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Journals from Doshisha University, Japan

2010-09-25 Of Temples and Tea-bowls

Last weekend began with an excursion to Kinkakuji, Kyoto's GoldenTemple. I was very anxious to go, having read Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion last year in a Japanese literature class at Linfield. The book offers a fictional glimpse into the mind of the monk who succeeded in burning down the temple in 1950, but nowhere in all the glossy pamphlets that I received at the ticket office was there any mention of the incident. Once I saw the temple itself, I was not surprised by this omission. A friend and I wandered down a pretty path leading to the temple, pushed along by an excited crowd. We were still indignantly heaping abuse on the (rather handsome) Japanese man who'd slyly snapped a photo of us while we waited at a crosswalk, but this engaging conversation was forgotten when we suddenly turned a corner and there was the temple, gleaming, floating, existing! It shone in the hot sun, quite content with itself. It was inexorably perfect. I drank it in blinking away tears. I did not care it was rebuilt in 1955, or that the original structure was part of some shogun’s luxurious 14th century villa. At that moment I would have preferred a fairy-tale, something along the lines of the old gods kindly bringing it down to us from heaven, yes, as a wedding gift for a noble king who…the moment passed, and I was being jostled by a crowd greedy for photos. The path around the temple climbed up and away from it at last, and there were many other things to see and take pictures of, but that first view of the temple gleamed in my mind all day.


Then Monday came, a holiday, the weather finally cool but moody and threatening rain. It was a good day for a museum, I thought. I ran an online search for museums in Kyoto, and up came the RakuMuseum. I'd first heard of Raku-ware in a Japanese civilization class. Raku is a style of ceramics used in the Japanese tea ceremony, known worldwide for exemplifying the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, or beauty found in simplicity, austerity, imperfection. What I didn't know was that the Raku family was named after their ceramics style back in the 16th century, that the current head of the family is Kichizaemon XV (yes, the Fifteenth!) who lives a bicycle-ride away from my dorm, and that he is the proprietor of a little museum of his family’s works. I was more excited to visit the museum than ever, but very nervous as well! A friend and I rode our bikes there, down one narrow street after another, passing a tough-looking boy with a basketball and a tumble-down house that some poor old obaa-san had tried to liven up with sad pots of flowers. It did not seem like a place where a public museum would be, but I could imagine an artist living there. The museum was immaculate and welcoming. We exchanged our shoes for slippers provided at the entrance and ventured inside. The exhibit for autumn was in celebration of the artist’s 60th birthday. Each tea-bowl had a story: the one he’d made just after returning from study in Rome, the one for his bride’s family upon his marriage, the one bowl, made 20 years ago, that is his favorite (in his words, “slightly preferred”—a feeling every artist can understand, I think! ). It was a very personal exhibit, allowing us into the artist’s life and thoughts. We spent hours there, enjoying the incense-scented atmosphere, the rain pattering outside, and the presence of a quieter Japanese beauty. How different the bowls were from Western ideas of beauty, and from the ideas that had brought about the Kinkakuji! But they were perhaps more true to life.


I had been feeling very discouraged that weekend because of my feeble, tongue-tied Japanese. The Raku Museum helped me put things in perspective.  Raku beauty takes generations of patient lifetimes to achieve, and for each “slightly preferred” bowl lovingly put on display, there are probably many others less preferred. I realized what I needed first of all was not more or better linguistic abilities, but simply the self-confidence to make things—conversations and relationships—with the abilities I do have. And I had only been in Japan for 10 days, and needed to be more patient with myself. I will always think of the Kinkakuji with a certain goose-bumpy thrill, but seeing the Raku tea-bowls was like hearing honest encouragement from a friend as I adjust to a new language and culture.

Leah Sedy

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