Friday, August 13, 2010

Japan, There I was: Kyoto Part One

What I really hope to avoid is falling into the bland "this happened, then this happened..." blog narrative. It's difficult. Chronology and details are important to storytelling, but I don't want to write and you don't want to read a labored summary. With pictures and words, I want to share an experience. That's my goal for the pinnacle of our trip, Kyoto. For an introduction, here's something I wrote our last night there:

I struggle to articulate my response. I don't think I've felt quite this foolishly excited about a place since my arrival in Spain. The word that I keep coming back to is "aesthetic." There is something indefinable about the "feel" I get from the Japan I've encountered. The aesthetic is quality. Pure, simple and enduring quality. Somehow, someway, Kyoto has managed what I thought impossible - a heritage that is rich, alive, and on display everywhere in some places obvious and most others hidden. This is an iconic Japan that has not been spoiled by touristy nonsense. There are cheap fans, dolls, and other things made in China along some streets, but overwhelming the things to be expected, there is a consistent attention to detail in the historic districts that is just such a treat to admire. It has done a lot to make me believe there is more out there than can be fathomed.

What is this "aesthetic" I was talking about? It took me awhile to digest, but it's in the details that stay with you: the crisp tatami mats, the careful woodwork that is gracefully aging, the weathered slate tiles roofs, the dimly lit paper doors, the babbling brooks with lanterns glowing softly overhead...
My first picture on arrival, Kyoto Gion.
Rocking my Wheaties-t, I march forth into the splendor of the scene.

One thing that struck me were the scores of Japanese tourists around. I doubt there are many places in Japan you can take a stroll down the street and pass someone wearing a kimono. In Kyoto, it was a regular occurrence. There were also loads of rickshaws. For the whole length of our trip, the heat was hardly bearable just standing in the sun, can't imagine what this guy goes through:
What we quickly realized is that Kyoto can be explored freely and easily. Without a whole lot of effort you stumble upon sites. A simple landmark can be a path to something beautiful and peaceful that you didn't expect to find; something not listed on the map but more significant for that very fact. More on that later.
Yasaka Shrine, less than a 15 minute walk from our hostel.
A decision to take a side street off the main road led us to this:
Take it in. Just take it in.
The pagoda in the distance led the way to Kiyomizu Temple. Not long after we entered, the clouds created this false sunset:
We followed the looping grounds of Kiyomizu absorbing the zen. As dusk began to settle, we began our long walk toward the antithesis of historic Kyoto, a deteriorating construct of the 1960's: the Kyoto Tower.
I don't know what it is with Asian cities and jumping on the "futuristic" tower bandwagon (Daegu's got one, I haven't been), but save for some nice views from the inside looking out, they're eyesores. The "downtown" area of Kyoto is a typical of any modern city and has little charm, but I'm glad we made it there and up the tower for this:
Is it a gagging blow-up doll? No. It's the Kyoto Tower mascot. I said the tower would be the antithesis of the historic and quaint picture I'm trying to paint. Though clumsily clad in a pink kimono (velcro kimono? it's a blow-up doll!), this lady ain't no geisha, and here we have a classic example of Asian contrasts: old culture meets new culture; results...baffling.

I'll conclude with my perhaps my favorite picture from the entire trip, taken later that night accidentally by James while he was trying to adjust his camera for night mode. Well done, enjoy:
Memoirs of a Geisha anyone?


  1. you saw geisha?! I remember going on a search for them one night while I was in Kyoto. I only saw one and was told she was not a 'true' geisha..whatever that means..

    I loved reading about your experience in Kyoto, it brought back so many memories! Isn't it the greatest city ever - so much culture and histroy yet not redundant or boring in any way. Everything is so fasinating, I couldn't get over it.