By Don George
When I’ve been home too long, a favorite way to assuage my wanderlust is to peruse the Crystal Worldwide Atlas. Riffling through these pages, I sail in mind around the world. This afternoon I decided to play my own version of Spin the Crystal and opened the atlas at a random page to see where serendipity would take me. Much to my delight, I opened to a cruise called “Skyscrapers & Shoguns,” which sails from Beijing to Tokyo via Dalian, Shanghai, Nagasaki, and Osaka. The moment I saw that the ship landed in Osaka, I was immediately transported to one of my favorite cities on the planet, Kyoto, which can be visited easily on a day excursion from Osaka.
Tokyo is the high-energy, high-density, high-tech capital of contemporary Japan, but if you want to get a sense of the country’s ancient and abiding character, Kyoto is the place to go. Some of my favorite stops include golden Kinkakuji Temple; hilltop Kiyomizu-dera with its sweeping, soaring views; and Saiho-ji, the tranquil Moss Temple. But my favorite place of all, the temple that captures the essence of Kyoto for me, is Ryoanji.
Ryoanji is especially famed for its 15th-century rock garden, an exemplar of the karesansui (“dry landscape”) garden style. Fifteen irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes, some surrounded by moss, are arranged in a bed of sand-colored gravel that is raked every day. A low earthen wall, overhung by a narrow, beamed wooden roof, surrounds the garden on three sides; on the fourth side is a wide wooden platform, where visitors sit to admire the garden. Beyond the wall are cedar, pine, and cherry trees.
Some two decades ago, I wrote an essay about Ryoanji that was selected to be published in the anthology Travelers’ Tales: Japan. The words I wrote then still capture perfectly the way I feel about Ryoanji now, a quarter century later. Here is an excerpt:
“The first time I visited Ryoanji I was overwhelmed — first by the spareness of the site and second by loudspeakers that every fifteen minutes squawked out a recorded message about the history and spirit of the garden to the busloads of obedient schoolchildren and tourists who filed through.
“But something held me there. Morning passed to afternoon, and still I sat on the well-worn platform, staring. Kids in black caps, tiny book-filled backpacks, and black-and-white school uniforms passed by, studying me while I studied the garden; and adults in shiny cameras and kimonos clicked and clucked and walked on.
“Clouds came and went, and the branches beyond the garden bent, straightened, bent again. I saw how the pebbly sand had been meticulously raked in circles around the rocks, and in straight lines in the open areas; and how those lines stopped without a misplaced pebble when they touched the circular patterns, and then resumed unchanged beyond them. I saw how pockets of moss had filled the pocks in the stones, and how the sand echoed the sky, the moss echoed the trees, the wall and roof balanced the platform, and the rocks seemed to emanate a web of intricate, tranquil tension within the whole.
“It was an exquisite enigma, telling me something I couldn’t put words to, and so it has remained. I have seen Ryoanji in spring, when the cherry trees bloomed, and in fall, when their branches were bare; in winter, when snow covered the moss, and in summer, when the cicadas buzzed beyond the wall. I have been there among giggling teenagers and gaping farmers, bemused Westerners and beatific monks. By now it has become a part of me — and still it eludes me.
“I love the place partly because it is so emphatically not a ten-minute tourist stop. Its dimensions defy the camera — I have never seen a true picture of the place — and its subtle simplicity defies quick assimilation. It makes you sit and study, slow down and stare until you really see it — in its particularity and in its whole, simultaneously.
“And yet — and here the enigma expands — you cannot see all of Ryoanji at one time: The rocks are so arranged that you can see only twelve of the fifteen stones wherever you stand. You have to visualize, imagine, the other three.
“How wonderful! It is in this sense that Ryoanji is, for me, the essential sacred place: It is complete in itself, but for you to completely perceive it, you have to transcend the boundary between inner and outer — to travel inward as well as outward, to find and finish it in your mind.
“And the gigglers, the camera-clickers, and the squawking loud-speakers are all, in their exasperating reality, part of this completion. Beyond a great irony of modern Japan — loudspeakers instructing you to appreciate the silence — they embody a much larger meaning: You must embrace them all — the monks and the moss and the trees, the schoolkids and the stones — to really be there, to be whole.”
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After its “Skyscrapers and Shoguns” itinerary, Crystal Symphony returns to Asia in April 2015 with “Across the East China Sea”, a 12-day cruise from Hong Kong to Tokyo, with an overnight in Osaka.