented with blacks, whites,
greens, reds and yellows and some of the foods, including an orchid floating
in a delicate soup and an intricately carved lily bulb, were beautiful
The five Chinese tastes were also well represented - spicy, sweet, sour,
salty and bitter. So, wonderfully, my tastebuds were not left to sit this
one out. Our fucha ryori came with bolder tastes than the shojin ryori
I had eaten before.
I was amazed to see the myriad individual pieces and to list them all here would be a mammoth task. It was this variety of tastes and textures, along with the sharing from the same dishes, which really made this experience much more than a meal. It became something more socially oriented, more interactive with no two bites being the same. The abundant dishes and delicious flavours ensured every bite was an adventure for my mouth.
Reflecting In The Rain
After our fucha ryori feast we strolled through the garden to a quaint,
small hut with an old world atmosphere. The rain was pattering on the stone
walkway but this only increased the cosy atmosphere as we sat, relaxed
and had our green tea and sweets. It was so tranquil reclining there, dry
in our kimono as we watched the rain fall outside, that it gave me time
to reflect on the day. I found it impossible to select any one part of
the tour as a highlight. The kimono had readied our minds and bodies to
really feel the culture, while the temple had taken us back to that time
of fresh new culture in Japan and the Chinese-Japanese cuisine had filled
and delighted us.
In 1661 Ingen had founded this place of invigorating new culture and breathed new life into Japan.
Over three hundred years later I sat in the small hut, legs folded under
me, clad in kimono, sipping thick green tea and looked out at the rain.
Centuries later I had found the place and was feeling the breath, as refreshing
then as ever.
I gazed across at my girlfriend, beautiful and resplendent in her kimono
and truly wished I never had to leave.
|Reported by Hamish Love
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