Had I visited Daikokuji before? Though I’ve visited dozens of the thousands of temples that remain in Kyoto, I’m often guilty of forgetting their names. Once I’ve visited, I remember it on sight, but often before I go, I’m not at all certain. I’d read a listing in the helpful Kyoto Visitor’s Guide that captured my attention about an annual chrysanthemum exhibit held at this temple in the Western section of Kyoto. I quickly decided it was worth a visit.
I’m fond of saying that I enjoy revisiting the temples, gardens and shrines I’ve seen before, but today’s discovery of Daikokuji made me admit that the first visit is the most thrilling.
The transition from the mundane to the sublime happens dramatically. Wave a magic wand, travel a few blocks towards the looming green hills that surround Kyoto, and you travel from an ordinary, cluttered and modest 21st c. urban setting to a place of ultimate refinement, grandeur and artistry. Welcome to a time and place where the beauty and wonders of the natural world were celebrated and exalted. At Daikokuji, some of the finest artists of their time painted the vibrant paneled doors that enclosed their living spaces with so much vitality that the trees, birds, flowers and animals, practically leap to life. Centuries later, they’re as engaging as I imagine they were meant to be originally.
The floors and walkways are polished by the footsteps of centuries of visitors and inhabitants. There is no detail left untouched, but somehow nothing feels overdone.
I am left wondering how did these people who lived centuries ago, in relative but splendid isolation, get it so right, at least from my point of view and taste in design? Gardens enhance the structures and turns in the covered walkways, always indicating the season by a pine, maple or cherry tree, or rocks that are placed just so. It is for me an idealized example of ultra early modernism, always acknowledging the proximity of the natural world and blending the distinctions between indoors and out.
I came to this ancient temple today to view their annual chrysanthemum display. Originally an Imperial Villa, built about 1200 years ago, today the compound belongs to the Shingon Buddhist sect. If I understood it correctly, chrysanthemums grew wild here. Their stylized image became the crest of the villa. I had expected to see a variety of mums, but surprisingly, everything displayed, all 700 individual plants, were of the old, wild antique variety. They were just starting to blossom, colors intense, but flower size modest. Their tall slender stalks lined the pathways and outlined the buildings. It was an elegant tribute to a beloved fall flower.
I can almost feel myself get a new power of sensation when I come to places like this. It’s as if my pores open, and I soak it all in, in a state of heightened awareness. I know immediately that this is the place I’m meant to be at this moment.
The seasons are turning, there’s a nip in the air and it won’t be long before winter descends. I can only imagine how cold it was enduring the winters in these places, despite their luxuries. I am grateful that this setting has endured and that I get to be a part of it for a brief time, to dream and to appreciate its timeless beauty.
The large ancient pond adjacent to the temple has a tinge of loneliness and a gentle abstract beauty. It’s not the main attraction here at the moment. A few small shrines still stand at the edge of the pond, but are not kept up. The leaves of the last summer’s lotus leaves are shriveled, brown and withering, but not without beauty. The reflections of the clouds mix with the fallen debris in the water, create images of mystery, bowing to the laws of nature.
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
– Matsuo Bashō