March 9, 2014
Kyoto, where not just the gold glitters
Kyoto is an anagram of Tokyo but the contrast with the capital’s throbbing modernity could not be more complete — how many cities anywhere have no less than 18 UNESCO world heritage sites?
The seat of the imperial court for over a millennium (794-1869), Kyoto can justly lay claim to incarnating Japanese history. Before we start the tourism, a potted history to underline the point. The traditional date for Japan’s first emperor is 660 BC but perhaps the real turning-point for leaving prehistory behind came around 300 BC when two basic items became widespread — metals (including iron) and rice, creating the bases for a modern Japan (but also for centuries of feudalism). For two centuries before the capital was established in Kyoto (794), the centre was Nara where Prince Shotoku pioneered the first centralized state in a newly Buddhist Japan in 593 but thereafter it was all Kyoto until the late 19th century.
Kyoto was the capital in every sense for four centuries until the Kamakura shogunate moved political power there in 1192 although not the imperial court. But when Emperor Go-Daigo briefly became both Japan’s titular and real ruler (1333-6), a new shogunate under the Ashikaga clan decided to move back to Kyoto to keep an eye on things. Following over a century of feudal violence, Tokyo (or Edo as it was then called) became a political centre for the first time in 1600 with the strong Tokugawa shogunate there but the imperial court stayed in Kyoto throughout until 1869 — the birthdate of modern Japan with the Meiji Restoration.
Yet even the Tokugawas so identified with Edo/Tokyo did not shun Kyoto — the first of that line, Ieyasu, built Nijo Castle there in 1603 (a World Heritage Site since 1994 with beautiful wall paintings).
Not that I would recommend Nijo Castle to the tourist with time to see only one sight (something I would recommend even less — nobody should think of spending less than two days in Kyoto if they want to have some idea of what this city has to offer). In hindsight I would find it hard to pick that single sight. Perhaps (having visited Japan as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics campaign was reaching its height) I would go for gold — choosing between the 1,001 gilt Buddhas of the Sanjusangen-do temple and the Golden Pavilion of the Rokuon-ji temple.
But which of the two? A tough choice indeed,. The Golden Pavilion with its gold foil on lacquer in the midst of a lake with a verdant backdrop is the more visually stunning but somehow I found all those rows and rows of Buddhas more impressive.
Both temples are mediaeval — the Rokuon-ji started as a retirement villa for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397 while the Sanjusangen-do is even older, having been established in 1164 by the Taira clan (the great rivals of the Minamotos, who moved political power to Kamakura a generation later).
In neither case is the glittering gold the sum total of attractions. Rukuon-ji (also a World Cultural Heritage Site) has various charming pond gardens, some ancient monastic buildings and a picturesque teahouse. Sanjusangen-do has a striking South Gate, a temple hall 120 metres long (once used for archery contests) and several larger statues other than the 1,001 gilt Buddhas (the Thunder and Wind Gods are especially impressive, not to say intimidating).
Gold obviously draws the eye first but Kyoto has countless other temples worth a visit. One of them — the Kiyomizu-Dera, perched on Mount Otowa to the east of the city — even gives you the bonus of a grand panoramic view of Kyoto in its entirety, along with the surrounding mountainous countryside. Indeed allow me to change my advice in midstream — if I had to recommend a single sight for the lightning tourist, it might well be Kiyomizu with its splendid view and a scenic temple in its own right.
The Kiyomizu temple not only hovers over but predates Kyoto — it was founded in 780 (Kyoto in 794) although the current imposing structures date from the early 17th century (from which period a trading agreement with Dutch merchants on the premises is pictorially recorded).
There are some beautiful water-falls to the east of the main sanctuary whose water gives you money, health or wisdom depending from which side you drink.
There are countless more temples and shrines but two more deserve a mention within even the briefest summary of Kyoto’s delights. Far more downtown than the Kiyomizu temple, the Heian Jingu shrine (named after the Heian period from 794 to 1185) enjoyed royal patronage from the times of Kyoto’s founder, Japan’s 50th emperor Kanmu (born 737, reigned 781-806), right through to the Meiji Restoration over 1,000 years later.
The shrine consists of a large compound of green-roofed buildings surrounded by beautiful gardens. The Jishu shrine serves a Cupid function for Japanese — if the lovers can walk the 10 metres between two special stones with their eyes shut, they are on the right track.
But Kyoto’s attractions are not limited to its architecture. Tourists are well served by theatres which, in exchange for an hour of your time, will give you a glimpse into most forms of Japanese culture — the tea ceremony, flower arrangements, koto (Japanese harp) playing, gagaku (classical music and dancing in stately costumes), kyogen (comic relief for Noh plays), kyomai (Kyoto-style dancing) and bunraku (puppet plays).
The Herald also had the good fortune to be in Kyoto at the time of the Gion Matsuri summer festival when the streets were lined with colourful carnival floats.
Until now Kyoto has been described as almost an open-air historical museum but it has all the modern facilities — comfortable hotels, a wide variety of restaurants, bars and shopping (including kimonos, antiques and traditional crafts as well as the modern basics). But hotel accommodation offers one interesting variant — in most of Japan you are probably best off in a modern hotel unless you are slightly adventurous but Kyoto’s ryokan (Japanese inns which might outnumber the more conventional hotels) offer you all the modern comforts in a traditional setting.