The story of Kyoto’s life lies in between the analects of Homer: “all life is a journey” (Odyssey) and “all life is a battle” (Iliad). Kyoto, since her days as the Imperial capital, has seen important segments of the nation’s journeys (political, social, and cultural) unfold. By a miraculous quirk of fate, Kyoto’s name was struck off as a target from the flight path of the bomber plane that devastated parts of Japan. However, she had to wage her own numerous battles and tribulations. Her indomitable spirit in her journeys and wars remained undiminished.
Of the entire Japanese archipelago, the landscape of Kyoto is imbued with a sense of sanctitude. Bordered by hills and rivers, this sloping valley city lies like a cradle: a repository holding the totems of classical and ancient Japan. The frenetic frenzy of modern Japan has reached the Kyoto streets. One gets to witness a complex paradoxical rubric at work: a pastoral and urban economy, a mixture of mysticism and worldliness. A city that has the innocent freshness of a new born, and, at the same time, a deep elemental resonance of the aged. Along with post-War contemporary concrete construction, one gets to catch glimpses of traditional screen doors, tatami mats forming and forging an unlikely design of Kyoto’s present.
Kyoto is dotted with 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites: over 1,600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 Shinto shrines. The locals tease the foreigners and travellers in their Pidgin English “in Kyoto you could get ‘shrined out’ with tiredness”. Despite the humour, Kyoto is believed to be the land of sacred incandescence. It is the place where even the Japanese go to connect with their authentic roots.
The first glance of Kyoto could be disappointing, from the alighting hubs. As all one sees are broad streets with familiar billboards and neon signs. It makes you wonder where the artistic Kyoto is: the muse of the printmaker. Slip into the myriad lanes, the quintessence and quiddities of old Kyoto come sharply alive. Kyoto, they say, (like other deeply venerable places) never reveals herself in a single encounter.
Abundance of temples
A significant number of temples and shrines are clustered along the Northern and Southern parts of the Higashiyama mountains. Each built along the idioms of its sect and faith. Design aesthetics in Japan are influenced by the principles of Wabi-sabi (Wabi — a Zen inspired aesthetic of rustic simplicity; Sabi — a poetic ideal of finding beauty in imperfection). Kyoto’s shrines have an abundance of architectural motifs and details. In Nanzen-ji temple one gets to see a ceiling adorned with rare murals of birds and impressive painted screens in the Abbot hall. The gardens of Ginaku-ji temple have a unique composition: of raked cones of white sand to reflect the moonlight. The oldest Zen torii or gate in Japan, the ‘San-Mon’ gate at Tofuku-ji temple stands defying age. The Kamigamo Jinja shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Japan. It pre-dates the founding of Kyoto and is dedicated to the God of thunder. Residing in these emblems is the unbroken narrative of Kyoto, of its culture, steeped in the minutiae of achieving exquisiteness, harmony and balance in its design and order of things.
Kyoto seems to have nurtured a bond with nature and has co-opted with natural elements. The lands of Japan are aware of the enigmatic relationship nature shares with mankind, how the winds and tides can change dramatically. The ethereally sublime Kyoto gardens are dressed for the pageantry of changing seasons.
Symbol of life
All over Japan, viewing the fleeting and ephemeral cherry blossoms or ‘Sakura’ is a national rite. The ‘Sakura’ symbolises the impermanence of life. An inspiring place in Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms is along the Tetsugaku no Michi or the Philosopher’s Path (the path was the walking beat of a famous philosopher Nishida Kitaro). Cherry blossom trees line the canal, forming a tunnel of cherry blossoms. The palisade of foliage and the elegant 1.8 km philosopher’s pathway make you travel to the farthest reaches of your consciousness. In the precincts of the temple Eikan-Do is the rare statue of Mikaeri Amida (the statue of Amitabha glancing backwards).It is here the blazing colours of autumn are supposed to look their best (the environment here has a pleasing appeal in any season).
An original “Kyoto moment” is to lose oneself in any corner of the gardens with their water, rock and sand formations. Or soak oneself in the therapeutic waters of the “Onsen” or hot springs. The soothing energy of the earth merges and mingles with the mind. The Japan of earthquakes and a volatile ecological system seem to belong to another realm. Nature in Kyoto appears to enjoy her rendezvous with mankind.
Away from its reticent spiritual quarter, Kyoto has a sophisticated cosmopolitan side to it. Nightlife on the streets has a piquant vibrancy. Stroll down the Gion corner — a lane with tea houses, restaurants and globular lanterns that bathe the area in flame-coloured light. Occasionally you can catch a sight of a Geisha slipping away into a patron’s tea-house or car. The tea ceremony at the Gion theatre is a bit perfunctory. The ceremony in traditional houses takes on a more meaningful dimension. The master explains the subtle nuances of leaving the external world and transiting to the contemplative world of the tea house.
Atmospheric night scene
Along the Gion, Hanamikoji Dori and the Shijo-dori streets, Kyoto’s culinary treasure trove contributes immensely to making the social and night scene extremely atmospheric. In the dining experience, a qualitative effort is made to pack in the revelations of the cuisine, its history and its culture. Whether it is a “Shokudo”, an all-purpose eatery, an “Izakaya”, the Japanese equivalent of a pub, or a fine dining establishment, the bar of quality of food in Kyoto ( by and large in Japan) is high.
Visiting Kyoto is like going over to see a loved one, whose very company in itself is an enlivening experience. The retiring geisha wishes you a good stay while posing for a Kodak moment. A smiling monk blesses you. Conclusively, the worlds and words that sort of define Kyoto are refined, exquisite, graceful, delicate and courteous.