Gazing out over the rooftops of the ancient capital, our conversation wanders from the sushi and pastries that make up our daily diet to the speed at which life moves in the historic city of Kyoto. The Kyoto University of Art and Design is kind enough to provide space for our group to take courses and use library resources, and the cherry on top is a flight of steps that leads to an observatory platform on a hillside overlooking the entire city. Before making the evening commute back to our respective home stays, we often sit on the stairs and watch the sun set behind the mountains to the west of the city. The joy of being able to call Kyoto our home for three weeks is never eclipsed.
For many, three weeks is hardly enough. From one temple to the next we stroll down streets lined with Japanese maples that flood the air around us with vivid shades of orange, red, and green. Autumn is prime tourist season in Kyoto, yet the walkways that connect the many temples in the Higashiyama neighborhood feel empty, like hallways in a monastery where there are echoes but no noise. One highlight of our first field trip is a visit to an ancient temple, nestled in the Asuka valley region of Nara, the capital prior to the court’s move to Kyoto in 794. The temple was rebuilt after fires, among rice paddy fields and imperial tombs from Japan’s first state period. The professor of our history course in Japan, Robert Hlawatsch, leads us on two-wheels down pedestrian paths to the massive granite burial mounds, called Kofuns. During breaks from the bicycling, he informs us of still unsolved mysteries surrounding the burials and sculptures dedicated to fallen emperors and important members of their court. Other excursions take us around Kyoto to important historical sights from the Heian period, renowned for the simple yet striking wooden architecture, sophisticated aesthetic taste for dress and ceremony, and sublime artistic cultivation that came to form while Japan called Kyoto its capital.
November is a month of many birthdays, and our group celebrates them with riverside promenades and romps in Kyoto’s public parks. Here and there we find stationary boutiques, boulangeries, funky bookstores, and fantastic noodle houses serving up local soba and udon dishes. Some students attempt to calm their minds through sitting Zazen at a soto-zen temple that welcomes foreigners, while others yet find quietude in the immaculate gardens of the imperial palace and the walking paths that wind through the resplendent scenery of Kyoto’s cultured streets. Creating a daily routine, despite some commutes that lasted more than two hours, is a common thread heard in our ravings about life in the city, and it is as if for the first time we have matched our pulse to the place we are living in. Aligning ourselves with the way of the working mass, whether on the bus or in the bike lane, gives us a sense of what it is like to be a citizen in this changing but culturally refined city, and it provides a better window to the world than that of the tourist bus we sometimes find ourselves in on this trip.
Of course, this is not to say that we do not fit the bill as an oversized tour group. We gawk at the screeching macaque monkeys in the Arashiyama neighborhood in Eastern Kyoto. All except a few stumble clumsily in our attempts to be respectful and polite in the standard of the Japanese tradition without speaking more than a few well-mannered words. Perhaps most noticeably we get lost trying to navigate our way around a city with more trains and buses than the bodhisattva Kannon has arms (most images show her with a thousand, if that Buddhist reference is a little too obscure). But our efforts reflect a desire to be subsumed into the intricate workings of Japanese society, to discover what lies beyond the formal perfections and historic traditions that this culture is steeped in. Maybe this effort is in vain.
Or maybe this is a secret that takes years to uncover. Regardless, our love for this city stretches wide as Japan is long, high as Mt. Fuji is tall, and deep as the pacific is, well, deep. For all the cute phrases, and for that matter, all the cute furry things that adorn the windows in downtown shops and cling to the handbags of so many young Japanese, there are subtle elements of beauty and wistfulness that hide in plain sight all over Kyoto. They are there in the soft green moss under bleeding red maples in the gardens of temples, and in the crease of the smile that timidly fades from the lips of women in Gion dressed in breathtaking Geisha garb. The past never feels too far behind you when you walk through the quiet streets of Kyoto, and in no time soon shall it release itself from the delicate niche it has carved in the memory of our travels.
(Article and photos by Nat)