There is a sequence of flat, circular steps that diverts from the main path and cuts into the central pond of the Heian Shrine garden, which itself is an offshoot, albeit a capacious one, of the shrine complex. The steps are comfortably person-sized, though not any larger, such that an ill-timed shift of weight in any direction would send one tumbling into the water, where lily pads in tight clusters spread out like ripples across the surface.
The garden and the shrine were quite empty on this day, as sundown was approaching and the groundskeepers were preparing to close up for the night. At the entrance to the garden, the ticket seller indicated that I had just over an hour to look around, a constraint that kept me walking at a healthy pace until I reached the edge of the pond.
Had I not come when I did, I would not have tried the stepping stones. I am slow, perpetually encumbered by a camera and a crippling conviction of my own physical ineptness, and if anyone had been waiting behind me, I would have ceded my spot out of embarrassment. In the end, I only made it a few steps in before retreating backward to the safety of solid ground.
Later, while making my way around the far edge of the pond, I would see a heron alight in the water. It stood balancing on its feet among the lilies, graciously letting me take pictures. When it grew bored, it flew off again.
In pond-crossing, as in everything else, I aspire to be heron-like: poised and imperturbable.
Completed in 1895, the Heian Shrine consists of an expansive courtyard, bordered by a partial replica of the Heian-era Imperial Palace, and a cultivated garden. Entrance to the former is free, but the latter requires an additional fee; pay it, as the contrast between the vermilion buildings of the courtyard and the verdant vernacular of the garden is startling and should not be missed. In April, you may be able to catch the cherry trees that rim the garden’s central pond in blossom. Upon exiting the shrine, be sure to take note of the single torii gate that looms, lofty and impassive, in the distance.
Name in Japanese
Okazaki Nishitennocho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto
Mon-Sun: 06:00-17:30 (garden: Mon-Sun: 08:30-17:30; opening hours vary by season)
Free (garden: 600 JPY)