Like so many other visitors to Japan’s former imperial capital, I am captivated by Kyoto. Getting lost in this city is one of the world’s great travel experiences.
The centuries of history and culture emanate from the lantern-strung streets of the old districts, where the discovery of a wooden geisha house in a cobbled back alley evokes a sense of wonder about the fabled goings-on within. A visit to one of Kyoto’s many temples during early morning prayers is both an awe-inspiring and serenely contemplative experience.
I’ve done all these things, conscious that I observe them as an outsider. As a casual visitor, I know will never grasp the depth of tradition that has made Kyoto Japan’s ancient spiritual and cultural centre. But beyond the typical temple tours, Kyoto offers opportunities to dig a little deeper, and get hands on with some of Japan’s most celebrated customs and traditions.
Glimpsing the Zen Mindset Through Miniature Gardening
Kyoto is home to dozens of Japan’s most beautiful gardens, some dating back 550 years or more. By contrast, Murin-an in Kyoto’s Nanzen-ji neighbourhood is a young garden, which was built between 1894 and 1896 as the private residence of a prominent political statesman. Today, the garden is open to the public, maintained and operated by the Ueyakato Landscape Company.
On a quiet winter’s morning, I’ve arranged a guided tour of Murin-an to learn a little about the overarching aesthetic philosophies of designing a moss garden as a place of meditative reflection. On this intimate journey through Murin-an’s feather-soft moss beds, its stone-crossed streams, bridges and waterfalls, our guide shows us how to interact with the space for maximum enjoyment, stopping at its most inspiring viewpoints to admire the skilful vision of its creator. The most spiritual practice of all is said to be the tending of the garden itself, devoting oneself to its care, and lovingly attending to even the tiniest details.
Armed with these insights, our group is lead to the workshop where we’ll attempt to build our own miniature Japanese garden within the confines of a Perspex box. Using real moss, gravel, rocks and model trees, our creations have the potential to be small in size but spectacular.
Japanese gardening is all about applying thoughtfulness to every decision and employing careful consideration to the shape of an individual rock before finding its meaningful place in the landscape as a whole.
I find myself completely absorbed in contemplating the placement of a stone stack, and in raking gravel paths into perfect geometric formations. Despite coming into the workshop feeling inspired and ambitious, my garden doesn’t turn out quite like the exquisite work of art I’d envisioned. But I’m at peace with my attempt. It’s getting into the meditative creative mindset that makes the experience such a satisfying one.
Learning the Art of Incense Listening
The next activity on my itinerary is intriguingly titled “incense listening workshop”. We head to a private room in the Yamada Matsu Incense Company’s store, where we novices will be trained in the ancient art of monko. Literally “listening to incense”, monko is the practice of focusing on the properties of a particular fragrance. By deeply concentrating the senses on a singular task, the listener enters a heightened state of mindfulness.
The listening experience takes the form of a traditional game. Our host passes around three separate, ceramic holders, each with a fleck of incense burning atop a mound of ash. We each take turns cradling the holders, breathing in each one intently and trying to burn its fragrance into our memories. To win, you must identify which of the three scents were different and which were the same. But, our host explains, monko is not about winning, it’s an exercise in deepening one’s appreciation and awareness.
Despite being a beginner’s class, our host conducts the exercise as a genuine act of ceremony. Monko is a revered art, steeped in ritual and codes. The ceremonial tools of monko are handled with exquisite care. Before the burners can be passed around, our host etches sacred geometric patterns into the mounds of ash on top of which the incense will be lit.
As well as being a genuinely fun spot of friendly competition, monko proves to be an intriguing demonstration of the sacred rites and rituals that run deep into the heart of the most unexpected places.
A Tea Ceremony Crash Course
The role of ritual in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is far more well-known than the obscure art of incense listening, but as I discover at the Jinmatsuan tea store and workshop, the two traditions bear many similarities. Just like in the incense ceremony, the instruments used for a tea ceremony are treated with utmost care, and social interactions between participants are punctuated by symbolic gestures of respect.
The most formal Japanese tea ceremony (known as Chanoyu, Sado or Ocha) is an elaborately choreographed and solemn undertaking. Thankfully, the experience at Jinmatsuan is a much more casual introduction to traditional Japanese tea culture.
As a matcha enthusiast, the chance to partake in the ancient method of using a heavy grinding stone to crush the tea leaves into fine powder is a treat. Everything is done using the most traditional techniques possible, including moulding the accompanying sweets from now scarcely used wooden moulds.
Once the matcha powder is ready, we move to the ceremonial room where we remove our shoes and are seated on woven tatami floor mats. Each of us prepares our own tea in bowls, using bamboo whisks to whip the matcha into a delicately frothy, vivid green liquid. Before we raise our bowls to our lips, some basic etiquette is explained. The simple gestures are the most important to follow, designed to heighten the sensory enjoyment of the ritual, and extend expressions of friendship and goodwill to your fellow guests.
As a novice, I appreciate Jinmatsuan’s easy, non-intimidating introduction into tea culture, and as an added bonus, the matcha is the best I’ve ever tasted.
Experimenting with Tradition at Kyoto’s First Plum Liqueur Workshop
Brewers of umeshu have been making liqueur out of steeping whole ume fruits in alcohol (usually sake or shochu) for well over three centuries. Yet it’s only in the last few years that umeshu has started to attract global attention, increasingly featured on the wine lists of prestigious Japanese restaurants overseas. Now one of the most recognised brands of umeshu, Choya is leading the way at turning foreign tastebuds on to the fragrantly fruity and refreshingly sour flavour sensation that is umeshu.
As we discover at Choya’s Hands On Ume Experience Shop, ume is not in fact a true plum, sharing closer ties with the apricot family. The flavour ume imparts on the final product depends on the stage it’s harvested. To demonstrate this, we’re given a guided tasting session of sugar syrups made from early, mid-season and late harvested ume. Fully ripe, yellow ume has a delicate peach flavour. An unripe, green ume’s sourness is just short of mouth-puckeringly tart, and not bitter in the slightest.
A modern, white minimalist space, with different varieties of ume displayed in test tube-like jars, and a workbench laid out with tools and ingredients, Choya’s Hands On shop feels almost like a tiny science lab. Everyone in our group performs their own experiment, first selecting the fruit of their choice, then combining them with one of several different sugar varieties (from classic cane sugar to more exotic agave syrup) and a choice of gin, vodka, rum or brandy as the additive spirit.
Your custom umeshu can be made from a possible 100 different combinations. If you go out on an experimental limb you might create a sensational new variety, never tasted before. I opt for a little more guidance, and Choya’s umeshu concierges swiftly appear to offer advice. My completed concoction is then securely packed and gift-boxed for the trip home, where it’ll need to ferment for another four weeks.
These are the kinds of souvenirs, I’ve found, to have real value. Why buy something generic and off-the-shelf when you can take home something with a tangible connection to the real and honest experience of the culture you originally set out to discover?
Kyoto will always be a full of mysteries. In my quest to discover hands-on cultural experiences in this city, I’ve discovered that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the rituals embedded in almost every facet of Japan’s most celebrated customs and traditions. What this experience has given me is the opportunity to witness these rituals first hand, and in the process, gain a deeper appreciation of their beauty.