Travelling the World: Japanese Garden Tours with Espirita

If, instead of being consumed by their smart phones, commuters at London Bridge Station were to raise their heads above the parapet of human entanglement, then rising vertiginously above them they would find London’s Temple to the Perpendicular, The Shard, not dissimilar to the dramatic vaulting presence of the nave in Ely Cathedral near Cambridge, a classic example of the medieval Perpendicular style of church building. On arrival at Osaka Kansai Airport, one is immediately arrested by Renzo Piano’s other great work, his Homage to the Horizontal, the 1.7 kilometre long, clean, elliptical and unbroken silver alloy line of the Osaka Airport Terminal building, as jaw dropping and uncompromising a purity of line as The Shard. But, at that length, the expression of line is five times longer than the 306 metres of the Shard and more than twice the length of the world’s tallest building, the 830 metres of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The horizontal plane is the true domain of the element of space. Hence the eternal attraction of gazing out to sea or across a lake – its spaciousness connects directly to the original spaciousness within ourselves, however cluttered it might be by the detritus of our existence.

Gazing out over the ocean of roads, bridges, apartments, office blocks and electric cables, crammed into the seemingly endless Osaka/Kyoto conurbation leading to Kyoto Station, one could be forgiven for thinking : “Why on earth am I here ?” Yet, after a week of exploring human culture in Japan, it is not unusual for visitors to develop an abiding, lifelong fascination with Japanese culture, in many cases bordering on obsession. Though Murakami’s books have done much to demystify the rituals of everyday Japan, the word that continually comes to mind is mystique.

Taking D T Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture premise that, from the reverberating bong of a mountain top Temple bell to the manicured carefulness with which one is served a downtown cup of coffee, there is an irreducible element of Zen mindfulness in everything in Japan. With its core principles of Wa ( Harmony ) Kei ( Respect )  Sei ( Purity ) Jaku ( Tranquillity ) Chadō, the way of Tea, has had a profound effect on Japanese society and the way that people interact with each other on a daily basis. Based in Kyoto, the 16th century Zen priest and Tea Master, Sen no Rikyu, codified the various strands of Tea culture – that society cannot properly function without mutual respect amongst its members.

The notable Japanese-American sculptor and landscape architect, Isamu Noguchi, once said : “I consider Kyoto to be my great teacher: between Brancusi’s Paris and the traditional workshops and gardens of Kyoto, a sensibility took place that belonged in both worlds and beatified them both.”  Van Gogh and Claude Monet were both strongly influenced by Japonisme, the late 19th century wave of Japanese art that swept over the Western world following the opening up of Japan in the 1850s. At Monet’s house at Giverny outside Paris, just as remarkable as the world famous water lily ponds and the Japanese bridge over them, is the fact that every piece of available wall space in his house is covered in Japanese prints, 231 one of them to be precise. In Monet’s case, his art, garden and the Japanese aesthetic became inextricably linked to each other.

There is more to the Japanese Garden tradition than beautiful patterns and colourful displays. The horizontal plane of the raked sand is a prompt to return to the original deconstructed consciousness within ourselves, the nigiri guchi, the ‘crawl door’ entrance to the Tea House, the path of humility for everyone, great or small. The Gardens of Kyoto are a bountiful means of unravelling the complexities of Japanese culture and for the viewer to appraise one’s own personal journey through the world. In the centrefold of his Budokan live recording of 1978, Bob Dylan certainly thought so : “The more I think about it, the more I realise what I left behind in Japan… the people of Japan can hear my heart still beating in Kyoto at the Zen Rock Garden. Someday I will be back to reclaim it.”

Espirita is a not for profit travel outfit dedicated to exploring world culture. It has run Garden Tours to Japan since 2001. Inspirita, a related company, produces feature length  documentaries on the main forms of world culture.

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1. Courtesy of Espirita.