Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Where to go in Kyoto II

Recently I wrote about the must-see sights in Kyoto. The problem with these famous sights in the ancient capital is that virtually every visitor who visits Kyoto wants to see them, and because around 5 million tourists visit every year (the city population is only around 1.5 million), the popular sites can be mobbed.

Fortunately, Kyoto has so much to see, it is possible to have a rewarding experience without fighting the crowds. One special spot I've found is the Shisen-do (the House of Poet-Hermits).

One Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) built it in 1641 as a retirement villa. Although the city now surrounds the grounds, it was countryside when Ishikawa built the home; what is now the villa's parking lot was a rice paddy. Once you pass through the ancient gate, you have no sense of the modern city beyond.

Ishikawa, born in a samurai family, became a personal attendant to Tokugawa Ieyasu who eventually became Shogun. After Ishikawa disgraced himself in a 1615 campaign (he rushed into battle, killing several enemy, thereby violating military discipline which prohibited the Shogun's attendants from fighting), he became a scholar and eventually retired to Kyoto's northeastern hills, designing both the house and the gardens. He spent his last years writing poetry, tending his garden, watching the moon and the changing seasons. The main room is decorated with portraits of the 36 most famous ancient Chinese poets.

The building is now owned by the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. The portraits are now reproductions. But the villa and the garden are, I believe, almost the same as they were in Ishikawa's day. I have always found the Shisen-do to be a lovely, tranquil spot...and uncrowded.

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