It is always cold when we arise at 5:30 a.m. on a winter’s morning in Kyoto. If I am staying at the small Tenrikyo Church community, just off Karasuma Street near the ancient Emperor’s Palace, there is a good deal of noise and bustling at the start of the day. Children dress for school, old women clean latrine floors, and kitchen workers begin getting the rice and miso soup ready to feed forty people their first meal of the day. Activity slackens at about 7 a.m., when the dawn service begins in the main sanctuary. After breakfast everybody is busy throughout the day until the sunset service, unless there is a special ceremonial occasion.

With no central heating system to ward off the cruel winds in Kyoto, the cold is piercing. Nevertheless, by custom, most windows are opened wide at morning. If I am cold in my heavy winter underwear as I leave the futon, so is everyone else. Consequently, it is not so bad. When we do not suffer alone, we do not really suffer.

Just before the morning service we slip into the kitchen to place our frozen hands over the huge cauldron of miso soup. The flame underneath sends up a pleasing heat, offering a chance to thaw the fingers. When I do T’ai Chi Ch’uan in the lovely garden near the teahouse, I usually wear gloves, although they certainly restrict the freedom of motion. In the early morning stillness, before the late winter sun has risen, there is a stark silence that penetrates one’s being. The last stars disappear from view, but the pale moon remains for some time. The inevitable wandering of the mind stops suddenly as the bang of the big bass drum begins the preliminaries of the service. If there is a special ceremony, ancient Chinese flutes sound from the main sanctuary. T’ai Chi then comes to an end as I hurry there for the service.

The faces of the old people (as they chant, sing, and pirouette in their ritual dance) tell me what is going on inside them. A visiting Japanese Zen scholar said that the utter sincerity brought tears to his eyes. Such steadfastness, such unquestioning faith, must be very pleasing to the Tenrikyo God. After the final words have been chanted in a sort of responsive reading, an old man with a beautiful face catches my eye, smiles, and points to his heart. “Kokoro,” he murmurs softly, the all-inclusive word for Heart-Mind-Spirit that does not indicate the physical organ but something much deeper. The younger people do not seem to derive the same benefits, however. They are anxious to finish the hour-long ceremony and get on with the day’s living (or so it seems to me).

The simple breakfast following the service is not very filling – some rice, a few cold vegetables, and bean paste soup or miso. The cold gives everyone a good appetite, however. Later in the morning, the more privileged ministers (who have been up late the night before) drift in for western-style scrambled eggs and toast (cold before it reaches them). I ask if I can have an apple, and the request is passed along to the 89-year-old Obaasan, the great-grandmother matriarch of the establishment. Of course, she smiles. We are good friends, and in the steaming hot summer, she combats humidity by going naked from the waist up, despite the presence of a foreigner; no other woman dares do that. When she grants permission, one of the kitchen women sets to work laboriously peeling and slicing a delicious ringo (Japanese apple) for me. This may be the same lady I woke the night before, when I came home late through the dark alleys and found it necessary to ring the bell at the outer gate. There is no resentment on her face, however, as she beams at me and hands me a plate with the apple. I wonder if she’s the one who sometimes slips a glass of juice into the outer room of the ofuro (Japanese bath) while I am bathing; one gets quite thirsty in the very hot water the Japanese love so much.

The cold is a frequent topic of conversation in winter. Schoolgirls walking arm-in-arm to school, wearing blue blouses, smile and chatter “samui, samui” (“it’s cold, it’s cold”) as they step off the streetcars. They have good reason to be cold – they don’t wear coats. There’s no chance of this generation going soft. Grandmothers carrying babies on their backs hustle along the streets, softly whispering “samui, samui” to the little ones, so bundled up that nothing but tiny faces can be seen peeking out of their grandma’s outer garments.

Samui narimashita,” says the woman cleaning the latrine, lapsing into Kyoto dialect. Any such smart-aleck response, such as, “It’s always cold in winter” would not be understood. The socially correct reply is a simple repetition of the same phrase and spoken in a surprised tone.

Most Japanese eat meboshi, the sour plum that prevents constipation that comes with a diet of such soft food. However, the bitter taste of umeboshi and the smell of soy sauce at the cold breakfast table do not appeal to this visitor. One must find another way to keep the stomach in order.

When I have spent winters at the Zen sub-temple nearby, the cold is even more accentuated by the presence of an inner garden. As one pads along the hallway to the latrine, he passes a small inner garden opening onto the hallway with not even thin shoji screens keeping out the chill of the snow and ice on the ground. The temple people could screen off the small garden, but their aesthetic sense is stronger than the fear of the cold. And so it is left because it is pleasing. Once one has admitted and accepted the cold, there is nothing more to say about it. When one walks out of the front gate of the main temple building in the frozen moonlight, there is an unearthly halo around the trees. An air of vibrant stillness penetrates deep down inside. A walk along the graveled path is an adventure, and one forgets the poor frozen ego in favor of something greater. Behind these trees, monks – some heroes, others unable to penetrate the heights of Zen – have been buried for 700 years. All have meditated at midnight in that freezing cold, with no coverings on their feet and ankles. Sometimes, lying in the warm futon in the middle of the night, I would hear the chanting of the Heart Sutra begin – Maka Hannya Haramita Shin Gyo – and I would think “the poor bastards.” But, of course, I didn’t mean it. To follow such a way, without doubt, is to be inculcated with a discipline and a belief that ignores such discomforts. The reward is far greater than can be imagined.

I have not seen the lavender skies of Kyoto anywhere else. When there is winter snow (which rarely lasts long), the clouds form a covering somewhat like black and white sumi-e paintings, and the hills that ring Kyoto (politely called mountains) are sometimes lost in mist. At such times I like to climb to the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku-no-michi) on the eastern mountain, from where I can see much of the city below. Winter, when it’s not too crowded, is a good time to visit temples. Then it’s time to visit a favorite coffee house, to drink the delicious and outrageously expensive brew (a mixture of five individually pre- pared coffees), and get warm again. One often chooses his coffee house according to the kind of music played there: symphony, jazz, rock-and-roll, baroque chamber music. If it is earlier than 10 a.m., some toast or an egg may accompany the coffee. This is called sabisu (service, meaning a gratis item) and the gracious custom is slowly disappearing.

At once such place, in the busy Gion corner of downtown Kyoto, I meet the new wife of the young brother who delivers food for the coffee house. (Business people generally eat meals and snacks in their offices.) His parents, as well as his brother and his wife and children, live together in the tiny space behind the bar. The shop is so small that much ingenuity is employed: Water is heated on the denki (the inevitable electric heater) and delicious cakes and other delicacies are kept in a glass-covered case outside. My friend, the young father, sits at a table with me, strumming his guitar while practicing his halting English. Meanwhile, his wife is hard at work in the kitchen.

I was much surprised when a university instructor and companion of mine said, “They are talking to you as though you were the emperor.” I hadn’t realized the grandparents were using the most polite Japanese to me. (There are at least three levels of politeness to choose from in making ordinary conversation. And subtlety in Japanese consists as much in choosing the appropriate level as in selecting the precise expressions to be used.) It was always hard to persuade my friends to let me pay for my refreshments, even when I had a guest with me. “Stone-san is a good-will-ambassador,” murmured an art critic I knew, and I protested.

It was so easy to feel at home with these happy, crowded people. On New Year’s Eve, an important time in Japan when the temple bells ring 108 times at midnight, the little shop is always closed to the public and there is a party for invited guests. Nearby in downtown Kyoto, a narrow river flows and its banks are lined with tourist traps where western-style floor shows are performed. Narrower streets of antiquity lead into this thoroughfare, where old shops with great art treasures abound. Emerging from a party on New Year’s Eve, it is nice to see these formidable places, some of which have small teahouse gardens shining in the frosty moonlight.

Female figures in kimono (and others in miniskirts) glide softly across the busy bridge next to the kabuki theater. There is something in the air, but what it is I cannot say. At dinner with a Zen priest and his family, there is a hint of mystery as we eat from ancient lacquered boxes. After New Year’s Eve, during the long New Year’s Shogatsu celebration, everything is closed tightly, but on the day and night before New Year’s there is great activity as friends hurry to-and-fro delivering gifts. As with the Chinese, this feast time is a great recompense for a year of disappointment. How often does the brightly greeted new year come up to our expectations? We are all one year older, and remorse and self-recrimination often go deeply. In the meantime, we play with the gaiety of New Year’s Eve, and this brings us closer to our neighbors. To share an emotion is sweet; to suffer alone can be very bitter.

This article is published in Climbing the Joyous Mountain.

Published On: August 20th, 2021Categories: Climb the Joyous Mountain

Share This!