Kyoto Stories and Tips


Cat and Peony Blossom Photo,

Often when I return from a journey, it’s not the well-known places or famous sights that I recall most vividly, but some little-known spot that I came across quite by chance. And so it is with Gio-ji. I hadn’t planned to go there, but perhaps, reflecting back, it was simply meant to be.

In Sagano, a western district of Kyoto, there is a much-celebrated bamboo forest, and it was while exploring this that I came across Gio-ji. I was instantly enchanted by the setting. A path led to a simple thatched temple set in a lush garden of moss, ferns, and slender trees. By this time, I’d seen at least a dozen elaborate temples and shrines in Kyoto, and truth to tell, I’d become a bit jaded, but something about this secluded glade drew me in.

Through the gate and up the path I went, coming to a tsukubai, a stone basin provided for ritual cleansing of hands and mouth before entering the temple. Water flowed from a rustic bamboo spout down onto the basin, its splashing one of the few sounds breaking the silence of the peaceful sanctuary. An azalea bonsai in exquisite bloom was the sole ornament here, an appropriate seasonal focal point. After making my simple preparations, I entered the temple.

Although there was a statue of Buddha and several other small shrines on the grounds, I was essentially clueless as to the temple’s history and significance. It seemed to me more a house than a temple, perhaps the dwelling of some person of refined but simple taste. In the main room, open to the garden, a white cat lay curled on the tatami matting, just a few feet from a peony bush bearing a single blossom. Of course, cats and peony blossoms are both popular subjects in brush drawings and scrolls, and for a moment, I had the disjointed sense that I’d stepped into a painting. At that instant, the cat opened one eye and surveyed the scene, fixing its gaze momentarily on the peony blossom. Then she resumed her nap, unperturbed.

It is this moment of peony-blossom/cat-glance that remains crystallized in my memory. Insignificant? Perhaps. But still it resonates, much like Issa’s haiku, the distillation of an everyday moment.

Looking pleased
sidelong glances
at the peony.

Kobayashi Issa, 1813

Later, I learn the story of Gio, a dancer who became a favorite of a powerful warlord, Kiyomori, of the Tiara clan. This Gio, along with her sister and mother, was elevated to high status by her patron and had wealth and attention showered upon her. However, Kiyomori was as fickle as he was powerful. One day a young dancer named Hotoke came uninvited to Kiyomori’s residence, but he berated her and sent her away. Gio felt embarrassed that the young woman had been treated so badly, and she pleaded with Kiyomori to give Hotoke a chance to perform.

Well, you can see what’s coming, can’t you? When Hotoke performed her shiraboyoshi dance before the powerful lord, he was instantly smitten. Now the tables were turned, it was Hotoke who pleaded with Kiyomori not to turn Gio out of his house, but, alas, Gio’s fate was sealed. She, her mother, and her sister were cast out, much to the consternation of Hotoke.

After Gio had left, the warlord was piqued that Hotoke seemed not as lively as he thought she should be. Perhaps, he thought, Gio could return to provide entertainment for her. Gio was sent for, and, deeply humiliated, made to sing before a royal audience. Even the hard-hearted Kiyomori was moved by her song, which made oblique reference to her pitiful state.

When Gio returned home, she told her mother that she could not bear to undergo such humiliation again. She had decided to kill herself. Gio’s mother and sister then vowed that if she did, they would die as well. Faced with this prprospect, Gio resolved to become a nun and move away from the capital to live in seclusion. Her mother and sister joined her.

One night a year after settling.into a simple life in a thatched hut deep in the Sagano hills, a knock came at the door. The three nuns were frightened, for they expected no visitors and it was late at night. Fearful of demons or thieves yet more fearful of turning away someone in need, they opened to door only to find a tearful Hotoke, who had fled Kiyomori, for she realized it would only be a matter of time before she, too, would be cast aside. She preferred to live as a nun in the hills than continue to live in a world of fleeting pleasures.

And so the former rivals lived out their days in devotion, and it is said that when they died they entered paradise together. If you visit Gio-ji, you will see statues representing the two women on either side of the larger statue of the Amida, the Buddha of Everlasting Light. As for Kiyomori, his statue can be found at Gio-ji, too, but it is hidden behind a pillar, "perhaps the ladies’ last word on the subject," according to Judith Clancy.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip