As soon as I reach Keage train station in Kyoto, I am ready to start my day exploring the gardens and temples of Northern Higashiya. I promptly head for the old railway tracks outside the station where the maple trees are a shiny green and provide some shelter from the sun.
It is a good place to linger for a while, before following a winding path past the peaceful rock garden at Konchi-in temple (founded around 1400). The garden was created by master landscape designer Kobori Enshu and features a lotus pond with a small shrine and colourful carp that are highlighted by the clear light of this day. It is not a typically simple Zen garden and therefore well worth a visit, especially since it was built as a request for eternal prosperity. There is a short walking trail through the garden which is quite invigorating.
It is only a few steps from here to the main road, but I stay and take pictures of the beautiful traditional houses where people still live, delicately tending to their bonsai trees. These homes look as well-groomed as a flight attendant reporting for duty; plucked, painted, manicured and styled. As perfect, yet more peaceful.
Beat the boundaries of logic
To the right on the main road lies Nanzen-ji, an old retirement villa which Emperor Kameyama dedicated as a Zen temple in 1291. It is also a centre for the Rinzai school of Zen which uses puzzles and questions to help students overcome the boundaries of logic.
Nanzen-ji covers a huge piece of land with all its gardens, sub-temples and shrines. It can be a lot to take in so I opt for the walking trail into the mountain beyond the Sosui aqueduct, leaving the tourist hoards behind and heading into the woods.
After a steep climb I reach a shrine built around a waterfall, which is a site full of magic. The cherry red bridge, the peaceful Buddhists and the powerful waterfall weaves a spell that puts me on a high.
My morning amble takes me from Nanzen-ji to Tetsugaku-no-michi (the Path of Philosophy). I sidestep into a small craft shop and marvel at some handmade tops and jewellery while having a glass of cold water with the jovial crafts girl herself. Many of the houses along the tourist trail sell handmade products from their doorstep.
Tetsugaku-no-michi is a walking trail that follows a cherry tree-lined canal. Along the way Japanese artists are painting the dragonflies, drooping leaves and tiled rooftops in the distance. Moms stroll here with their prams, while lovers make romantic memories and dream of the spring cherry blossoms.
Eventually I reach the sign for Honen-in temple (established in 1680) and walk through the bamboo groves to the thatched gate ? which is supposed to be especially beautiful in autumn, when the maple leaves start glowing. I?m not really sure whether it?s the amount of stairs or the sight that takes my breath away.
Just around the corner from Honen-in is Gingaku-ji Zen temple (established in 1482), one of Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and the nirvana (well, sort of) to my stroll.
Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa spent his whole life building Ginkaku-ji, formally known as Higashiyama den. It was the intention of the shogun to cover the entire pavilion in silver but because of raging wars this was never achieved. The garden is designed to show different aspects of beauty as the seasons change.
A path through the raked sand, bonsai, ponds and villas is draped in crisp green today. Details catch my eye: the curve of a branch, the shape of a stone, maple leaves just-just starting to change colour.
Are the calm and the ecstasy that I experience here due to the aesthetics of carefully arranged nature? The mystery of the Zen garden is something that you have to experience for yourself at least once. Beauty and nature are two things that generally please the eye of the beholder, but meticulously combined in a Zen garden, the effect is truly mystical.