Kyoto, Japan

An Almost Lost Millennial Japan


Sanctuary over the forest II
The balcony of the Kiomizudera shrine overlooks the autumnal forest that surrounds Kyoto.
Shinto reverence
Two female students bow before a small shrine in the Kiomizu-dera temple.
Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Double view of Kyoto's most famous temple, the subject of Yukio Mishima's novel of the same name.
caretaker mascot
A small West Highland White Terrier at the entrance to the Garakuta cafe.
hyperbolic portal
The giant tori that marks the entrance to the Shinto domain of the Heian shrine.
Paired Restaurants
Block of bars and restaurants on the bank of the river Kamo.
kimono maid
A mannequin in traditional costume at the entrance to a restaurant in the city.
light of belief
Shinto lanterns add color to the Yasaka-jinja shrine near the Gion district.
Counter-photography
Photographer outside a toris tunnel at Fushimi Inari shrine.
an emblematic slope
Japanese passersby on Ninen Zaka Street.
fun lighthouse
An establishment's lamp lights up the historic alley of Ponto Cho.
Sanctuary over the forest
The Kiomizu-dera wooden temple with privileged views over Kyoto's houses.
Futuristic Kyoto
The Kyoto Tower, a monument to modernity in an essentially historic city.
human taxi
Rickshaw puller prepares to lead two Japanese girls around Arashiyama.
intrigue shadows
Curious Japanese examine panels posted near the Yasaka-jinja shrine.
Light games
Visitors to the Yasaka-jinja temple admire the mosaic of Shinto lanterns.
Kyoto was on the US atomic bomb target list and it was more than a whim of fate that preserved it. Saved by an American Secretary of War in love with its historical and cultural richness and oriental sumptuousness, the city was replaced at the last minute by Nagasaki in the atrocious sacrifice of the second nuclear cataclysm.

When we disembark at Kyoto's central station, the imposing building of glass and steel, labyrinthine and futuristic architecture shuffles our expectations of millenary Japan.

We are in an eastern, Shinto and Buddhist country that is at the same time aspiring to the west, capitalist and consumerist. As the endless escalator lifts us from the ground level, we hear themes by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and other American classics.

The diagonal movement reveals an orchestra accompanied by choirs and a gigantic amphitheater full of people that rises from the stage to the terrace at the top of the huge complex. Without ever expecting it, from this top we unveil the Yamashiro valley filled by the vast Kyoto surrounding it.

Inaugurated in September 2007, Kyoto Central Station generated mixed reactions. Certain critics have been impressed by its wide spaces and bold lines that match the rocket-like look of the Kyoto TV Tower, grounded on one of the buildings opposite.

Kyoto TV Tower, a Millennial Japan almost lost

The Kyoto Tower, a monument to modernity in an essentially historic city.

Others have not forgiven such a dissonant break with traditional architecture, sometimes millenary. This controversy is far from being exclusive to the season.

Millennial Kyoto Camouflaged in Modern Kyoto

The first streets and avenues of the city we travel through give us a sense of apparent historical insipiency reinforced by Nintendo's grim headquarters building.

This impression vanished, however, in three times against the resplendent facades of the monuments, almost always half-hidden by the cluster of the most recent houses in this millenary city.

We took the subway. We left already far from the considered center. receive us Shoji, a Japanese host in his late forties, determined to welcome guests to the maximum of countries in the world. Your project is surprising in itself. It amazes us even more when we realize that an entire traditional villa is dedicated to him.

Restaurant, Kyoto, a Millennial Japan almost lost

A mannequin in traditional costume at the entrance to a restaurant in the city.

Shoji could rent it but has long preferred contact with the gaijin (foreigners) who in this way enrich your life even if you do not master any language other than your mother tongue and only speak something worthy of record with those who have studied Japanese.

The owner of the house does his best to install us. He explains to us the tricks and secrets of the home, unfolds a map on a low table and points out the city's attractions that, in his opinion, we couldn't miss for the world.

And yet, it was a close call that the millenary Kyoto was not obliterated by the atomic bombs "Little Boy" or "fat man”, in August 1945.

Millennial Japan Almost Lost to History

The passion aroused by Kyoto in the hearts of visitors goes back a long way. By coincidence and misfortune of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American Secretary of War of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, Henry L. Stimson, had frequented the city several times during the 20s as Governor of the Philippines.

Some historians assert that Kyoto was also the destination of their honeymoon. In any case, the dissuasive action that he carried out earned him the reputation of being ultimately responsible for his salvation.

Kyoto is Japan's most revered city. Seventeen monuments of its 1600 Buddhist temples and nearly 400 Shinto shrines are UNESCO World Heritage.

The amount of sublime monuments is such that an author from the famous travel guide publisher Lonely Planet took the trouble to warn readers “… in Kyoto, it's easy to fall victim to an overdose of temples…”.

Fushimi Inari, Kyoto, an almost lost Millennial Japan

Photographer outside a toris tunnel at Fushimi Inari shrine.

Kyoto, a City Built in the Image of the Great Asian Cities of Then

To the image of the neighbor Nara, Kyoto was erected in a grid pattern inspired by Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), the capital of the Chinese Tang dynasty.

The imitation of the most powerful China it was, at the time, an assumed form of progress. Finally, at the forefront of Japanese civilization, Kyoto hosted the Japanese imperial family. It did so from 794 to 1868, a long period in which, while Japan in general was ruled by shogunates in permanent confrontation, the city stood out on a cultural level.

Kyoto, a Millennial Japan almost lost

Visitors at the base of the Chion temple.

In the late XNUMXth century, the Meiji restoration movement – ​​aimed at consolidating imperial power – forced the move of emperors and family to Edo (later known as Tokyo) the capital of the East.

After Heyan-kyo (city of peace), Kyo Miyako (capital city), Keishi (metropolis) and, in the West, Meaco or Miako, Kyoto added another title to its already extensive collection of nomenclatures. For a time, it became Saikyo (the capital of the West).

The Overdose of Kyoto's Temples, Sanctuaries, and Other Monuments

In today's Kyoto, even the most optimistic visitors quickly come to terms with the impossibility of enjoying all that the city has to offer. It is then that they surrender to a sort of unofficial ranking of their attractions.

The river of people we see flowing in the historic areas of Ninen-zaka (Two Years Hill) and Sannen-zaka (Three Years Hill) heralds serious competitors for the popularity of the Golden Pavilion.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, a Millennial Japan almost lost

Double view of Kyoto's most famous temple, the subject of Yukio Mishima's novel of the same name.

There are two of the oldest streets in Kyoto, made up of long strings of machiyas (typical wooden dwellings), shops, restaurants and old tea houses.

We climb the Gojo-zaka slope, passing by Chawan-zaka (Colina do Teapot), an alley full of sweets and craft shops.

The Kiomizu-dera Temple Forest Retreat

At the top, as a reward, we come across the Kiomizu-dera temple, another of the city's heritage highlights.

Its main building extends onto a balcony supported by logs and stakes, thus detached from the hill.

Kiomizudera, Kyoto, a Millennial Japan almost lost

The balcony of the Kiomizudera shrine overlooks the autumnal forest that surrounds Kyoto.

Unsurprisingly, this temple is almost always crammed with Japanese people of all ages, among which the successive school trips stand out, identifiable by the blue uniforms: pullover, suit with tie and pants that the boys insist on matching with the more flashy sneakers that found; pullover, suit and skirt (sometimes transformed into a mini-skirt) worn by girls, no matter how cold it is.

Prayer, Kyoto, a Millennial Japan almost lost

Two female students bow before a small shrine in the Kiomizu-dera temple.

More than just extensions, Kiomizu-dera's wooden verandas are privileged lookouts for Kyoto, visible beyond the verdant forest that fills the plain to the distant mountains of Kitayama and Nishiyama.

Also in this temple, there is no lack of sacred rituals. We descend a long staircase below the balconies. At its bottom, we find the Otowa-no-Taki, a small waterfall turned into a fountain in which visitors form long lines to arm themselves with huge iron spoons and drink water from them believed to have therapeutic properties.

Kiomizu-dera Fountain, Kyoto, an almost lost Millennial Japan

Visitors and believers drink holy water at the Kiomizu-dera temple.

In the vicinity of the secondary temple of Jishu-jinja, the aim of the believers is to guarantee success to love. To do this, they must walk about eighteen meters between two stones with their eyes closed. They warn us that missing the second stone means a condemnation with no return to a life of celibacy.

The risk seems to us too much. We discard the challenge.

Ninen-zaka, Sannen-zaka and Kiomizu-dera Temple are part of the South Higashiyama route that continues along Ishibei-koji Street, past the Kodai-ji Temple entrance, through Maruyama Park and continues west to Yazaka-jinja , this a new temple complex.

And the Traditional Gion Neighborhood that Geishas Still Travel Through

There, at the end of the afternoon, when the geishas and the maikos (geisha apprentices) climb the stairs and cross the tori (portal) to walk and pray, we feel a fascinating intersection established between the religious sphere of Kyoto and its domain bohemian and nocturnal formed by the areas of Ponto-Cho and Gion.

The famous Ponto-Cho district is little more than a narrow alley parallel to the Kamo-gawa river. The “little more” has the countless restaurants and bars that, even so, welcome and the constant and mysterious passage of geishas on their way to their appointments with the danna, their patrons.

Geisha in Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Geisha walks through an alley in the Pontocho neighborhood.

We wander through this domain when night falls and Ponto-Cho comes to life, illuminated and colored by oriental lanterns that lend the area a mystical atmosphere of classic Japan.

Next door is Gion. The neighboring district is dominated by modern architecture and, at rush hour, flooded with traffic. Still, it preserves some historical bags also worthy of the best geisha imagery.

Its main streets are Hanami-koji and Shinmonzen-dori, both bordered by more old houses, restaurants, antique shops and other tea houses. Many of the latter are actually establishments dedicated to secular geisha entertainment (gei=art + sha=person) which, despite being in a slow process of extinction, continues to take place behind so many closed city doors.

From eighty thousand geishas in the 20s, there are now between a thousand and two thousand, almost all of them in Kyoto.

Henry L. Stimson the Secretary of War Appreciator and Savior of Kyoto

If we go back in history one more time, it is easy for us to conclude that there might well be none left. And Henry L. Stimson's credit will never sound exaggerated.

In the middle of the decision process of the Japanese cities to annihilate, the Los Alamos Target Committee formed by US generals and scientists and led by Robert Oppenheimer, insisted on putting Kyoto at the top of the list.

They justified it "because Kyoto has never been bombed before, because it includes an industrial area and has a million inhabitants." They also considered its largely university population "better able to appreciate the meaning of a weapon as the device that would be used."

Restaurant windows, Kyoto, an almost lost Millennial Japan

Block of bars and restaurants on the bank of the river Kamo.

Against everything and everyone, in 1945, Secretary of War Stimson ordered that Kyoto be removed from the list. He argued that it had strong cultural importance and that it was not a military target. The military resisted. They continued to put the city back at the top of the list until the end of July 1945.

This stubbornness forced Stimson to address President Truman himself.

Stimson wrote in his diary that “Truman agreed that if they did not remove Kyoto from the list, Japanese resentment towards the USA it would be such that it would make any postwar reconciliation with the Americans impossible and, instead, it would make it possible with the Russians.” By that time, the tensions that led to the Cold War they were already making themselves felt.

Tori, Kyoto, a Millennial Japan almost lost

The giant tori that marks the entrance to the Shinto domain of the Heian shrine.

Truman was determined not to feed the communist monster, neither in Asia nor anywhere else in the world. Until weeks before the first nuclear bomb was dropped, Nagasaki was not even on the list of target cities.

Ironically, but above all, because of Henry L. Stimson's love for Kyoto, Nagasaki took her place in the ultimate sacrifice. After Hiroshima, Nagasaki succumbed to the apocalypse.

Kyoto continued to glow.

Kyoto, Japan

The Kyoto Temple Reborn from the Ashes

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