Japan: The many faces of Kyoto
With graceful geishas, towering temples and manga mania, it’s little wonder that the ancient city of Kyoto is seen as Japan’s cultural heart, says Simon Horsford.
'Harrison Ford, Harrison Ford…” bellowed my taxi driver into his mobile.
We were on our way to a shop in downtown Kyoto and he was giving instructions to the manager. It was only after I inquired why he was uttering the name of the Hollywood actor that we established he thought I was Harrison Ford or, rather, that was how he pronounced my surname. When we arrived at the shop there was a distinct air of disappointment. Lost in translation, indeed.
The experience captured the strange sense of unreality that often pervades Japanese culture, at least to a foreigner’s eyes. I’d arrived in Kyoto after an effortless transfer from Tokyo airport to the main station and on to the “bullet” train for the journey south – 320 miles in just two and a quarter hours. Super slick and right on time, too, with the bonus of a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, until 1868, when a power struggle between the shogun and Emperor Meiji swung the way of the latter and the country’s political focus moved to Edo, now Tokyo.
In many ways the city still represents old Japan. Yes, you are never far from the cutting edge – witness the stunning steel and glass of the main station, the National Museum of Modern Art and the fact that the city is the headquarters of Nintendo. But ancient and modern are never far apart and there’s a definite awareness of the benefits of preserving the past, and not just for the sake of visitors – height restrictions on new buildings, for example, and strict rules on billboards.
Kyoto has been described as the most Japanese part of Japan and the centre of its culture. And no wonder, with mesmerising temples such as Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) and its beautiful garden, or Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), which shimmers in the adjacent lake.
Then there’s the 13th-century Sanjusangen-do, which houses 1,001 wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It’s also home to the statue of Senju-Kannon, which has 1,000 arms; bottles of sake are placed beneath it as an offering and you can burn a prayer stick for good fortune.
Temples aside – and there are 1,600 of them – Kyoto is a city that lends itself to being explored on foot or by bicycle. For a start, it’s laid out on a grid, it’s flat (locals call the city tray-land) and lies between three mountains (Arashiyama, Higashiyama and Kitayama).
Kyoto’s districts form a loose rectangle and each offers contrasting insights into local life. In Higashiyama, I made for the Tetsugaku-no-Michi, a lovely, cherry tree-lined canalside walk known as the Path of Philosophy, dedicated to the 20th-century thinker Nishida Kitaro. Residents by the canal not only make sure the path is litter free, but also clear the water of rubbish. It was a sight I found common in Japan where cleanliness is an essential part of the culture.
To the west, the district of Arashiyama and Sagano offers something different: a wander through a towering bamboo grove just outside the north gate of Tenryu-ji temple; it can get busy, but a walk among these incredible photogenic trees, with their strange, smooth trunks, is enchanting.
Nearby, the Hozu-Gawa river is dotted with flat-bottom boats, their boatmen armed with poles steering passengers along the steep-sided valley; down river, cormorant fishermen can be seen using their birds to catch fish.
I lunched late at Kurama Onsen (hot spring), tucking into a beautifully prepared bento box lunch, before stripping off and venturing outside to immerse myself in one of the sulphur spring baths – being sure to shower and rinse first (it is considered impolite to get soap in the bath).
The springs are meant to help with rheumatism, high blood pressure, backache and much more, but I simply felt cleansed and refreshed, if a bit flushed and slightly conspicuous.
Back in town, as the light began to fade, I hopped on a local bus and headed for the Nishiki food market, a riot of weird Japanese delicacies, the oddest of which was an octopus head stuffed with a quail egg, dyed red and served on a stick – I declined.
Even though the street was crowded everyone was unfailingly polite. It was the same at pedestrian crossings: hordes of people waited patiently for the green light, then crossed in unison.
A while later, I was among the busy, narrow streets of Gion, lined with traditional small shops, an area once known as the city’s “pleasure district” but now the place for drinking, entertainment and exquisite, kimono-clad geishas who shuffle demurely down the road.
Later that night, the right connections at my hotel, the Hyatt Regency, got me into a teahouse to watch a performance by a maiko (an apprentice geisha). We were led into a simply decorated backroom where I sat cross-legged as she introduced herself, offered sake and then sang and danced accompanied by an older geisha playing a three-stringed samisen. It was an delightful, slightly surreal experience during which – again – everyone was incredibly well mannered.
Alongside the onsen, the geisha and manga (a visit to the Kyoto International Manga Museum didn’t get me any closer to fathoming Japan’s obsession with cartoons and animation), the tea ceremony is also traditional to Japanese life, as I discovered the next day in the pristine setting of the Nishinotoin Tea House. Here, as I sipped from chawan (cups) of powdered bright green matcha and viscous koicha, I learned about the medicative/Buddhist roots of this strictly choreographed and ritualised event.
Suitably refreshed, I took a final wander through a city that is synonymous with all things green – despite the traffic and many visitors. With 200 gardens, 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites and the legacy of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, it is a place of obvious beauty, history and culture.
And yet an evocative contrast to all this refinement was provided by my YouTube-obsessed taxi driver, who, as we sped past another revered temple, captured the flip side of the Japanese character by showing me ever more ridiculous clips on his hand-held computer. In a way, it summed up the two main faces of Kyoto.