The Cat and the Mouse

cat and mouse

I knew we were in for a visual fest when we received an invitation to join our friend Masa to visit a garden at the Daitoku-ji that is only open to the public for a short time in the spring and autumn.  I didn’t know that the visit would prompt a spontaneous game of cat and mouse.

graphic guide to Oubai-in
Japanese maples surrounding the bell tower at Oubai-in

It’s been a glorious few weeks. A streak of fine weather prolonged sakura season and the warmth prompted other spring flowers to swiftly come into bloom. I’m always awed by the urgency of spring. The Japanese maple trees were barren a few short weeks ago when we arrived. Now they all are displaying their bright green new leaves of spring. Pops of azalea blossoms and best- of- all -Chinese peonies are vie for attention too.

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The tiny blossoms of the maple cover an entrance gate of the temple.



Obaii-in was built in the 1500’s at the direction of a very wealthy family as a memorial to their deceased father.  It’s way  off the beaten tourist path so we had it almost all to ourselves with the exception of a few eagle eyed staff who roamed the grounds, knowing all too well, I’m certain, that people like me pose a real challenge to their rules.


I was dismayed to see a very visible “no photography” sign at the entrance of the temple. However, I was unable to restrain myself, nor did I try very hard when inspired, from taking photos of  the splendid buildings and gardens. An attentive  staff member spotted me and my i-phone at one point and walked over to politely but sternly admonish me.  From that point on we played a game of cat and mouse with each other.  She seemed to lurk around every one of the many corners, while I adeptly looked around to see if she was in sight, before quickly taking my photos and cooly slipping my i-phone into my jacket pocket.

I know not to take photos of sacred altars and certain works of art, but my bad-ass teen age self emerged in full power when restricted from taking a photo of the buildings or the gardens. I easily decided to disregard such an admonition and my sweet Japanese friend fortunately did not discourage me. The gardens were practically begging to be photographed. I heard them call to me. Each corner turned revealed a new vision of the spring life force as well as the simple beauty of Japanese design.



As the Japanese do so well because of the influence of the tea ceremony, the layout of the grounds and gardens are  fashioned  to reveal only small parts of the entire scene at a time.  This slows down visitors and invites them to examine more closely what is immediate as well as to anticipate what surprises and delights might lie around the next bend in the pathway.

Obai-in contains a dry landscape garden covered with moss, designed by the most celebrated tea master Sen-no – Rikyu. The placement of the stones is symbolic.

Jikichu-Tei, dry landscape gatden designed by Den-no-Rikyu

What a wonderful visit. I felt my brain waves realign themselves while in that space. Playing my own little game of cat and mouse heightened my sense of adventure.

Kyoto offers an endless vault of these sort of unexpected experiences for which I will always be grateful. Despite the fact that I’m allergic to cats.


In Praise of Friendship


As many years as I’ve been coming to Japan, there are experiences to be had here that can only happen with the help of caring friends who have contacts and relationships that open doors that are not  available to the casual visitor.

When our friend Masa invited us to spend the day with him at Daitokuji Temple, I had no idea how memorable a day it would be. Masa, who is from Kyoto, had arranged the meeting for us, as a part of our day at Daitokuji. We were to meet the Abbot of the Zui-ho-in Temple, a sub temple of Daitokuji, to participate in a short tea ceremony the abbot would lead for us .

The visit of Zuiho-in starts with its front garden. To reach the builds from the front gate one has to turn three times, a design that helps the visitor to distance herself between the busy outside world and the quietness of the temple itself.


Spending time with the Abbot was one of those experiences I would have liked to have been able to record. It was one of those experiences when my mind kept repeating to me, “This is amazing.  Pay attention!”

We entered the small humble tea room together, the abbot in his distinguished  white flowing robes, his presence glowing, his eyes knowing all. A small arrangement of the season’s first camellia blossoms and a scroll painting of autumn chrysanthemums on the tokonoma were the only decorative element in the room.


Masa introduced us. My husband and I sat on stools as the Abbot, at age 77,  effortlessly lowered himself to the tatami mat.  He asked us a few questions about us, his eyes seeming to look into our very souls.  Then he began to speak to us about the importance of  breathing practice every day, performed first thing in the morning and before eating.  He gave us a demonstration , as he recited the heart sutra in sanskrit on each exhalation.   His deep baritone voice sounded as if it arose from deep in the earth.  I sat spellbound.

I’ve been flirting with the thought of doing breathing exercises for months, but haven’t been consistent.  I felt as if the Abbot knew that and chose to speak about its importance for this reason.  It was a message and demonstration I needed to witness.

My friend shared with the Abbot that I’ve been coming to Japan for many years.  He told me that my karma for Japan should allow me to go deeply into the culture of tea ceremony or other Japanese cultural practice. I felt grateful for that acknowledgement.

Masa patiently talked us through the ritual of tea ceremony, which I needed, although I’d participated in a longer tea ceremony a few times years ago.  It is a ritual of exquisite etiquette. When to bow, when to drink, when to acknowledge the tea master, how to admire the beauty of the tea bowl, etc.  It was over in just a few minutes, but to be in that space in those moments was an intense experience, a lifetime in a thimble.

” wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful!  and yet again wonderful.”  D.T. Suzuki

Thank you, Masa-san for making these arrangements for us and for sharing the wonders of Daitokuji with us!