A Cozy Refuge in a Small Town
If you are tired of famous bustle-hustle spots in Kyoto and want to forget about your "Must-See-in-Japan" list for a while, this may be a chic retreat. It's calm and quiet, just because a few people would visit. But even a less frequented place doesn't have to be a middle of nowhere of nothingness, and showy architecture and big Buddhas are not always a fancy for everyone.
Almost melted into the fabrics of a nondescript small town, the gate of Ikkyūji Temple hardly stands out. But once you find it and step inside, you can feel serenity and purity of the air released. If it's spring, the bright light verdure of young tree leaves will cleanse and moisten your eyes, and in autumn, vivid maple red will heighten and brighten your mood. Walking up the flagstone slope to the inner grounds, you may be sure it's one of real Japanese hidden Wabi-Sabi spots.
After purifying your hands at the lavabo or Mitarashi (literally a hand washing area to metaphorically cleanse your body and mind to enter a sanctuary) and paying admission at the reception booth, the temple is all yours for hours' peaceful stay. You can leisurely stroll up and down among gardens, sit on the Engawa corridor to contemplate a well-combed white pebble garden for a while, or enjoy small talk with a lady at the vending counter over a free cup of kelp tea she would serve. For those who have the guts to try some odd and fantastic taste and flavour, there is Ikkyūji Natto (the fermented soybeans, a special recipe by the monk Ikkyū).
Pathway to the Main Hall
Up the slope and passing the Bath House, you will see a narrow path straightly penetrating a small gate, which gives you a square-framed glimpse of the main hall ahead. Feel the clean air of tranquillity. But mind your step, too! On both sides of the flagstone path, there lie carpets of thick, well-cared green moss, adding refreshing and soothing atmosphere to the landscape.
Hōjō, Kuri and Gardens
Hōjō is monk's living quarters, and this one was rebuilt in 1650 by the feudal lord Maeda Toshitsune of the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). You can reach it through Naka Mon (the Middle or Inner Gate), a cultural asset of Kyoto Prefecture, by descending the stone steps leading to the entrance of the Kuri (kitchen) building. Before entering the building, quickly observe a rare 400-year old pine tree called Shidare Matsu (Drooping Pine) magnificently showing itself with the branches extending downward.
The Kuri was rebuilt together with Hōjō and is listed as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. Also, check the Kamado cooking hearth installed on the inner left side. When you step inside the building, you'll see the Irori (fireplace) room ahead with carefully polished wooden flooring. Remove your shoes at the entrance (it's the rule in a Japanese house) and just hop in!
Now you're moving to Hōjō following the wooden floor extended from Kuri. If it's a sunny day and not crowded, stand still halfway in the passage for a moment. You'll find a harmony of light and shade created by the darkness inside the building and brightness outside. It's also fascinating to look a dazzling white garden through a uniquely-shaped window provisionally formed by the deep-shaded interior structures.
Then here you are, it's a Zen time! Sit on the Engawa corridor to contemplate the white pebble garden. It's a typical Zen denomination garden of the Edo Period and is decorated with cycad, sasanqua and dwarf azalea plants. You may wonder, why is the white pebble surface so meticulously grooved? Again, it's a typical way to represent water and its flows, without using actual water.
Let's move on to the east garden. The design of this garden is also very Buddhistic. Using various rocks, bushes and trees, it describes a picture of sixteen Arhats (those who have attained enlightenment) on their missionary journey. On the north, you see a Hōrai (Mt. Penglai; the legendary mountain where hermits used to live) garden in the Kare San Sui (mountain and dry water) style. Waterfall streams originated in the mountain flowing into a sea is depicted by an elaborate combination of rocks.
Meet the Monk Ikkyū
Absorbed in serenity and part of your mundanity washed away (Let's hope so), you may want to know about the monk the temple is nicknamed after. Nicknamed, because Ikkyūji is officially named Shū On An and belongs to the Daitokuji School of the Rinzai Denomination. The temple was initially built in the Shōō Era (1288 - 1292) and named Myōshōji. Then, it was heavily damaged in a war during the Genkō Era (1331 - 1334). And it was a monk named Ikkyū who restored the temple premises and made them his hermitage in 1456.
So, who is Ikkyū anyway? To many Japanese, he is a TV drama or anime character (Check this link) and well known for his witty spirit, portrayed based on the same monk. Born in Kyoto as an offspring of Emperor Gokomatsu, he was a Zen master, not an ordinary, but odd and eccentric one. In contrast with all other monks who shaved their head, he stopped doing that and let the hair and beard grow rampantly. He enjoyed taking alcohol and meat, even having relationships with women -- all deemed as acts of a precept-breaker. But some record says his eccentric deeds were meant to awaken people from binds of superficial formality and traditions and guide them to Buddha teachings. He renamed the temple Shū On An and lived there for 25 years until his death at 88.
To see what he looked like, you can check three statues placed within the premises. The first and most important one (an Important Cultural Property) is located at Hōjō's Buddha Room. This wooden image gives you a hint that the monk was indeed strange. It holds his real hair and beard, actually harvested from his own body and planted by him in person (weird enough!). The other two can be found on the ground near the main hall. One is old, and the other is new, portraying the monk in an old man and boy respectively.