Japan Log #8: The Philosopher’s Walk

Not far from my apartment in Shugakuin and running alongside an old canal is a shady path known as the Philosopher’s Walk. 

Beyond the renown of its seasonal beauty, many Japanese see the path as a cultural icon – both a historic site and a gift to posterity. For me, it has become a source of relaxation and contemplation in the cool evenings as I walk along the foot of the Higashiyama Mountain range.

Known in Japanese as Tetsugaku-no-michi, the reputation of the Philosopher’s Walk preceded it, due mostly to the spring cherry blossoms. Cherry flowers have been a celebrated spectacle for many centuries in Japan. It is not uncommon for people to follow the blossoming as Spring spreads across the nation.

The Philosopher’s Walk is a prime location for cherry blossom viewing, known as hanami in Japanese – as it is lined with cherry trees on either side. This fact was among the first discoveries I made when researching Kyoto before leaving Oregon.

Currently the cherry tree leaves and flowers have yet to emerge, but a mélange of other vegetation keeps the path vibrant and alive. Bamboo; nandina still bearing red berries; witch hazel, whose yellow blooms have come and gone; pear trees with white flowers; humble clumps of green moss; and many plants I had never laid eyes on soften the hard edges of the canal and path.

Though the canal is shallow, it is never without activity. White cranes with long yellow legs stalk the banks, ducks can be seen floating lazily every few yards, and big brown carp undulate slowly against the current. 

One day, I peered over the edge and saw an enormous golden carp upwards of 3 feet in length and moving almost imperceptibly – I called it “Giant Fish of the Subconscious” because I like Jung and hey, it’s the Philosopher’s Walk.

The path is so-called because of the eminent mid-20th century Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who likely walked this very path during his daily meditations. Kitaro grew up during the early years of the Meji restoration, a tumultuous time politically and socially, as the country had just emerged from nearly 200 years of isolation. With Western philosophies and ideals flowing in – having studied in prominent Zen temples – Kitaro’s philosophy was in many ways a bridge between the East and West.

Throughout his career, Kitaro rose from being a high school dropout to the founder of the Kyoto School of Philosophy at Kyoto University. While I cannot accurately explain his philosophies, a good source is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Kitaro. It is very interesting stuff, but bring some coffee because his work needs to be taken as a whole, rather than bite-sized info chunks.

Since his death in 1975, the Philosopher’s Walk has been paved with stone blocks. The Higashiyama district through which it runs has grown, offering many art and craft shops, small lunch restaurants, and delicious mochi. Artists sit on the bridges and along the path painting what they see, and sometimes selling a print. Tourists and natives alike travel between the beautifully aged Zen temples of Ginkakuji, Eikando, and Nanzenji.

I like to walk the path after the sun has dropped behind the hills and only the most stoic of visitors remain. Some feed the cats that have lived near the path for at least two decades; some walk their dogs, while others sit on stone benches watching the dark waters of the canal drift by. 

I may not be a philosopher, but when I walk the path in the evening shadows, I too reflect on all I have learned in the East and try integrating it into my Western mind.

Reading more about Nishida Kitaro is a good way to build a greater understanding of how Japan developed culturally in the 20th century. Find out more here:  plato.stanford.edu/entries/nishida-kitaro/#TheExpCon 

By Anthony Vitale