FINDING MY WAY IN KYOTO
by Bob Brooke
Ancient Japan resides in
Kyoto, Japan's most traditional city and its spiritual heart. For more
than ten centuries, it remained the center of Japanese civilization, and
monuments to its glory are everywhere. As I wandered the narrow streets
of Imperial Kyoto, I suddenly found myself lost in a sea of smiling
faces–alone in a world where I could neither ask for directions nor read
street signs. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a young Japanese man
stopped to ask in broken English if he could help me. I nodded yes. His
introduced himself as Akihiro Yamamoto.
Akihiro took me to a small shop nearby to purchase some sandwiches and
fruit and then the two of us stepped into a temple garden a few doors up
the street. There we ate our lunch and exchanged information about each
other. I asked him if he could suggest some places to visit that would
show me the essence of Kyoto, indeed of Japan. He replied that he could
do more than suggest, he show me his beloved city himself.
As we walked along narrow streets, I got the feeling I was in the real
Japan, unlike Tokyo that’s a giant international metropolis. The dark
wood of its ancient buildings seemed to welcome me with a mystery and
coziness that can only be found here. I knew I had come to the right
place, for no visit to Japan is complete without time spent in this
ancient city, exploring its sights and finding peace and serenity in its
temple gardens. In addition to its many temples, my new-found friends
and I discovered palaces and royal gardens, as well as imperial villas
lining the avenues laid out in the 8th century.
Scores of shrines and temples—about 200 Shinto shrines and over 1,500
Buddhist temples—bear witness to Kyoto's position as Japan's capital and
cultural center for over 1,100 years, from 794 to 1868.
Akihiro pointed out that though Kyoto’s venerable roots belay its size,
it’s a sprawling metropolis. At the same time it has the warmth and
feeling of a small village. Perhaps it's the height of its wooden
buildings. A two-story house stands almost as tall as I. Everything is
on a small scale, and I suppose that to most Americans, the old city
must resemble an oversized Liliput. Japanese customs prevail and
politeness and courteousness to the extreme are normal routine.
In contrast to the houses that line the narrow streets, the large
temples ramble, sometimes taking up an entire city block. Akihiro took
me to the Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Gold Pavilion, one of the
grandest,. Fire destroyed the original building, built as a villa for a
Shogun over 600 years ago. It was later converted into a temple. What I
saw was an exact replica surrounded by one of the loveliest of the royal
To appreciate the power and might of the Tokugawa Shoguns, Japan's most
powerful military dictators, we next visited Nijo Castle, their
residence until 1868. Built in 1603 as the first residence of
Leyasu, first Shogun of the Tokugawa family,
it resembled a fortress more than a home. Despite its moat, turrets, and
massive entrance, this was obviously no fortress, but the spacious,
glittering residence of a military dictator who could afford to rival
the emperor in the size and show off his palace.
Beyond the ornate iron-plated East Gate is a wide court with five
connected buildings. All are profusely decorated with rich wood
carvings, sculptures, murals, painted sliding doors and gilded ceilings.
Soon, Akihiro and I stood in the simplicity of the Ryoan-ji Temple,
contrasting to the lavish beauty of Nijo Castle. The rock and sand
garden of this Zen temple is probably one of the most photographed spots
in Japan. The famous garden, 15 stones arranged in groups of 5, 2, 3, 2,
3, on a bed of raked sand, is both simple and suggestive.
To get an idea of what the first imperial palace looked like in 794, we
next visited the Heian Shrine. Constructed in 1895 to celebrate the
1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto, its builders modeled it
after the first imperial palace, complete with gardens burgeoning with
cherry and iris blossoms in season.
Kyoto seemed full of national treasures—buildings, towns, even people.
The Japanese revere anything that has to do with their history and
culture. One of these, the Sanjusangendo Hall, dating from 1266, is best
known for its wooden image of the Thousand Handed Goddess, the Buddhist
personification of Mercy or Compassion. The Japanese sculptor, Tankei,
created it when he was 82 years old. Flanking it were 1,000 other,
smaller, standing images of the goddess.
Within Imperial Kyoto, a model of noble simplicity, lies the Imperial
Palace where the Japanese emperors held reign for centuries.
The Gosho stands as the centerpiece of a 200-acre park complex
surrounded by high walls. Open to the general public for one week in
early April and one week in early November each year, it’s a
Chinese-inspired ceremonial ensemble, spacious, harmonious, symmetrical
and dignified. There’s a scale and serenity to the Gosho which is very
unusual in Japan, and especially in Kyoto, where everything is so scaled
down. Built in the traditional style in 1855 after fire and renovation,
it’s a restful place and is one of Japan's few examples of monumental
The crowning achievement of Japanese architecture is the Katsura Villa,
which I viewed as abstract art on a large scale and one of several
distinct functional styles in traditional Japanese building. This
building with its garden is perhaps the ultimate expression of that
peculiar Japanese mentality in which discipline is so ingrained in art,
building, and nature that they become one.
Its builders used only the simplest of natural materials with logic to
produce the timeless, distant, abstract beauty of clear water and utter
silence. Nothing is out of place. No human passion or daily disorder
could survive in this fragile work of art. Katsura is an experience of
the mind, a cerebral thought of great subtlety, uniquely Japanese. The
garden, organized around a pond, features teahouses individually
designed for each of the four seasons and planned so that there are no
blind spots. Wherever I stood seemed to be the right place.
A bit tired from an exhausting afternoon of sightseeing, Akihiro
suggested that we step into a neighborhood tea house and enjoy a calming
cup of jasmine tea. As I rested and gathered my thoughts in the serenity
of the teahouse’s garden, I realized I had found not only my way through
this beautiful city, but a friend.
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