s dusk sets in, glimmers of Kyoto’s paper lanterns begin to flourish like cherry blossom. The December sky radiates in orange, deepening the ancient roof tiles below. The hills have shed its autumn veil, leaving thickets of withered maples to persevere through the winter coldness.
Passing the centuries-old wooden houses tended by generations of monks, I progress through the stone path in a deep sincerity. The path, flanked by low bamboo fences, descends from the temple into the city.
Inside the city, lights from nearby tea rooms glint off the Kamo River like stars flickering in the night sky. Wooden lattice doors slide open in silence as figures in silk kimono exit in effortless elegance. The light staccato of their treading getas echo softly through the alleys.
Along the cobblestone lanes are shops displaying parasols, painted slippers, and exquisite desserts of all kinds. Tea, roasting yams, and sake scent the surrounding air. The night whispers, its beauty is only perceived in what is left unsaid.
Kyoto, the thousand-year capital, is not just any ancient city, but the cultural centre of Japan. What Tokyo boasts in modernity, Kyoto riposte graciously with history, poetry, and ceremonial intrigue.
Kyoto, the thousand-year capital
, is not just any ancient city, but the
cultural and intellectual centre of Japan. It is a place where serving a cup of tea requires years of intensive study. In many ways, Kyoto is the arch-rival of Tokyo
. Prior to Meiji Emperor’s relocation to Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto has always been the capital of Japan. It was chosen as the nation’s capital in year 794, the beginning of Heian period.
For more than a thousand years, Kyoto congregated the nation’s best talents under the imperial court, solidifying its undisputed cultural supremacy in Japan. What Tokyo boasts in modernity, Kyoto riposte graciously with history, poetry, and ceremonial intrigue.
Walking the streets of Kyoto is like a trip to an open-air museum. Over a thousand years of history as the nation’s capital results in over 2,000 temples and shrines. Countless ochaya
, ateliers, gardens, ryokans
, and other historical buildings cluster in this ancient city.
This cultural legacy was nearly destroyed during World War II as United States designated Kyoto as the target for their atomic bomb. It was at the insistence of Henry L. Stimson, then Secretary of War, that got the city removed from the list and replaced it with Nagasaki. Concerns for Kyoto’s cultural significance and potential political backlash of the Japanese were the primary reason for this replacement.
Kyoto is the epitome of Buddhist refinement and poise. Central to the traditional Japanese aesthetics is the concept of wabi-sabi. This aesthetic philosophy manifest itself physically through rustic, asymmetrical, and irregular designs.
Kyoto is not only a city with culture and history, it is also the epitome of Buddhist refinement and poise. Central to the traditional Japanese aesthetics is the concept of wabi-sabi. Derived from the Three Universal Truths of Mahayana Buddhism, wabi-sabi emphasizes the imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness of life.
This aesthetic philosophy manifest itself physically through rustic, asymmetrical, and irregular designs. The purpose is to guide the individual to attain spiritual cultivation through meditating and observing the artifacts and its surrounding.
In Kyoto, this design is most prominent in the temples and teahouses throughout the city. Thatched roofs hang over bare clay walls and threadbare wooden columns. Gardens display minimalistically arranged rocks, gravels, and pruned trees.
On the tatami lies a clay tea bowl with uneven sides and chipped bottom. Behind it hangs a simple scroll and the presentation of ikebana – a disciplined art form embodied in a sparse arrangement of blooms, stalks, and leaves. Literary and religious philosophies are expressed through this arrangement, in concert with the hanging scroll.
Kyoto is endowed with an abundance of natural surrounding. The city, modeled after the ancient Chinese capital Chang’an, is arranged according to the principles of Chinese feng shui.
Culture is not the only thing Kyoto has to offer. It is also endowed with an abundance of gorgeous natural surrounding. The city, modeled after the ancient Chinese capital Chang’an (present day Xi’an), is arranged according to the principles of Chinese feng shui. It is enclosed by mountains on three sides, leaving the southern side open for the three major rivers to flow through it.
This geographic variation produce a wide range of sceneries and biodiversity in close proximity to the city core, which allows for convenient access by foot or local transportation.
There is Arashiyama, a Historic Site with hundreds of wild monkeys and a magnificent bamboo forest
; Philosopher’s Walk, a cherry-tree lined canal in the northern part of the city where sakura showers the pathway with its blooms every spring; Kamo River, a waterway where people picnic along the riverbanks. It cuts through central Kyoto and the Gion district – Japan’s most well-known geisha district.
Of course, there are also the various mountains with temples and shrines that dates back several hundred years. Their gold and crimson foliage in late autumn is legendary.
Perhaps it is the intrigue of yūgen that people are so unwillingly attracted to. Maybe the key is not to try at all, but to return to a state of mindlessness amid the rustling leaves and flowing water.
Being the ancient capital of a culture that is rather mystifying, Kyoto encompasses a vast undercurrent of delicate distinctions not even the most discerning could master with full confidence. The results is that many foreigners feel frustrated by the inability to fully penetrate its core, feeling like an outsider even after life-long dedication to this city.
Even locals often find it challenging to grasp the demanding observances of Kyoto’s custom. Perhaps it is this intrigue, as conceptualized by the philosophy of yūgen
, that people are so attracted to. Maybe the key is not to try at all, but to return to the spiritual self, a state of mindlessness amid the rustling leaves and flowing water.