Back from Japan, today i would like to suggest 5 ways to better enjoy a visit in the temples of Kyoto as well as in the temples of the rest of Japan, to better feel all the emotions these places can give to a visitor, even the one not particularly interested in religion and spirituality.
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To introduce my article, i would like to firstly give an overview to the reader of the japanese temples, by spending a couple of words on the Japanese religious background.
The most common religions of Japan to which most temples belong (although to be precise, religion is often considered a wrong word to use in Japan, since what we called religions, in Japan are often intended more as “philosophies”) are called Buddhism and Shinto. The first one is the practice of following the teaching and discipline of Buddha, while the second one is the practice of recalling the spirits of some earth elements and their energy, such as that of mountains or that of prosperity.
They can be easily recognized by putting attention to a couple of simple details, such as for example the presence of a Torii. A Torii is a typical japanese red arch, representing the entrance of a Shinto temple, more correctly called “shrine”. In turn the presence of a Buddha statue indicates that the temple represents Buddhism.
Sometimes it could even happen to find both these elements together, and in this case the temple is a hybrid which has been conceived to welcome both Buddhism and Shinto believers.
In this sense, although I’m not a specific believer of any of them, i can’t certainly forget how deep and emotional my visit has been, thanks to some special sensations and details of these places that really touched my heart.
In this regard, today, i will talk about 5 things that i consider important when visiting a japanese temple, and that left me an unforgettable remembrance of my visit in Kyoto, hoping to help anyone else to experience the same.
HEAR THE DEEP SOUND OF A TEMPLE BUDDHIST BELL
I really can’t forget how relaxing and spiritual this sound was. I still remember how it happened…I was walking along one of the main streets of Arashiyama, in the north west district of Kyoto, with the intention of visiting a couple of temples in this area.
While walking, i suddenly started to hear a deep distant sound. It was calm, almost melodic, deep, smoothed, and more than my ears, it was directly reaching my heart like the singing of a siren.
At one point I clearly started to feel my legs moving toward the direction of the sound, with the hope to find its origin. They both looked out of my control, so attracted by the beauty of this sound.
After a while going back and forth, i finally spotted the origin of the sound, and the reason of its infinite duration, going on for endless minutes and filling so much my soul.
It was coming from Nison-in temple, and the reason of its endless sound was due to visitors continuously hitting the great Buddhist bell of the temple to make a prayer.
In the picture above I tried to depict that beautiful moment, made even better by the colors of Koyo, or Momijigari, the moment of the year in autumn during which the maple trees become of an intense red/orange color…..so unforgettable…I even tried to record it in a video, in the hope to hear to this sound once back home…
ADMIRE THE JAPANESE GARDEN IN SILENCE
In many temples it is possible to enjoy a panoramic view over the internal japanese garden while sitting down on the veranda in complete silence.
It’s important to be quiet, for two reasons. This allows other people to not be disturbed, and at the same time it allows to better enjoy the atmosphere, and to hear the sound of cute birds as well as that of the gentle whisper of the wind through the trees.
The main suggestion i can give in regard to the japanese garden visit, is to organize the trip during the best weeks of the years, which are represented by the Hanami weeks during spring season (the first 2 weeks of April usually), and the Koyo/Momijigari week during autumn season (the second 2 weeks of November for Kyoto for example), when the maple trees turn orange and red. Of course the exact weeks depend by the places visited. For example, regarding the autumn season, in mountain areas October is preferrable, while in cities like Kyoto, the autumn tends to arrive later in the second half of November.
A little consideration should also be made in regard to the time spent. It’s very easy to fall in love with japanese gardens. However, each temple during some seasons can be full of visitors, and at the same time hosting all of them at the same time can be difficult because the space is limited.
For this reason, although it would be great to stay the entire day on the verandas of temples to admire the japanese gardens, i believe it’s important to limit the time to just some minutes, to allow other visitors after us to sit down on our place. In this sense, respect for other people in Japan is considered a pillar of this country, and the same respect is also expected from tourists.
TAKE PART TO THE MATCHA TEA CEREMONY
This is something for which Japan in general is quite popular. It is possible to make the tea ceremony in some temples of Kyoto for example.
Regarding me, i did it in the temple of Hosenin in Ohara, situated in the north east outskirts of Kyoto, although i found that the ceremony was also offered in the temple of Shoren-in for example, in the east district of Kyoto called Higashiyama, in a separated hall situated on the back of the japanese garden, with the access provided by a little path passing along the garden itself.
Participating to a tea ceremony in a temple is not just about the act of drinking. In fact, there are some important aspects that concretely enrich the experience.
For example, both the tea server and the guest often make a reciprocal bend as a form of respect before drinking, and also, japanese people and the ceremony practice both give a great importance to the “admiration” of the tea cup, which often it’s handcrafted. Moreover, during a temple tea ceremony, it is also considered a nice habit to enjoy the japanese garden outside the temple, by sitting in the veranda just in front of it while drinking the tea.
Finally, some words must be spent also for the preparation of the tea itself. The quality used is called Matcha tea, and it’s probably considered one of the most expensive and genuine green tea of the world. This is because it is produced from the best green tea leaves, and also because it is exposed to a very special and more expensive production process, during which the leaves are intentionally left under the shadow for a while to increase the level of “sap”, and then finely pulverized like a wheat flour.
The final result is a special “flour like” tea which is capable of making a lot of foam like the milk, very difficult to describe until you see the final result with your eyes. This of course, is something which also requires a special tool called “chasen”, consisting in a piece of bamboo similar to a paint brush which is used to produce the foam effect. We can consider it an ancient version of the modern electrical milk frother.
Below is a picture of a variant of Matcha tea which i made some days ago, quite popular between teen-agers in Japan and very tasty. It’s called Matcha-Latte (or Matcha-Milk), and it’s a hybrid between a cup of milk and a cup of Matcha. The foam appearing on top is not derived only from milk, but also from the Matcha itself.
Since the preparation of the Matcha tea is very special, below i’m providing the exact instructions to make it, since I’ve become very good in doing it.
BONUS: THE SECRET TO MAKE A GOOD FOAMY MACTHA TEA CUP:
- Before preparing the Matcha, buy a chasen tool in a japanese shop or on Internet (Amazon sells it). Alternatively, try to use an electrical milk frother, the tool used to produce the milk foam at home.
- Put some hot water in the tea cup. Wait 15 seconds, and then throw away the water. This step is only needed to warm the tea cup a little bit, since the act of shaking to produce the foam can quickly cool down too much the tea.
- Put again some new hot water in the warmed tea cup. The quantity of water this time must be extremely limited, the same of half of a coffee cup (yes, very limited quantity is needed, otherwise the foam will never come out. This is the real great secret to prepare the Matcha)
- Take some Matcha tea, in a quantity of a not abudant teaspoon
- Now with the chasen tool or with the milk frother, start to shake with great energy the tea in the water until a nice green foam will appear on top of the water
- Now take a sugar strainer, and add some matcha tea, in quantity of a teaspoon tip, inside the strainer, and start to distribute the Matcha powder on top of the foam to decorate it a little bit like you would do with cocoa powder on your milk cup
- Here we are! the Matcha is ready!
- NOTE: again, as said above, if the foam doesn’t appear, the problem is simple, too much water!!! try again with less water!!
- NOTE 2: to prepare the “matcha-milk” variant, just make in a separated cup some milk foam, and then add it inside the Matcha cup before the step 6…that’s it!
SAY A PRAYER
Not all visitors come in a temple to pray. Most of them are only interested (like me), to the cultural aspect of these places. However, it could be still a deep and good cultural experience to try to make a prayer according to the traditional practices of japanese temples, especially the Shinto shrines…In this regard, most people will surely remember the typical act of clapping the hands.
Alternatively, rather than making a prayer, i found really interesting to watch other visitors doing it in silence, trying to catch their spirituality. And in both cases, whatever the final choice, i can only recommend to take it seriously. Praying is neither a game, nor something touristic to do just for entertainment.
In the picture above, i captured the prayer of a japanese couple during November in Arashiyama, Kyoto. The one depicted is a typical Shinto Shrine, and as seen, they are both wearing their kimono. In fact is not uncommon to see most japanese people wearing it especially during the seasons of spring and autumn, since both these seasons are considered a special celebration time.
RESPECT THE RULES
I believe that respecting rules is something that can improve the personal experience, apart from making the environment better for other people. Since it’s still a religious and spiritual place, care must be taken in following the home rules, and this is why the fifth and final point is dedicated to this aspect.
Therefore, below i’m reporting some important basic rules to respect during the visit to a japanese temple:
- Be quite, always….
- While taking pictures, don’t use flash. It just disturbs other visitors and often produces a bad and dull photographic result
- Remove shoes before walking inside a temple on tatami floor
- Don’t put the camera tripod on the tatami floor, it could damage it
- Do not damage the garden, and do not walk in limited areas of the garden to avoid damaging the vegetation
- Do not play with cerimonial tools and do not touch things just for curiosity to avoid any possible damage. Temples are often full of ancient tools and artifacts for which extra care should be taken
- Don’t sit for too long in a veranda to admire the japanese garden. Limit the time to allow other visitors to take your place
- Don’t consume food inside the temples
- Keep three eyes on your kids…stop them screaming and running everywhere. They are not justified just because they are young
- Bring respect to monks and temple personnel. When needed, make a salute with a japanese bend. It will be really appreciated.
Thanks for reading! Cheers to Japan!
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