Jennifer and I have shown a very picturesque side of Japan. Geishas, delicious bowls of Ramen noodles, stories of meticulously executed tea ceremony and others. Experiences and accounts that portray this country as a perfectly buffed nugget of gold. While all very accurate and true, there are some aspects of Japan we have yet to report on. In my experience these can be found in one place; Kyoto.
In his book “Lost Japan” author Alex Kerr exclaims “Kyoto hates Kyoto”. Diving into this statement Kerr explains that, since the capital had moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in the late 1860’s, Kyoto has been playing catchup ever since. They envied the new capital’s gleam, innovations and global appeal and according to Kerr, did a very good job of dismantling the very thing that made Kyoto special; its culture.
If you really want to understand what the man means, read the man’s book. I suggest you do. I am writing this merely to help illustrate his point. You see, as I read his book and in particular that chapter, I became upset at the nature of the writings. How could what he was saying about the famous city be true. After all it is synonymous with physical beauty, is endowed with possibly the greatest concentration of temples, shrines and gardens anywhere in Japan and by virtue of over 1000 years of pairings such as Shogun – Daimyo, Noh – Kabuki, Samurai – Geisha, Pottery – Tea Ceremony, Calligraphy – Haiku, Kyoto has earned unflinching cultural perspective. Who is he to speak out so boldly?
Well, Alex Kerr has become an expert on the Japanese condition (all while gleaning this through full immersion into Japanese art forms such as Noh theater, Caligraphy, Zen Buddhism etc.) and he is dead on. The Kyoto I see is dark. It’s dirty. A far cry from the spiritually vibrant streets of Yanaka Ginza and other neighborhoods of Tokyo. The rivers are dammed and channeled with concrete embankments. Traffic is bad, resulting in smoggy air. Trash can be seen collecting near the gutters of interactions. Trash! In Japan! Restaurants (at least in my neighborhood of Tofukuji) are few and far between and the heavily concentrated ones seem blockaded against foreign intrusion. The transportation system is older and not nearly as clean or crafty as some other (even smaller) Japanese cities. Even the people who reside here don’t seem as friendly or vibrant. The parts of the city that do seem clean and inviting are tourist traps whose “Japanese”appeal can be attributed to the almighty tourist dollars. Up to this point Kyoto has been something of a let down and the inspiring sights and sounds that I’ve found in other parts of Japan are absent here. My understanding is that nearby Osaka and Nara are much more interested. Stay tuned…
I’d be remised to not mention the handful of outstanding places Kyoto does offer, even though these are mostly touristy and overcrowded as well. Daito-Kuji is an amazing collection of temples and gardens, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere before. The Fushimi-Inari (orange gates) shrine is also well worth the thousand or so steps you’d have to climb in order to see it. Finally, Pontocho Alley with it’s Geishas darting around corners and into private rooms to meet with clients is, although very touristy, a thrill none the less.