For a year starting in 1980, I lived in Japan, spending the majority of my time in Kyoto. Everyday I would pass the Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist shrine, on my way home to my home-stay family at the bottom of a mountain, where a stream ran out back through the garden. The same stream that goes through the Golden Temple. For months I had been promising myself that’d I’d spend time in the gardens of Kinkaku-ji, but never seemed to find the time.
Before I knew it New Year’s eve was upon us. My home-stay family adorned me in a traditional family kimono, and side by side with my home-stay sister, Yukika, we marched in a parade to a Shinto Shrine to celebrate our birthdays. You see, we both would turn 21 during the upcoming year, and by shinto tradition that is the year women come of age.
My obachan, home-stay grandmother, helped me put on the kimono. In Japanese she kept saying my breasts and hips were to large for the dress but with determination she’d make sure I could wear it. As she stretched the waist band around me I cringed, and I wondered how women ever tolerated corsets. At first I stumbled trying to maneuver in the sandals for the kimono restricted leg movement. After learning the correct way to walk, we set out on our journey. Yukika looked so graceful as she moved like the river’s flow. On the other hand I waddled like a penguin.
At the temple entirely illuminated by lanterns and candles, we lit incense, made offerings, placed our prayers of hope and wishes on trees tying little pieces of paper onto the branches and knelt before the Buddha statue, and the temple bell. For most of the time, I blended in, taking in the atmosphere of being transported back in time, imagining what it must have been like before electronics, when life moved with the seasons. Thousands streamed into the bright orange temple that night.
Occasionally, someone would see my eyes and their eyes would become larger – stunned as they realized a Westerner was taking part in the “birthday celebrations” of young ladies. A TV crew caught sight of me and put me on the 11 o’clock news, which pleased obachan no end. Back at home, gazing at the moonlit river, drinking green tea and eating special rice cake deserts filled with sweet beans I knew it was time for me to visit my Golden Temple.
The next day, as the sun sank I entered the temple garden, which was designed to bring heaven to earth during the Muromachi period. So tranquil, so unifying, I sat by the river. I gazed at the temple, with it’s gold leaf roof shimmering brightly. For some unknown reason, the tree next to me still retained leaves from the autumn. In that moment a calmness, a confidence ran through me exciting yet calming me and I took some images, and Tree Heart expressed the energy I felt Kinkaku-ji was all about.
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