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.
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.
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…”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.