I’m the tallest
Myōrenji is one of several Buddhist temples in Kyoto that accommodates travellers, at a fraction of the cost of the Gion tourist hotels. When you stay there, the temple’s caretaker lady, Chizuko Iida, greets you at the thick-timbered door. You remove your shoes and she guides you down several hallways past cool and enticing open-air courtyards, the wood-plank floors creaking under your stockinged feet. She leads you up a flight of stairs to show you to one of their half a dozen simple yet elegant tatami rooms. Each room has a heater, futon, sheets, blankets, and a soba gara makura (buckwheat-husk pillow). An overhead fluorescent ring-light clicks through three brightness levels when you pull its chain. Two sinks and a Western- and Japanese-style toilet are down the hall. These guest rooms offer no showers or bathtubs, but each evening Iida-san gives you soap, a washbasin, and a towel, along with a ticket to enter the onsen (public bath) down the street. Back at your room, after you wash and soak in the baths, you can open the shōji screens and look out into a private courtyard where stone lanterns, camellias, and small manicured cedars and other plants surround bubbling water and carefully placed boulders.
I hold up a coin
with a hole in it
Down one outdoor hallway at Myōrenji is the Rock Garden of Sixteen Arhats, the temple’s expansive refuge of raked stones. Late one November evening a friend and I spent an hour here, our shoeless feet dangling off the wooden planks as we looked over the islands of stone, each one circled by wavelike raking patterns. We wrote haiku about our day visiting Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) and walking the Philosopher’s Path amid vibrant autumn colours along the city’s eastern edge. The night’s intense moonlight invited silence, and we watched attentively as shadows slid slowly across the garden of grey stones. One could not pay enough yen for such an experience if a posh hotel had manufactured it, yet here was the genuine article, free with an inexpensive room.
distant car horn—
we talk of fresh snow
falling back home
On one visit to Myōrenji, I expressed interest in a Japanese poem about a camellia framed on a side wall in the entrance hall. At my question, Iida-san asked me if I was a professor. When I said no, that I worked in the United States at Microsoft, my employer’s name produced nearly no reaction. A puzzled wrinkling of her eyes told me that she had never heard of the world’s largest software company. Japan is abuzz with technology, overwhelmed by garish, seizure-inducing television (far more so than American TV) and you cannot escape the flash and noise of pachinko, neon, and J-pop. The country’s youth, too, are obsessed with keitai denwa (mobile phones) and other electronic gadgets that are always several generations more advanced than most American ones. Yet here at Myōrenji, amid Kyoto’s 1.5 million inhabitants, I had found someone who had no idea what Microsoft was or what it might represent. The temple had a computer that I could see through a glass doorway, but in her good English Iida-san told me that the temple bookkeeper used it, not her. I told her that in addition to working for Microsoft I also wrote haiku, edited a haiku journal, and was vice president of the Haiku Society of America. When I said this her eyes sparkled, and she told me of the famous renga poet whose poem I had inquired about. The poem was by Sōgi (1421–1502), who had visited Myōrenji in the Muromachi period, and he had written about Myōrenji tsubaki (camellias) to venerate Myōrenji’s history as the head temple of the Nichiren sect.
yo no hana wa mina matsuji nari myōrenji
all are branches
from Myōrenji temple—
the world’s camellias
Myōrenji, she said, was famous for these flowers, and while the poem was neither famous nor striking, in its simple way it honoured the location and circumstances of its composition—and here I stood reading the poem five centuries later.
In the Sōgi poem, the camellia indicates spring, adding overtones of continuing growth and vibrancy. As haiku poets know, this word functions as the kigo, or season word, required in a traditional haiku. The camellia reference isn’t just a random symbol from nature or the seasons, but a careful word choice that relies on the archetypes of potential and beginning as a means to compliment Myōrenji temple as the subject of the poem. It also recognizes the temple’s stature and influence as the center of the Nichiren Buddhist sect. The poem is not limited to nature, and commemorates the temple buildings and their inhabitants while connecting them symbolically to the camellias for which the temple is famous.
After we discussed the Sōgi poem, I reminded my hosts that I had to pack and leave that afternoon. I asked the temple bookkeeper if she would take a picture of me with Iida-san. She said hai, and I eagerly handed her my camera. We posed on the steps by the ancient poem, our faces beaming.
I stand a step lower
than my Japanese host