Shisendo, No More
November 2013, I return to Kyoto after ten years absence. This time the forest is dressed in ochre and crimson colours. I would visit the Shisendo at last, the retreat residence and gardens of Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672), samurai, monk, scholar and poet.
I have known the Shisendo for a long time, through the books. Books that I select with love and care as only a bibliophile can do, relying on the authority of the second hand. First, in Shisendo, Hall of the Poetry Immortals. But also in the most venerable guidebook for connoisseurs, A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto, by Berkeley professors Marc Treib and Ron Herman, for whom the Shisendo is “A jewel of garden design, intimate in scale yet vast in implication”. I have also seen many picture books, usually portraying the same framed scenery in different seasons.
The Shisendo, I conclude myself from self-taught lessons taken from my books of architecture, must be a paramount example of a Shoin, a “writing hall” or Shoin-style scholar studio, whose main features are a built-in desk, the tokonama or alcove wherein to place a scroll and a vase with flowers, staggered bookshelves and painted sliding doors, besides a tatami floor, square posts and a coved ceiling… Hiroyuki Suzuki, in his essay for the Hall of the Poetry Immortals, says that the Shisendo is rather a developed Shoin known as Sukiya-style, sukiya meaning, “abode of refinement”. The Sukiya-style is marked by “understatement, irregularity bordering in rusticity”, “the relaxed atmosphere”, revealing “the artistic idiosyncrasies of a man of taste.” Those precise definitions I learn from the extraordinarily reliable book on Japanese architecture by Kazuo Nishi and Kazuo Hozumi, whom, however, do not mention the Shisendo.
The taxi stops and puts an abrupt end to my bookish recollections. In disbelief, in this well asphalted parking site, I insist, “Shisendo! Shisendo! I am going to the Shisendo!” But the driver gesticulates to my right, that is right, the unassuming outside gate of the Shisendo. No preliminary walking slope as the books had anticipated. The car had left us at the very door of early Edo period home of Ishikawa Jozan.
“The face that Shisen-do presents to the city street does little to suggest the realm of experience and pleasure found within its walls”, had written the Berkeley professors. The wooden signboard with Chinese or Kanji characters is illegible.
The rugged stone steps are not covered with sand but wrapped with stone-looking cement. I reach quickly the main―small, short―gate, whose signboard is also illegible, the characters erased. Facing the gate just two metres opposite there is an aluminum cabin with two staffs, man and woman, dressed in the blue uniform of electricians, selling tickets. The contrived entrance and main façade are set against an overdone and superfluous racked sand garden.
The wooden building is small and I can see through, from the other side, the light that promises the true Shisendo gardens. A chamber-maid in street clothes hastily ushers us to a side room, an old dusty kitchen, to remove our shoes. There I lose sight of my wife. I enter in the first chamber and I am taken aback by the ghastly sight of a garish modern shrine and tabernacle, the profanation of a layman’s house, in denial of centuries-old tradition of great Buddhist art, one of the pinnacles of man’s achievement. Here it was me the one deluded, for the books rightly say the Shisendo is now a temple, though I could not understand then what that meant.
Scattered around are crude objects, a sense of disarray that betray a scholar’s house. Poor reproductions, images varnished, tarnished. Badly hanged on a wall, framed photographs of illustrious visitors I cannot recognize for must be local celebrities, including a picture of ubiquitous Prince of Wales, most unsuitably dressed in a double breasted pearl gray suit.
I am standing in the veranda. An open space relatively full with few bookish visitors like me―I can recognize them―sitting on the tatami or directly on the wooden floor. A woman kneeling down as in a prayer. A family with two daughters in their thirties. I decide to sit by them, with difficulty. I catch a glimpse of one of the daughters and I feel instantly attracted by her, a serene discreet beauty, and in the Shisendo. I wish she can turn her head. She does. Our eyes meet. But must have also been intersected by the mother’s, for the family is decamping at once. I label them as Confucians.
I turn my sight to the garden at last. The framed picture between the square wooden posts, the ceiling and the transom is illuminated with the warm sun-rays of the afternoon, the dense wild forest as a backdrop. But I cannot see. The set of contradictory emotions from my early dreams and expectations to the light-speed and disagreeable experiences I have just encountered have marked the expression of my face. My eyes cannot see. The manicured, well trimmed hedges of azaleas are not definitely my favourite feature of a garden. It is in fact unlikely the garden was like this in Jozan’s time. I take some quick photographs and I receive the message of my wife complaining what I am doing and why I brought her here after having been in the most beautiful garden-temple that morning―garden whose name I cannot pronounce in this context, not to break the magic.
I go to wear my shoes and turn around the house. I meet an old woman sweeping the sandy floor. She is dressed in old indigo-dyed traditional clothes and wearing the wide brimmed rattan hat. I say hello and she cheerfully responds “Konichiua!” I reply loudly “Konichiua” with the little energy left. I remember Shuichi Kato had written that surely the founder Ishikawa Jozan himself would have swept the garden, for only him as the master designer could understand its inner harmony.
The Waterfall for Washing Away Ignorance is still there. Though it is enshrined by the forest in a way that one cannot reach the water with his hands without perturbing the peace of the garden, something I would not do. I prefer to remain an ignorant.
From the garden I can see the eccentric and evocative Tower for Whistling at the Moon.
But nowhere have I seen the plaque with the character for Virtue (dé) inlaid in mother-of-pearl.
The lower part of the garden is a modern addition with nothing remarkable. The water mortar, when hitting rhythmically the rock, sounds grotesque in this environment. I pass by a sad feeble persimmon tree bearing one single fruit, where elsewhere should be a sturdy healthy tree.
No one has told me the truth. I look for the exit from the Shisendo. My wife is already far away, fuming. I rush down the slope to catch with her. I run away from the Shisendo. I will not come back. It reminds me of my many failures.
Shisendo, Hall of the Poetry Immortals, by Thomas Rimer, Jonathan Chaves, Stephen Addis, Hiroyuki Suzuki (translated by Thomas Rimer) and Shuichi Kato (translated by Hilda Kato, revised by Jeffrey Hunter). Weatherhill, 1991
A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto, by Marc Treib and Ron Herman. Shufunotomo Company Ltd., 1981 (Third printing 1985)
What is Japanese Architecture? A Survey of Traditional Japanese Architecture, by Kazuo Nishi and Kazuo Hozumi, translated, adapted and with an introduction by H. Mack Horton, Kodansha, 1985 (2012)