Enjoying matcha at Kyoto’s Golden Temple

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November 3, 2018

Kyoto’s famous golden temple is one of Japan’s most popular sites. the old Japanese capital’s most-visited sites. While it’s not hard to miss the sun-catching, gilt Zen Buddhist temple at the centre of things, what you don’t want to miss is the cute little tea serving frothy, green matcha on crimson tables near the exit of the gardens. Trust me – I missed it the first time I came here as an exchange student and it took me six year to come back and rectify my mistake.

Going for a walk through gardens and then sitting down to enjoy a cup of matcha is a sweet treat that’s one of my favourite things to do in Japan. The nice thing is it’s perfectly enjoyable whether you’re strolling in solitude, or with a friend.

For my return visit to Kinkakuji, I was lucky enough to meet up with Fiona! An artist from New York who was spending a few months traveling through Asia. We have a mutual friend in common who lives near me in Dartmouth, and even though we’d never met before,  I instantly liked her and was super glad we’d made the time to say hello. Her art style is kind of amazing. You should probably check out her Instagram @fiona.nyc.

Although everyone calls it Kinkakuji, meaning ‘Golden Temple,’ the temple’s official name is Rokuonji, meaning ‘Deer Garden Temple.’

Strolling through the gardens

The garden itself is a Japanese strolling garden. Something you need to know about Japanese gardens: these aren’t your grandmother’s petunias. Japanese gardens have a lush history that intertwines with religion, ruling dynasties, and a lot of aesthetics. I’m no expert, but I do know the garden at the Golden temple is a Kaiyu shiki teien, or promenade garden. Basically, it’s built for walking. Convenient, huh?

Another cool kind of garden is a tea garden! Called Roji, meaning ‘dewy ground,’ this sect of Japanese garden encompasses the small green areas you usually pass through on your way into a tea house, or chashitsu. They’re meant to cultivate an air of simplicity and prepare your mind for tea ceremony. But, I digress.

Meandering through a brief garden path that leads you around the gilded temple. You’ll pass a pond that contains ten islands smaller than the one the temple sits on. The kyokochi, or ‘Mirror Pond’ is meant to reflect the building.

After following the path and weaving through the garden, you’ll come to Sekka-tei, an old tea house that was rebuilt in 1874, designed by Kanamori Sowa in the 17th century. This isn’t where we’ll be having tea though, this is just a really cool old place, and one of the easier-to-get-to authentic old teahouses of Japan. You can actually take pictures at this one, unlike the one I visited in Yamazaki.

Eventually you’ll reach the end of the gardens, and come out onto a path that has various charms for sale, some food, and which will eventually lead you back to the entrance. You’ll find the tea room, Kinkakuji Fudogama Chasho, on your right. Look for the red tables!

Tea at Fudogama Chasho

So, what does this interesting name mean? Something like ‘The Golden Pavillion’s Immovable Kettle Tea Room.’ You spell it with these characters: 金閣寺不動釜茶所. And the two that mean ‘immoveable’ (不動) can literally mean immoveable in the sense of ‘immobile,’ not able to move.

Or, it can mean something more like unwavering and unshakeable—steadfast. I kind of like ‘The Steadfast Tea Room,’ but of course no one will understand what you mean if you ask for that, so ‘fudogama chasho’ it is.

Service is sweet and efficient, in the spirit of Japan. You pay the fixed fee of ¥500 (about $6 CAD) to enter the tea house. Find a seat anywhere you like, and then a server will bring you over a matcha and a sweet. There is no menu.

Sharing traveller stories

One thing I really liked about meeting up with Fiona was being able to relate to her traveling solo in Japan as a married woman. Sometimes I forget that being married changes how people see me, and how people interpret my reasons for travel. We’d been married less than a year when I was there, and whenever I mentioned this to people when it came up in conversation, it often went something like this:

Person: “Oh, so do you have a boyfriend?”(And they would always assume ‘boy,’ since, let’s be real, gender and sex politics have a long way to go in Japan)

Me: “Actually, I’m married!”

Person: “Oh! Where is he?”

Me: “He’s back in Canada!”

Person: “Oh! You left your husband? Why? Won’t he be lonely? Are you sad you left him? When will you have children?”

These were all things I heard, all the time. I understand—there’s a genuine curiosity there that stems from cultural difference, and I always want to keep the dialogue open. I support answering all these questions. People I really liked in Japan asked me these questions. Japanese colleagues asked me these questions.  And I would always dutifully explain, “Yes, we love each other, he supports me doing what I love, I travel a lot for work and because I love doing it, and just because I’m not home making babies doesn’t mean we don’t have a good relationship.” Basically.

But man, sometimes—I. Got. So. Effing. Tired. Of. It.

The worst might have been when I was conversing with someone, and when he asked how long we’d been married and I said, “Oh, about eight months.” He looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “I’d never let my wife leave in our first year of marriage.” YEAH BUDDY. THAT’S GREAT. HOPE MY TWITCH ISN’T SHOWING.

Anyway, all this to say—it was awesome when Fiona showed up, also female, also traveling solo for long periods of time, also with a loving husband back in North America. Hallelujah. Sometimes a person just needs to feel understood, you know?

Plus, afterward you can go get gold leaf ice cream, because Kyoto.

I hope someday you can take a stroll through the gardens here, sit down on one of the bright red-clothed tables (you can sit right on them, you know), and have a nice moment for yourself. I know I did.

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