Kyoto: Keeping History Alive

Well, we finally made it to Kyoto. I’ve been waiting since the day we arrived in Japan to experience this magnificent city. The capital for almost a thousand years, Kyoto is brimming with Shinto shrines, obsessively manicured gardens, and traditional teahouses… not to mention the elusive geisha. Spared the bombings of World War II, Kyoto boasts prewar architecture, which makes it both culturally significant and enticing to tourists. Thankfully, the American forces (or perhaps simply fate) decided its historical importance outweighed its political consequence, and today it’s preserved for visitors and Japanese alike, keeping history alive.

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I found Kyoto to be exactly as I’d expected, perhaps even better: a city frozen in time with buildings dating back thousands of years. And I don’t just mean monuments and temples. Houses, themselves, more than five hundred years old, are barely altered minus a few modern improvements – like indoor plumbing. Walking down the streets of the Gion district, you frequently see local women wearing traditional kimono, holding their shopping baskets in one arm and adroitly lifting their constrictive skirt with the other, as they precariously shuffle along in their tabi and geta (socks and sandals). A common sight in movies, perhaps, but not one that I am accustomed to in Yokosuka.

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It’s difficult to compare Kyoto and her modern replacement, Tokyo. They couldn’t be more dissimilar… like Charleston versus New York City. Kyoto is steeped in tradition and maintains its historical appearance. Here, family names and connections are significant – old money as opposed to new. Private clubs and teahouses are prominent; you must be invited to attend. And nothing can be changed. One wouldn’t dare remodel a row house or even alter its paint color. Things must remain just as they were.

Such reverence for tradition stands in stark contrast to Tokyo’s modernity. Dominated by colorful lights, impossibly tall skyscrapers, and video billboards on every corner, Japan’s contemporary capital embraces the new, while its historic counterpart desperately clings to the old.

However, the modern world is creeping up quickly, no matter how hard they fight. Though buildings are limited to six-stories (to preserve the glorious views), neon and metal have invaded Kyoto. While it is not yet the techno-behemoth that is Tokyo, Kyoto is transforming. And this “progress” was visible from the very moment we arrived. A mere 280 miles from Tokyo, you could fly to Kyoto. Actually… no. You can’t. You can fly to Osaka and then take a short train ride to Kyoto. Looking now on my handy-dandy app, it would cost a little less than $500. However, Japan has a better form of transportation: the Shinkansen – or bullet train. Less than half the cost of a plane ticket, the shinkansen is a comfortable ride that has a Hogwarts Express feel, with a nice young woman who offers you “drinks and pasties” from the trolley. You can even purchase alcohol and have a grand time, should you wish! Wicked fast – we clocked our own train at a speed of more than 180 mph – it is always on time. In fact, 2015 had an average delay of a mere 54 seconds. Alex, my parents, and I caught the Shinkansen in Yokohama and in just two hours, we arrived at Kyoto Station, ready for our journey back in time.

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But that’s not quite what we found. A massive complex that spans an entire city block, Kyoto Station is the hub of local and long-distance trains, and it encompasses an enormous underground shopping mall and food court. The building, itself, is a modern marvel. While constructed of shiny steel, the inelastic material is skillfully sculpted into undulating curves, contained by a latticework of metal reminiscent of stained glass. By day, the sun reflects off the frame, illuminating the station like a shimmering spider web. After sunset, the interior light glows bright, acting as a beacon for the entire city, clearly visible against the night sky.

Obviously the station is not emblematic of the city’s past, but its future. No matter how it tries, Kyoto cannot avoid tomorrow, just as Japan itself could not hold back the West. Slowly, everything must change.

But in the meantime, we intended to make the most of our 48 hours in this beautiful place. To help us see as much as possible, we hired a private guide, Keiko. It was certainly a splurge, as Kyoto, like all of Japan, has wonderful public transit. But most of the museums and historical sites only offer small tidbits in English. I frequently find myself staring at a beautiful vase or painting or even a shrine and wondering what it is, who made it, why it’s been preserved, and what it means to the Japanese. This time, in this place, I wanted to know. I wanted to learn as much as I could from this exceptional city.

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Keiko proved to be the best part of the trip. Not only was she knowledgeable, she was clearly devoted to keeping the “real” Kyoto alive. While it sometimes manifested itself in judgmental statements and snooty comments (hilarious to us – the outsiders – who could never hope to fit in), her heart was always in the right place. She, like many others, wished to hold the changing tides at bay.

We began in the Gion district, famous for – you guessed it – geisha! (Actually, to be correct, Kyoto refers to them as “geiko,” meaning “children of the arts.”) The role of geiko is confusing to many foreigners, and I want to stress that the Gion district and its intimacy with the geiko is in no way similar to the red light district of Amsterdam. Geiko are not prostitutes, despite what movies might indicate. They are artists, trained in various traditional mediums such as the shamisen (a Japanese lute with three strings), singing, and dancing. They also study the tea ceremony, and – perhaps most importantly – the art of conversation. This last seems odd to those of us who believe our own banter to be above equal ;), but geiko are skilled at making the guest feel at home while deftly using word-play to enhance the tête-à-tête.

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Keiko was clearly in awe of these female artists. She danced, herself, as a child, and still attends concerts frequently. A cultural connoisseur, she personally owned over 40 silk kimono (which cost anywhere from $3,000 to $100,000 a piece), highly unusual in today’s Japan. When I asked her about the young girls we often see visiting the shrines wearing traditional dress, she laughed. “Polyester,” she proclaimed. “That’s all they are. Borrowed kimono from a shop, which dresses them like geisha so they may take pictures.” Her disdain slightly embarrassed me, as I’d considered something similar for the novelty. But to her, a fake kimono was appalling, unacceptable. It visibly upset her to think of such treasures being so devalued.

Unfortunately, and in fear of offending Keiko, I must admit that our walk through Gion was more akin to a hunting expedition than the scenic stroll she intended. We, along with many other tourists, went out in search of the legendary geiko, like rare animals in the wild – majestic and scarce. Sadly we were unsuccessful, though we did catch a glimpse of a few maiko (apprentice geiko) en route to one of the many private teahouses in the area. I must stress the word private. Geiko only attend parties hosted by good acquaintances or their good acquaintances’ good acquaintances. Nobodies like us simply cannot call up an okiya (geiko house) and ask the okā-san (proprietress) to set up a dinner. That is absolutely out of the question. Again, it is all about connections. Not cash. According to Keiko, even President George W. Bush was unable to reserve a room at Kyoto’s leading teahouse.

I am sad to say that the following morn, we again disappointed our sophisticated guide. She’d originally planned a walking tour through the north of Kyoto, hoping to point out spots often forgotten by tourists and guidebooks alike. However, she soon realized that while we would love to take that tour someday, with only 36 hours left in the city, we’d prefer to see the “boring and overcrowded” sights. And thank goodness she conceded! Because they were anything but boring, especially for this art history nerd who longed for something authentic (as opposed to Tokyo’s reconstructions and recreations.) Crowded, on the other hand, was quite an apt description.

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For the sake of brevity, I won’t detail every castle and shrine we visited. You must come yourself to truly appreciate all that Kyoto has to offer. The two most alluring sights of the day were the metallic temples, as I’ve nicknamed them. First was the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (or Kinkaku-ji). Famous throughout all of Japan, it is a sight to behold. Hidden behind a forest of trees, the temple slowly emerges as a leafy curtain rises to reveal the glistening sanctuary, perched upon a tiny island surrounded by a vast moat. The glaring sunlight reflects off the golden gables and is mirrored in the still waters below. Splendid and unique, it looked to me like the Rococo had invaded Japan. Though when you consider it was built in 1397, perhaps the French were the actual mimics.

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But despite the spectacle, it only takes the silver medal in my book. The gold is reserved for its younger brother: the Silver Temple. Irony intended. Ginkaku-ji – or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion – is by far the more idyllic spot. Here the simple wooden façade harmonizes with the natural surroundings. (The name silver is misleading as it is made of humble materials.) Though perfectly manicured, the garden feels more like a fairyland, a place where beautiful winged creatures might suddenly dance before you. And though I’m not an avid gardener (truthfully, I kill all green things), I found myself gazing at the moss, tracing its growth up the ancient tree trunks. The green was so intense when juxtaposed against the nearly black wood, I couldn’t help but stare. We stayed nearly an hour in the garden, most likely frustrating poor Keiko, who desperately tried to keep us moving. But I was entranced by this place. Indeed, I still cannot describe it without feeling a slight tingle.

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Booked on a 4pm train, we had just one half-day left. Keiko graciously created an itinerary for a long walk through the outskirts of Kyoto, ending with the glorious Arashiyama bamboo forest. Though we were wary of being lost in the Japanese highlands, we ventured forth, armed with newly purchased umbrellas to stave off the rain.

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The adventure, itself, was the best part. With only a hand-written note to guide us, we followed her instructions to Saga Arashiyama and then taxied to our first stop: Nenbutsuji. She described it as a small temple at the top of the hill. It wasn’t. Rather, it is a miniscule temple, closed to the public with windows shuttered against prying eyes. But I didn’t even wish to see the temple. Nestled atop the mountain, the nondescript building is surrounded by 1200 faces, carved into the rocks. Every one unique. Some smile, others frown. Some are old with wrinkles etched into the stone. Others boast young, broad grins and ears that stick straight out. More interestingly, some are so disfigured by flora that you cannot even read the faces, while others are stony gray and weather-worn, not a speck of green upon them. And a rare few look as though they are untouched by time – like Kyoto itself.

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We ambled down from one temple to the next, soaking in the majesty of it all. There were no signs, no descriptions. But they were not needed. We knew when we walked through a graveyard, piled high with headstones, and we appreciated the homes that dotted the mountainside, all of which were preserved in the style of old. Stopping for tea here, cake there, and souvenirs everywhere we took our time until we finally reached the bottom of the mountain (huge thanks to Keiko for organizing the trip down the hill versus up!), at last reaching the legendary bamboo forest.

At first we weren’t sure if we’d found it. There were a few stalks on either side of the walk, but nothing too magical. But as we continued, following the trail of like-minded tourists, the shoots began to grow, taller and taller, until one felt as if they touched the sky. The path wound right and then left, leaving you swimming in bamboo with no clear escape. The vibrant hues of Avocado, India, Lime, and Emerald greens mixed together to form a blur as you walked through the never-ending tunnel. Only the smallest sliver of baby blue above guided the eye forward.

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As we came to the end of the forest, we found ourselves back where we started: Saga Arashiyama station. Quite abruptly, the world turned from green to gray, the drizzling rain finding us once more.

Kyoto is a place of beauty. A wonder to behold and truly worth the effort to preserve. I cannot imagine Japan without it. It is our imagination come to life with ancient buildings, glistening temples, and natural wonders. You don’t need to be a dreamer to envision a life here before technology, before the neon. Time seems to stand still, a final historical outpost, fighting off the progressive front.

It’s not all paper walls and tatami mats. It’s a city, and life moves on just as it would anywhere else. But I stand with Keiko in hoping that Kyoto remains as it has always been. And if that means I forego wearing a polyester kimono with plastic flowers in my hair to preserve its sanctity, then so be it. (Though I’m not sure I’ll shell out 3k for the real deal.)

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