Ryoanji

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Ryoanji
The Answer to Everything is Soba
Ryoanji
The Answer to Everything is Soba
Ryoanji

Kyoto’s Ryoanji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to Japan’s most famous seki-tei garden, which is simply composed of rocks and raked gravel. The garden is surrounded by high walls on three sides; the fourth side faces the veranda of quite a lovely temple building—don’t neglect getting a good look at the building's fusumas (painted room screens). But the real draw is simply sitting on the veranda and gazing upon the garden. There is no vantage point from which you can see all 15 of the garden’s black stones at once. No one is quite sure what the original designer had in mind when he came up with it in the 1470s, though one common interpretation is that the stones represent islands rising above the sea. Every tour to Kyoto comes here, so it can get very crowded; the earlier in the morning you can arrive, the better your experience will be.

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The Answer to Everything is Soba
At the iconic Zen rock garden of Ryōan-ji, I was meditating on a koan: “How do they manage to sweep the rocks and leave no footprints?” (The answer that kept coming up again and again was jetpack.) Lost in irreverent thought, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” Now that was something to which I had an affirmative answer and immediately I was surrounded by uniformed Japanese high school students assigned to find English speakers to whom to ask a few questions. Many of the questions were straightforward. Where did I come from? What did I do for a living? Why was I in Japan? (I had practiced these answers with customs officials previously so I was well prepared.) There was one hard question. What message would I like to give to the high school students of Japan? Feeling the weight of being some sort of cultural and adulthood ambassador I tried, each time, to come up with something pithy: Study hard; Eat your vegetables; Do your English homework; Use all of your vacation time. The kids nodded reflexively with a sympathetic understanding and reverence I assumed they reserved for their elders. I answered one question well. When asked what my favorite food was in Japan I answered “Soba,” and the kids were immediately transported to some far off noodle shop, their eyes glazed over with delight, and they gave me a universal acknowledgement of, “Ooooh, soba,” that suggested that I too was in on the secret. The answer to everything, it seems, is soba.
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