When we were on the last stages of planning the Japan trip, we entertained thoughts of spending a day at Universal Studios but eventually discarded the idea altogether. Personally, there were only three things that I was interested in — food, foliage, and castles and temples.
That I wanted to explore Japanese food should be a no-brainer. It’s one the things that people who travel to Japan look forward to.
The castles and the temples that I had read so much about, I wanted to see for myself. You can’t be a fan of James Clavell’s Asian Saga and not be interested in places where emperors, shoguns, daimyos and samurais coveted and plotted.
And the foliage? For you who live in regions where flowers sprout in the spring and bloom in the summer, and where the leaves turn gold, orange and red in autumn before they fall to the ground to signal the arrival of winter, might not understand my excitement. Where I live, the leaves fall only when they’re withered and their color is a dull brown. The only exception is when leaves are blown off, forcibly, by storms and typhoons.
I wanted to experience the colors of autumn leaves — gaze at them, drink in their hues and listen to the music of rustling leaves as the breeze blew gently.
Fortunately enough, the color of the foliage was at its peak when we arrived in Japan.
Unfortunately, however, on the day we visited Osaka Castle, it was drizzling and the sky was a dreary gray.
I could only wish that the thick clouds would part, even for an hour or so, and let the blueness of the sky peep through. I did get my wish, partially, but only for about ten minutes. Just enough time to frame Osaka Castle in the beautiful autumn leaves.
We didn’t go inside Osaka Castle. One reason was time constraints. The other reason — for me, at least — was knowing beforehand that the structure is merely a reconstruction.
A daimyo named Toyotomi Hideyoshi built the first structure in 1583. Although it is called a “castle”, like most castles in the past, Toyotomi Hideyoshi built Osaka Castle as a fortress. Some 30 years later, his son lost it to another daimyo family — more specifically, to Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate — and the castle burned to the ground. Tokugawa Ieyasu son later built a new castle but, another 30 years hence, on two events, lightning set the castle on fire.
A succession of reconstructions and wars followed while powerful families rose and fell. Eventually, Osaka Castle merely served as an arsenal for the army. One of the largest military armories in World War II, most of it was destroyed in bombings.
So, what tourists can view today is just a replica of the original and its various reconstructions over the centuries — a mere shadow of what was once an imposing fortress and center of power of a clan. Today’s Osaka Castle is still awe-inspiring though as an architectural marvel and a grandiose symbol of Japan’s feudal past.
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto
Because I read about the Golden Pavilion before we left for Japan, I was aware that the temple is surrounded by a garden — a Japanese strolling garden in the go-round style. A zen temple in the middle of a zen garden. I was prepared to be entranced by its beauty.
But reading about the garden and seeing it in real life are two different things. No reading prepared me to be engulfed by the serenity, the grace and the refinement. I mentally blocked out the noise and movements of the horde of tourists who were taking endless selfies. I pretended they weren’t there.
I tried to take photos without people in them because that’s how I want to remember the Golden Pavilion and the enthralling scenery around it.
Whoever said that there is no color that cannot be found in nature could not have uttered anything more true.
I found a spot where the jostling crowd that seemed to be moving every which way won’t knock me off my feet. And I just stood there and stared, and wondered if there is anywhere in the world more spectacular than the Golden Pavilion in the fall.
If the concept of zen is still an abstract to you, all you need to do is experience the Golden Pavilion to understand.
If you feel that the Western overuse of “zen” has diminished its essence, go to the Golden Pavilion and recapture its spirit.
I peeled my eyes off the scenery and dragged my feet. I turned my head for one last look at the Golden Pavilion but I had to stop again. Just one more minute, I told myself. Just one more photo.
But I stayed there longer than a minute and I shot more than one photo.
I recalled reading that, unlike Osaka Castle, the Golden Pavilion withstood fires and earthquakes. It would take the act of one man to raze it to the ground.
In 1950, Hayashi Yōken, a 22-year-old Buddhist acolyte, burned down the Golden Pavilion by setting paper and mosquito netting on fire. He ran to the West Daimonji hill nearby, watched the temple in flames then gulped down sleeping pills before stabbing himself on the chest. He failed in his attempt to commit suicide though. He was caught and was found mentally ill.
So, just like Osaka Castle, today’s Golden Pavilion is a reproduction. Close to the original, some say, although others disagree.
It was high noon. My stomach was telling me that it was time for a meal. I passed the pond and I was mesmerized. I wanted to sit somewhere and write poetry. If I knew how to draw, I would have. It was just so… so perfect.
I didn’t want to leave. Yet. But there were other places to visit and photograph. Yet, deep inside, I doubted that anything could eclipse the image of the Golden Pavilion in the fall.