Japan: So this is Zen

August 21, 2015

Our journey up a secluded mountainside in Kyoto brought new meaning to the term “mindfulness.”


Kyoto, a city on the island of Honshu, is renowned for its beautiful temples, shrines and gardens. It hums pleasantly with peacefulness, and one can’t help but feel instantly at ease. The first thing we noticed when we checked into The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto was its height—or lack of it. The hotel stands just five stories tall, but it is incredibly well-designed. Every corner has a purpose. Nestled along the Kamogawa River, it offers stunning views of the Higashiyama Mountains. The hotel is truly Zen, and we marveled at how the beauty, design and atmosphere of a place can breathe life into the space.




The city was ready and waiting to be explored. With our insightful guide, we made our way to Kinkakuji Temple (also known as Golden Pavilion), a Zen Buddhist temple that sits on a lovely lake surrounded by immaculate gardens. We then explored Gion, one of Japan’s best-known geisha districts where women are trained to entertain with singing, dancing and conversation. Our tour guide was well-versed in the art, and we enjoyed learning about the profession’s historical significance and about the maiko, as geishas-in-training are called. She also pointed out the subtle differences in hairstyle and garb that help indicate a maiko’s progression in her education and training.




The next day, we visited Nijo Castle, admiring its historic paintings and enchanting architecture. The rich heritage and history of this city make one pause, and we were again struck with the Zen-like atmosphere created by the castle’s detailed craftsmanship. The floorboards creaked with our every step. The tour guide explained to us that this was the security system of the past—you could always hear your enemy coming. To walk on the same ground as those centuries before us made us feel as if we’d stepped back in time.


We explored the Arashiyama district in the western outskirts of Kyoto and spent time meandering in Okochi Sanso (which means “mountain villa”). The soaring bamboo groves were remarkable, in height and vibrant color. The effect of the gentle breeze, the sound of the leaves swaying and the intermittent rays of sunshine that broke through the shadows of the trees created a type of calm that the city is known for.




Our guide led us to a secluded, wooded pathway, which we followed up the mountainside. Most visitors don’t know about this trail, and we didn’t see a soul as we explored more small temples and watched countless butterflies dip and dance. At the top of the mountain, we were awarded a breathtaking view of Kyoto, layers of lush, green mountains and a lovely river that traipsed through the scenery. This was one of our favorite moments in Japan—standing on top of that mountain, pleasantly alone with our travel companion and the rushing sound of the river. We felt we had uncovered a hidden gem, so close to the city yet utterly private. We wouldn’t describe ourselves as spiritual, but something about this place gently moves you towards introspection. We felt inspired to reflect on who we are, where we were, where we’ve been, and where we are going next.


Ritz Carlton Kyoto


The most memorable meal was at a tucked-away sushi establishment with all of six seats at the bar. It is run by a father/son team, and we enjoyed watching them bustle around the kitchen, wordlessly communicating. We opted for the sushi tasting, which invites the chefs to choose what they serve you. All of the food was delicious—light and fresh and made before your eyes. Our favorite was the fatty tuna—it melted in my mouth like butter. The most jarring was the shrimp, served live and wagging on a bed of rice. It doesn’t get fresher than that! We feasted, sipped Sapporos and felt truly satisfied.


Back at the hotel, we ended up chatting with the guitar player who entertained the diners. He happened to be a Florida native, and when he was done with his session, he gleefully chauffeured us to an Irish pub down the street, owned by a transplanted Irishman who now lives in Kyoto with his wife, a local. The pub owner’s drink of choice was tequila. He was pleased to have company and kept the drinks flowing. We were quite the combination of international acquaintances! The evening quickly turned into dawn, and it was fascinating to hear these men’s stories and their impressions of this beautiful, peaceful place.


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