It’s common knowledge that Japanese cities are ugly, utilitarian beasts.
They sprawl upward and outward, uniformly gray, populated by concrete, steel and glass blocks of boredom. Their personalities, fortunately, belie their countenance.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Kyoto, where the bland assault of modernity seeps around the multitude of shrines and wooden structures that were old when England colonized the New World.
Kyoto is not Tokyo. For one thing, it’s friendly – at least for Japan. I caught people of all ages on more than one occaision laughing and schmoozing and jostling each other on trains, something that is more of a hipster’s role in Toks.
The vast numbers of shrines and temples in Kyoto give the city its much-vaunted and well-deserved connection to an era of Japan that no longer exists. Hardly a diaorama of stuffed beasts, though, Kyoto’s connection to feudal Japan is visceral. Those are real monks, praying in the same way they’ve prayed for centuries, tracing the same silent steps of their predecessors.
What all of this meant when we walked into Higashi Hongan-ji was that despite the cacaphony of traffic right outside the shrines walls, conversation still became hushed. Stalled at a stand-still.
The giant wooden structures of the shrine were bold, brown and white, and seemed so natural that they could’ve grown there. Which was, of course, the intent of the designers. To grok Shintoism is to see uniformity between the natural and the man-made.
And at every corner, permeating the spring air, were the cherry blossoms that signal the return of life. Everywhere, the white petals and dark branches were stalking us – but they were a welcome assailant.
At dusk, we visited a rare evening opening of Nijo Castle in the center of the city. Although there were a lot of people, it was hardly crowded by Japanese standards – especially unusual during hanami season.
The outer walls of the castle were lit by computer-projected colors, bright pinks and yellows, blues and oranges. Inside, the cherry tree groves were illuminated by a more subtle lighting. Muted red lanterns lined the pathways, and soft white lights shone upon the trees.
Cherry blossoms have an ethereal quality to them in daylight, like a spring snowfall caught in a time-freeze. At night, lit from below, they were ghostly, shimmering in the evening breeze, sometimes hard to see because of the twilight.
Beauty in Japan – flowers, women, shrines or food – it all moves in mysterious ways, its radiance a subtlety for you to explore.
Or something equally pretentious.
And then, during a scrumptious okanomiyaki dinner that morphed into salad when the okanomiyaki shop couldn’t be found and was decidedly lacking in pretense, the camera memory card barfed and I lost all my pictures from today.
That’s the point of something worth looking at though, I suppose. If it weren’t transient, if there wasn’t the potential for the objet d’art to disappear, to be destroyed, then its aesthetic value would be nil. And it was a beautiful day in Kyoto.