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The world of the Peaceful Dragon

30 April 2009 by Richard

photo of tree blossom overhanging the wall of a gravel garden

Ryoanji Zen garden

Konichiwa

Well I am back at work after my break in Japan, as interesting and exciting a destination as I have ever visited. It really is a mix of the old and the new and this cannot be better personified than the city of Kyoto. I spent 5 days in Tokyo, truly a metropolis of bright lights, fashionistas and the latest gadgetry but Kyoto – what some call the cultural heart of Japan – is where the clash of worlds is most obvious. As soon as you step off the Bullet train you enter Kyoto’s futuristic looking plate glass and steel frame rail station building designed by Hiroshi Hara. The Bullet train really is as efficient as you are told and quite a shock for someone used to British trains when your reserved carriage actually stops in front of you and on time. I can only hope a contingent of British rail carriers executives have their next annual conference in Japan and invite the CEO of Japan Rail as the keynote! The area around the station has hotels, offices and shops aplenty like most major cities but scratch under the surface and there lies a hidden world of temples and Zen gardens of all shapes and descriptions.

I wanted to visit one in particular – Ryoanji (part of the Peaceful Dragon Temple) in North Kyoto which is a simple gravel and Zen garden. It was also visited by Monty Don in the BBC programme Around the World in 80 Gardens! On the day we visited there were already hoards of tourists there (Monty Don must have been allowed access before the crowds) and as such it was difficult to have a totally peaceful experience. There was also maintenance taking place on the viewing platform but even so, the simplicity and beauty of the garden was palpable. To get to it though you had to first walk through the beautiful temple grounds with its cherry blossoms, lake and shrines. It made me think of something I was once told by a leading expert on Stonehenge on a visit to the World Heritage Site. We stood like the masses of tourists facing inwards looking at the famous stone structure but then he told me to turn around and face outwards, to look at the surrounding landscape. Nobody else was doing this but to get a real understanding of Stonehenge he said it had to be seen in relation to its surroundings.

I could not resist visiting a few museums whilst I was over there and thoroughly enjoyed the Tokyo National Museum. It is situated in the beautiful Ueno Park which was in full cherry blossom bloom during our visit. The park was packed with families, tourists and strangely… Tokyo rockers! Several rockers were dancing their hearts away to some loud Japanese rock ‘n’ roll directly opposite the museum entrance. The museum grounds are also the location of the Le Corbusier inspired Gallery of Horyuji Treasures which was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi (he was also the architect for MoMA in New York) which consists of over 300 objects, mainly from the 7th – 8th century, which were donated to the Imperial Household by the Horyuji Temple in 1878. It was a bit too dark for my liking inside the actual galleries but I liked the sense of space in the research area and library as well as the overall design. 

We also decided to take a day trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima. It was as expected a very somber and sobering trip but an interesting one nonetheless. I was particularly impressed with the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb victims and Hall of Remembrance which was a very informative and respectfully designed centre. This was in sharp contrast to the larger Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which in comparison had some rather dated displays. I am fully aware of the need to be respectful when looking at sensitive subjects but you also sometimes need to be quite graphic and not water down displays or exhibits. This museum might have taken that further than I personally would have though, that said; it was very busy with a large amount of schoolchildren who would have had to face issues which unfortunately are still with us in the world today. So it was a great trip and I thoroughly recommend it as a destination for museum aficionados, general culture vultures, amateur gardeners and even rockers!

Bye for now.

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