October 20, 2005

Kyoto: Autumn on the Pathway of Philosophy

The leaves are turning here in New England. My daily runs are now outings into a golden-scarlet world, magnificent leaves fluttering along my route like thousands of crimson and yellow butterfly wings. Living colors like ripe cranberry and carrot, deep peach and succulent orange move above my head and lean to touch me from the side of the road. Here, autumn embraces you.

I remember another autumn when the rich hues of Kyoto, Japan’s maple trees colored my walks through that ancient capital city, home to Japan’s emperors for 1,100 years and peppered everywhere with centuries-old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. In Kyoto, where cherry trees blossom in spring, maples burst into full fall plumage in November. There is, perhaps, no more glorious time than autumn to wander Kyoto, when even the sky that kisses the heads of old monks resting on the Togetsu-kyo bridge (above) is the color of a golden harvest.

Kyoto’s blaze of autumn color wrapped around me as I made my way from one remarkable shrine and travel experience to the next. As I stepped under Heian Shrine’s beautiful torii gate, a uniformed schoolgirl tapped me and said, “Hello, lady. Picture?” Before I could respond, an entire class of girls in blue skirts and blazers and knee socks had surrounded me, and somebody snapped a photo. I bet everyone in the class got a copy.

At Nishihongan-ji and Higashihongan-ji, two temples of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Japanese Buddhism, people rode bicycles through the courtyard, and visitors to the temples removed their shoes and left them in neat rows along an outdoor staircase. I stood outside in the crisp air and considered the awesome dimensions of Higashihongan-ji, one of the largest wooden structures in the world.

At Sanjusangen-do, ruby-orange leaves quaked in the trees surrounding the nearly thousand-year-old temple that holds 1,001 gold-leafed statues of Kannon Bosatsu, the Japanese Buddhist goddess of mercy.

From Sanjusangen-do, I found my way to the Path of Philosophy (Pathway of Philosophy, Philosopher's Walk), a two-kilometer wooded trail that follows an old canal. The walkway, Tetsugaku no michi in Japanese, is named in honor of Nishida Kitaro, a philosopher and professor who used to meditate along the trail. Kitaro's 1921 book, Zen no Kenkyu (A Study of Good) outlines the basic tenets of the Kyoto School of Philosophy, which he founded. I saw few people meditating along the path, but I did see scores of laughing high school kids, all in uniform, enjoying a midday break under the giant red umbrellas of an outdoor teahouse.

The pathway ended at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, its Zen garden with elegant red maples and wondrous formations coaxed from raked and sculpted sand an irresistible backdrop for the dozens of couples and families that planted themselves in the midst of the peaceful landscape and took endless group photos.

As I turned from the trail onto a tiny street lined with old, wooden two-story houses, a pair of middle-aged women dressed in navy and russet kimonos, wooden sandals and cream-colored socks came toward me carrying plastic bags filled with the season’s produce. They stepped into the woods and took up the philosopher’s pathway. They walked a bit, then sat down on a bench and gazed up at the fall trees. A little post-shopping meditation.

Going leaf-peeping in the U.S.? Use these sites to help plan your fall foliage tour:
www.intellicast.com/FallFoliage; www.fs.fed.us/news/fallcolors; www.yankeefoliage.com; www.foliagenetwork.com