Land of 10,000 Temples (a Visit to Kyoto)

Greetings, y’all. I usually like to start off my blogs with some unrelated entrée, but today, let’s cut to the chase. I went to Kyoto to meet my friend and former colleague Tom; here are some musings about my trip.

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D4FB5741-35B9-44BE-8CA0-21B21732B37DThe first thing I noticed was the colour scheme. Or rather, the absence-of-colour scheme. Despite the old wooden town houses and gargantuan temple complexes, most of the city is modern. But the modern city is a dusty melange of brown, grey and black. It’s almost violently unobtrusive.

Kyoto is a strange place, and I was apprehensive about visiting. Japanese people have warned me that Kyoto can be moody and solemn, too hot in summer and too cold in winter. By the same token, Kyotoites can be unapproachable, haughty about their culture, obsessively indirect. A favourite story from a student: an Osakan mother-in-law, being given undercooked rice by her son’s wife, will say ‘you needed to cook this longer.’ A Kyotoite mother-in-law will say ‘rice has become hard these days’. It turns out mother-in-law jokes cross all cultural boundaries. But actually, I liked Kyoto’s restrained colour scheme and its quiet streets. It felt peaceful and fresh, like breathing in crisp mountain air.

474a8007-1516-4d0e-b1a1-97b8609fb260.jpegAnd then I met Tom1 at Kiyomizu-dera, where we were greeted by a flash flood of colour. Vermillion, emerald and electric blue, the brilliant pink of blossom and the gold of the temple’s trappings. Designs that looked almost Aztec. Women in day-glo-bright kimonos flocked around us- the city’s rental kimono business is in good shape. The whole place was a storm of colour against a severe grey-green backdrop.


Unfortunately, the actual temple was buried under scaffolding. Until I came to Japan, I’d never seen a temple under scaffolding- somehow the glossy tourist brochures and the classical painters never show you that landscape. I’ve always felt like religious buildings under renovation look a bit undignified, like somewhere, some deity or other has been skiving on the job. But hey, there was a pagoda. There’s always a pagoda.

Something Old, Something New

7508D9B3-D17E-4D9E-BB54-2D4F460B6E71Kyoto’s cup runs over with history, and so walking through the city streets you’re liable to find some heritage site by accident. In our case, it was Hokan-ji, which in its current incarnation dates from 1440. Back then, the Ashikaga shoguns ruled over Japan, dealing with increasingly violent peasant revolts2 while inventing the tea ceremony, and gradually losing control of their country. Meanwhile in Europe, English longbowmen were being gradually driven out of Normandy, and Portuguese sailors were tentatively opening up the African coast. It was a while ago, to put it mildly, but nowhere near as old as the original building, which dated from 597, before ‘Japan’ really existed.

We were on our way to the hallucinatory Golden Pavillion (Kinkaku-ji), but we had to take the subway and a bus. Kyoto isn’t huge, but its most famous locations are scattered widely across the city: Arashiyama in the west, Kiyomizu-dera in the east, Nijō-jō nestled in the centre. I always like having the excuse to explore, so I wasn’t complaining. Eventually, we tumbled off the bus on the northwest outskirts of the city, and found ourselves back in a pleasure garden and Zen temple in medieval Japan. Or so we thought.

Yep, turns out it’s a reconstruction too. Built in the 1950s. Turns out a young monk (Hayashi Yoken) got the strange idea that there were some inconsistencies between the stringent, disciplined asceticism of Zen Buddhism, and worshipping at an actual gold-plated palace; and burnt the whole thing down. Goddammit Japan. Between the wars and the earthquakes and the religious zealots, how are the geeks and tourists supposed to get their fix of history? Fortunately, the gardens were out of this world, and there was an eighteenth-century tea house by way of apology. You should definitely still go. Just don’t drop any cigarette butts.

From the 8-bit bar.

After razing the temple to the ground again for good measure3, we sidled off for  drinks on Ponto-cho, a street of bars and restaurants along a cut in the river. We found a tiny 8-bit bar with a resident DJ and vintage Mario Kart, and I lost twice. As a ‘punishment’ I drank a shot of tequila and mint, which was nicer than it had any right to be. We headed on to another establishment, where we chatted to some Kyoto denizens, who didn’t seem reserved or unapproachable at all. And none of them complained about their mothers-in-law.
Or maybe they did, and I just didn’t notice.

The Hollow Castle

The next morning, we rose early and headed for Nijō Castle, where shoguns hobnobbed with emperors, and where the final shogun laid down his arms and surrendered his title in 1867. From the get-go, Nijō is spectacular. The colossal gate gives way to a maze of courtyards leading to another gate, dazzlingly ornate, carved with cranes and turtles and flowers and smothered in gold leaf. This is the Kara-mon, where the shogun received the emperor during his visit in 1626. In case you’re wondering, the shogun usually lived in Tokyo, but the shogunate was the real powerhouse; at this time in the country’s history, the emperors were sacred figures but they didn’t have much political power left.


Inside this gate lurks the shogun’s Kyoto palace, all draughty wooden corridors with gold-leaf painted screens of tigers and endless meeting rooms and council chambers. I’m doing it a disservice- it was unique, one of the most remarkable buildings I’ve explored in Japan. But I’m running out of words to describe gleaming gold and cold wood, and they wouldn’t let me take any pictures. The plum blossom swayed in the breeze outside, and we took a breather on a bench.

There was one thing missing, though; the ‘castle’ had no keep. It burned down (surprise surprise) in 1750, and was never rebuilt. You start to see why modern Japanese architects rebuilt their world in concrete and tile: it might not be pretty, but it gets the fucking job done. The fact that the keep was never rebuilt is interesting in itself, because it points to something about this castle- it was first and foremost a stately pleasure dome, not a fortification. Nijō was all for show.


The camera never seems to reach the top.

One more train voyage, and we landed at our final pitstop, a bamboo grove and Zen temple on the city’s western fringe. The bamboo grove is eerie, as they tend to be, out of proportion like something sketched in a spooky children’s story. Those little leaves don’t look like they could possibly sustain trees so tall. Tourists flooded the path and started constructing a second forest out of selfie sticks. But once we ducked into the garden of Tenryuji Temple, everything was sweetness and peace.

Then we climbed the low peak above the bamboo grove, and surveyed our kingdom. Kyoto in one direction, with Mt. Hiei lurking behind it in the woods. In the other direction, a mountain gorge and a river snaking away into obscurity.

On the trusty cliché that a picture speaks a thousand words4, I’ll leave you with some pictures from Arashiyama.

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1 Tom and me used to work together at ZigZag Education, a small publishing company and possible rift between worlds in Bristol, England. Neither of us have ever quite recovered.

2 There was a major peasant revolt the very next year, called the Kakitsu Uprising. Peasants who demanded a debt amnesty blockaded the gates of the city, burned the houses of rich merchants, and generally had a party; some samurai also got involved on the sly.

3 We didn’t actually do this.

4 Probably a stupid sentiment for a blogger.


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