In order to understand this picture, I need to set the context for you. I’m in Kyoto, staying at Myoshin-ji Temple, and at breakfast I ask my fellow guests what sites I should see in the city. A German man tells me (in that authoritative way that Germans have) that I must, simply must, see several sites on the eastern side of Kyoto, places that are off-the-beaten path and visited by few tourists. He pulls out a map, gives me directions, and off I go.
Then I spend two hours on city buses, which crawl their way through traffic, stopping every five minutes to disgorge and re-admit hordes of commuters. Much of the time I have to stand, wedged tightly next to people, hot and uncomfortable, straining to hear the announcements of stops (given just once in English). I have to change buses, which involves asking no less than six people for directions. Then I get off the bus and start to walk, realizing that my map isn’t nearly detailed enough. I walk and walk and walk, asking another dozen people for directions, clutching my map that has grown increasingly soggy in the rain, cursing the German who has sent me on this wild goose chase, thinking that no place is worth this much hassle.
And then I arrive at Shisen-do Temple, the House of Great Poets.
When I look at this picture now, I realize it doesn’t begin to do this place justice. Part of it was the dramatic contrast between the bustle of modern Japan and this remnant of a much older time. It felt like the most serene and still place I have ever been, a green jewel of elegance and beauty. I sat on this porch and drank in the peace of it, looking at the garden in which every detail was exquisitely shaped and arranged, while above me loomed the wildness of the mountain.
Sinsen-do was built in 1641 by a samurai warrior who had fallen out of favor with the ruling shogun. This was his retirement villa, his refuge for contemplation after the rigors of war and politics. He became a Confucian scholar renowned for his wisdom and learning, spending the remainder of his life here in this idyllic spot overlooking Kyoto. The house is small by American standards, just a few rooms, each with the sliding paper screens and open floor plan of traditional Japanese houses. It feels like a home that is still well-loved and cherished, seamlessly integrated into the immaculate garden outside its porch.
Here’s the curious thing about this place: as I sat there, I periodically heard a clapping sound. It would break the stillness, and then five minutes or so later I would hear the sound again. I later saw a sign that explained that there is a device in the garden that periodically fills with water from a stream and then makes the noise as it empties itself. For many centuries, versions of this contraption have been operating in the garden.
The reason for the device is this: the profound stillness of the garden can only be fully appreciated if it is periodically broken.
When I think back to Japan, it is this place that comes first to my mind, this island of sculpted beauty perched on the mountainside, a haven for a warrior who put down his weapons in exchange for a life of poetry and books. I can think of no better place for contemplation and study.
It was here in this place that I began to realize just how exquisitely nuanced Japanese culture can be—to create such a garden, and to realize that its serenity is best appreciated only through the periodic sound that breaks its silence.