Property 688 – Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto
Kyoto is a strange beast.
On the one hand it’s the home of all the things we think of as being quintessentially Japanese. The geishas, the kimonos, the temples with their raked gravel. Kyoto is on the tour brochures, the websites, and the annoying photos that your friends posted on Instagram to make you jealous. The best of ancient Japan is here, and visiting it can feel like visiting an older, more beautiful time.
On the other hand the ancient city is largely gone or built over. In its place is a tangle of wires suspended over traffic, narrow footpaths and concrete boxes. Temples and gardens form small islands of green in an ocean of cement. The pleasure I felt from old Kyoto was mostly relief from urban oppression.
Modern Japan is stupendously ugly in some ways. In Tokyo this feels ultra-modern, as if by visiting I had found a secret portal into a world where modern industrial life was done differently, and better in some ways. However the same urban environment in Kyoto feels like a cancer. The body of the city is gradually being overcome by neon ugliness, and the patient is palliative.
Kyoto was one of the ancient capitals of Japan and was the home of the Emperor until 1869. Prior to that time Japan was culturally insular, having only occasional contact with China and Korea, and spending much of its intellectual energy on refining the arts that we now think of as being especially Japanese. Kyoto reflected that, being both a working capital city and also the hub of Japanese cultural life. The capital’s move to Tokyo drew away political influence and money, leaving Kyoto as a revered museum.
I didn’t get the chance to visit all of the 17 inscribed properties in this listing owing to time constraints, but I felt that this museum-like quality is best reflected in Kinkaku-Ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. This is the temple that launched a thousand postcards, and is actually a reconstruction. The original temple was burned down in 1950 by a mentally ill monk and has been rebuilt with elaborate care and attention. Even in the winter sun it glows like it’s on fire. Kinkaku-ji undoubtedly beautiful and contains great significance in Buddhist religion, however that can be difficult to appreciate when being jostled down pre-defined walkways to the “optimum” viewing spot.
I also managed to visit the Chion-in temple, which while not technically part of the World Heritage property, is impressive in its own way. Far more monumental than one would expect in Japan, it is the home of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. Wandering under the immense gate I got the feeling that the contents might be sterile and brutish, but instead I was greeted by a series of wonderful gardens.
If I seem grumpy about the ugly side of Kyoto, maybe I am being unfair. Perhaps pragmatism was clouded by hope. But leaving aside the museum-ish qualities of the place, it’s still possible to have spontaneous experiences. In my case I came across, quite by chance, a school-level competition of Japanese archery. The female competitors wore glorious kimonos while shooting and en masse they looked like armed tropical birds. I took hundreds of photos trying to capture the scene and never quite succeeded, but left Kyoto with a lighter heart than how I’d begun.