I first visited Ohara last spring (2016) when my parents were visiting. It is just an hour north of Kyoto Station. It is technically still part of Kyoto, lying within the city limits. But it is a world away in spirit. Perhaps it is the altitude (291m / 955 ft). Life in the mountains always feels different - in any country. The big sky, hemmed in only by tree and rock. The space, the quiet. Civilization dominated by Nature, rather than the other way round. You can breathe in the mountains. Everything is clear, bright, alive.
When you sit in a temple you are basically sitting outdoors. When the shoji screens are open it is only the roof separating you from the elements. In spring and summer, even autumn, this is no problem. In winter it is a different story.
You are drawn to the beauty of the snow-covered garden. The rocks and trees, black brushstrokes against the immaculate white, like a sumi-e painting. You sit down on the tatami as you would any other time of year. But within minutes you feel the bite of the cold air. Your best winter socks cannot compete with 0°C (32°F). Your toes begin to numb. Your breath lingers in the air like temple incense. Your nose and ears are the next to succumb to the frigid temperature. A gentle breeze blows the falling snow inside and you watch it melt first on the engawa (veranda) and then the tatami. You enter a sort of trance as your blood slows and your internal furnace starts to falter.
It is a battle of the will. A seasoned Buddhist monk might have the mental and spiritual power to survive a winter afternoon meditating in this environment. I am no monk.