Kyoto: City of Charm, Grace, and Variety

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“A designated National Special Historic Site, Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion is one of Japan’s most popular buildings and is a fantastic example of garden design from the Muromachi period. . . . The temple was originally known as Rokuonji and was where the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu retired, becoming a Rinzai sect Zen temple . . . after his 1408 death. An impressive building overlooking a spacious pond, Golden Pavilion is the only structure left of the shogun’s retirement complex.”

Intellectually, visitors know Japan is an ancient culture, its crafts of elegant textiles and fabulous hand-made objects, its cuisine apparently insanely elaborated, its religions impossibly attenuated. Yet that weight of the ages is not clear in the briskly run efficiency of the rapid transit system. That’s especially true if you are waiting for a “fast train” in Kyoto’s award-winning station and gander at several others shoot through the place to points unknown. Or in the conversation of one’s bilingual passerby’s plying global careers. The young men wear international motley, the young women (during our visit, but the fashion changes monthly) knee-high needle-heeled boots. Or, everyone is swathed in sports gear, which largely effaces ethnicity or sexuality.

Yet, in Japan, hop on what outsiders call the “bullet train” (Shinkansen), from the soaring, modern girders and Manga of Tokyo, and about three hours later you could be in Kyoto. Japan’s train side is enduringly “industrial.”  As a result, passengers can pretty much forget quaint vistas of the kind harvested through the thick plate glass of a steam train in Southern Africa, or the rural rides in Italy or France or England. 

The Kiyomizu Temple dates from about the eighth century C.E, when  Shishinden Hall of the Imperial Palace of Nagaoka was moved on site Todays structures were rebuilt in 1633 on direction of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu. The main entrance is a 2-story gate with statues of Kongo-Rikishi standing in niches on both sides. The main image of the Shishinden is an 11-headed statue of Kannon – the Buddhist goddess of mercy, believed to have been carved by the priest Enchin in the 7th century. The image (called a Juichimen-Senju-Sengen-Kannon) is only displayed every 33 years. Close by is a belfry (Shoro), the bell cast in 1478, and a fine three-storey pagoda, Sanju-no-to, (1633), to the east are the Scripture Hall and the Founder’s Hall. Asakurado or Asakura Hall was built by Sadakage Asakura (1473-1512), a Buddhist devout and son of the emperor Temmu.

Walk Along A Thousand Years of History

Kyoto, established more that a 1000 years ago as capital of what today we call the nation of Japan (the capital long since transferred to Tokyo) is redolent in history and tradition. The “Inextinguishable Dharma Light,” — dharma being the law or the word, in Sanskrit – has been burning, they say, since lit by the founder, Saicho, at Enryaku-ju temple 1,200 years ago. 

This still often beautiful though thoroughly urban center was created as “Heian-kyo” in the year 794. Alex Kerr savagely attacks the city fathers for their signal failure to protect many of Kyoto’s formerly countless cultural treasures.  Reading Kerr I was forced to reflect on the circumstances of my own home town, a smallish city with a powerfully well-developed cultural industry involving art, food, and music and hosting a mid-sized university. 

For years, in spite of the valuable “quality of life” asset, a segment of the business community in Lafayette, Louisiana, struggled to enhance existing road infrastructure, seeking to convert existing carriage into a major throughway – an industrial corridor cleaving the town’s mid-section exactly when, elsewhere in the United States, cities were promulgating regulations to forbid industrial traffic. Such through town was a concern because of the potential of terrorist mayhem. 

“Japan’s second-largest station building (after Nagoya Station) and is one of the country’s largest buildings, under one 15-story roof. The current Kyōto Station opened in 1997 (built 1990-97), commemorating Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary. Architecturally, it exhibits many characteristics of futurism, with a slightly irregular cubic facade of plate glass over a steel frame. The architect was Hiroshi Hara.  Kyoto is one of the least modern cities in Japan by virtue of its many cultural heritage sites, and was largely reluctant to accept such an ambitious structure in the mid-1990s. Futurist architecture is an early-20th century form of architecture born in Italy, characterized by anti-historicism, strong chromaticism, long dynamic lines, suggesting speed, motion, urgency and lyricism. It includes amazing shapes with dynamic lines and sharp contrasts, and the use of technologically advanced materials. The futurist architecture created since 1960 may be termed post-modern futurism. The Kyoto Train Station structure has a fluidity of space, intriguing discontinuities of scale, open roof lines and a dark futuristic quality.”

In any event, mere construction of this ugly feature would be an unsightly scar through the quaint place, squandering irreplaceable cultural capital in return for marginal benefit to a dying energy industry. Just the thing Alex Kerr railed about taking place in Kyoto. Failure to think about growth, and cost/benefit analysis that took into account the ephemera of quality of life.  He is especially hard on the loss of its traditional architecture once reflective of Kyoto’s social history in his, “Dogs and Demons- The Fall of Modern Japan,” written with the concern of a true lover. And, in most areas of town, as in most towns, Kyoto is baldly nondescript.

The Friendly People of Kyoto

Yet, for a first time visitor, the place still winds up being put in positive comparison with the helter skelter of Tokyo, Kyoto residents being notoriously outgoing and friendly in spite of torrents of tourists thronging’s the streets. No doubt long-time residents see the many changes wrought by time as do, I feel confident, residents of Berlin, Manhattan, and Paris. I, for one, kind of miss the honest hookers working the French Quarter and don’t find their replacement in rack after rack of Taiwanese junk baubles for genteel Midwestern day tourists a fair trade, even if it is easier to attach a sales tax to the trinkets and crudely, witlessly bawdy t-shirts. Most cities are centers of commerce, not culture, today, so its hardly news to single out a particular example. 

“Ryōan-ji is home to one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens, a cultural heritage site that attracts visitors from all around the world every day. Originally the temple was an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, but it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto, who was a top-ranking warlord in the Ashikaga Shogunate.” This style of Japanese garden both depicts the core of Buddhism as well as the anxiety of civil wars that raged throughout the country in the second half of the Heian period. The incessantly altering state of the garden echoes the Buddhist teaching about the evanescence of our being and the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.

Lonely Planet said of the place, “ . . . while the rest of Japan has adopted modernity with abandon, the old ways are still clinging on in Kyoto. With its roots as the cultural capital of the country, it’s no surprise that many traditional arts and crafts are kept alive by artisans from generation to generation. Wander the streets downtown, through historic Gion and past machiya (traditional Japanese townhouses) in the Nishijin textile district to find ancient speciality shops from tofu sellers, washi (Japanese handmade paper) and tea merchants, to exquisite lacquerware, handcrafted copper chazutsu (tea canisters) and indigo-dyed noren (hanging curtains).” 

A ‘bullet train’ at the Kyoto station. “Japan is where regular, high-speed railways were born. The country’s Shinkansen ‘Bullet Train’ network has been developed over more than 35 years and covers all main trunk routes. the network centres on the capital Tokyo, with lines to the west and north of this densely-populated nation. New Shinkansen variants are still under development, maintaining the country’s pre-eminent technological position. The first line to see these ground-breaking trains was from Tokyo to Osaka, the Tokaido Shinkansen, opened in October 1964. Initially, the trains ran at up to 200km/h (125mph), but this has been increased with improvements in infrastructure, signalling and maintenance.”

Meanwhile, the Encyclopedia Britannica contributes this, “ . . . the historic area of Kyōto has few large factories or businesses, a fact reflected in the look of the inner city—shops and workshops, residences, and offices all standing side by side. Stringent building codes limit the height of buildings in order to preserve the overall look of the historic city. Characteristic of the architecture are tiled roofs and wood weathered to dark brown, but telephone poles (now made of concrete) and a forest of television antennas protrude at every turn. A typical Kyōto house presents a narrow and low front to the street, but as it recedes it gains in height and embellishment—all this a reflection of its past history and character: wariness of the marauding monk, the zealous revenue collector, or the curious neighbor. Rarely does one enter a home beyond the front vestibule; if one is invited in, it is good form to demur.”

Kyoto: A Dauntless and Leading Spirit 

A final description of this engaging Japanese city put it this way, “although many transformations have taken place over the years, Kyoto has always adopted the most advanced standards of the times. It has greatly contributed to the nation’s industrial, economic and cultural development and strength. The dauntless and leading spirit of Kyoto’s past as a capital city is still felt here today.” Kyoto, for all its being a modern city, and possessing any of the shortcomings that entails, honestly stated, is populated with a very welcoming population and a convenient, efficient transportation system. We adored Kyoto.

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