Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part V: Kyoto

Kyoto is one of the world’s cultural capitals. There are numerous cultural heritage sites, determined as such by Unesco. I had heard about Kyoto and formed picture of my mind, as one does. But Kyoto at first sight is just like any other Japanese city: suburbs with tower blocks, industry and grey inner city filled with traffic and people. In fact, a lot like other cities in the world. While at the same time undeniably Japanese.

How so? The street signs are all in Japanese of course. Secondly, almost everyone in the street looks Japanese. This may seem very obvious but I come from the Netherlands and I live in an area where white European ethnicity is a minority. In the Rotterdam underground the people around me are from all over the world, skin colours from extremely pale to dark black. In Japan we really stood out. Especially my blue eyes and light brown curly hair drew attention. The population of Japan is much more homogenous. Thirdly, temples and shrines are a natural part of the package: small shrines would be embedded in shopping arcades or on street corners in residential areas. Fourth, the architecture of freestanding houses often includes tiled roofs with ornamentations that are unmistakeably Japanese. Finally, there are no trash cans in Japan. Nowhere in the streets. There are vending machines for soft drinks (ice coffee!) every fifty yards but public places to get rid of the cans and bottles are extremely scarce. Yet the streets are clean and tidy. Either everyone throws it away at home (which I suspect) or Japanese eat PET bottles with their sake.

But: Kyoto! There are more interesting things to tell about Kyoto besides the absence of trash facilities. (For example stores advertising with “Enjoy your life! Enjoy your socks style!” but even that is beside the point.)

Did you ever read Memoires of a Geisha? (I only read the book, didn’t see the film.) It is set in Gion, the old entertainment district of Kyoto. The narrow streets, the tea houses, the riverside? Now I’ve seen them. They were different then I had imagined of course, and I didn’t really see the inside of a tea/sake house. They are pretty closed, introverted institutions, probably focusing more on exclusivity for specific (regular) customers than on attracting a more general audience. But still: the tiny streets lined with wooden houses and shop fronts, kimono shops (and accessories), specialty shops for fans and wooden slippers, the works – all there.

In Holland traditional wear is a tourist affair. No so in Japan! Especially in Kyoto there are many women in the street dressed in kimono. Colourful, beautiful patterned, with folded obi or a big bow on their back, on slippers or heels. Like everyday wear, no dress-ups. And women of all ages, and not just in Gion but all over the city. We were delighted.

At the end of one street we encountered a large temple complex. Temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto) are pretty easy to find in Kyoto because they are everywhere. This was a Zen Buddhist temple, the oldest in Kyoto, and by the looks of it a pretty wealthy one. It was open for visitors. So we bought a ticket, left our shoes at the door, walked into the temple complex, and left the real world.

I like deserts and seas because they possess a kind of emptiness that is soothing. This was a cultural, cultivated emptiness. Rooms consisting of little more than measured tatami mats, dark wooden beams and paper or light wooden screens, with one painting on a screen or on the paper wall. Gardens of a few rocks and white pebbles raked into patters. And other gardens with the moss carefully maintained with tweezers (I saw!) to make them ultimate reflections of the nature of the universe. Could be the universality of nature, one of those. I felt I was floating around the temple. In the end we came to the great hall where the ceiling was covered with an enormous painting of two dragons, to watch over the Buddhist teachings. They circled in my head for a long time afterwards.

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