The past and the future seem to combine endlessly in Kyoto. The streets are almost unsettlingly clean, public transport is everywhere, you can buy almost anything, at any time, I’ve never had better internet connectivity and while shopping for a mobile phone simcard I was interrupted by a robot asking if it could help.
My bicycle even has a certificate of roadworthiness. And yet: Houses are made of wood here. So much so, in fact, that the “disaster assembly points” I had taken for symbols of the unstable nature of the Pacific Rim are mainly due to the imminent danger of fire. I’ve spent most of my time outside the office or my apartment enjoying the peace and quiet of Kyoto’s many ancient temples. History is woven into the fabric of the city, unfettered by the centuries spent as a backwater during the Dark Ages that plagued Northern and Western Europe.
They still don’t grit the roads though. It makes me think it doesn’t snow that often. Just before the real weather started, I took the opportunity to climb Daimonjiyama with a couple of friends. It’s a steep but short hill, the base of which is not ten minutes’ cycle ride from my house. It was a hot climb from the effort but the wind was like knives. We got a short period of being able to see the skyscrapers of the impressive Osaka 40km away before it closed in fully, and we sheltered in the Buddhist shrine on top to drink tea and venture out for photo opportunities.
There is an enormous character 大 burnt into the hillside, which means “big” or “great”. Every August it is set on fire, in what has to be a warmer ceremony than standing on the top in January with the wind. We made it about fifteen minutes before returning to the slope down.
A hill seemingly right in the middle of town is something that reminds me of Edinburgh, actually, a comparison forcibly placed into my mind thanks to the hills, the castle, the old streets and the posters advertising art, theatre, dance and traditional Japanese cultural activities. Perhaps it is something about Kyoto being an old capital, as Edinburgh once was autonomously.
The climb was just in time. Waking up the next morning confronted me thusly:
This is actually the first snow I’ve experienced in what has to be years. A succession of warm winters in Scotland and Germany, not to mention my year in Namibia, has made this cold, white stuff thoroughly unfamiliar. Fortunately, my climb and conversation with Kazuki and Yuri means that I now know, after the coldest week imaginable, that air conditioners here in Japan not only cool rooms but heat them. I am in truth kicking myself, and thanks to the heater I can now actually feel it. My nights in at home are a lot more pleasant now, and while I enjoy working in my new office I do not feel the same desire to remain there as long as humanly possible in the evenings.
Snow or no, I was determined to spend my Sunday exploring a bit, busy as I am with work I know that I do not have as much time as maybe I would like to to see this wonderful city. I decided to take my bicycle, which, thanks to the lack of grit, was perhaps a mistake. It was blizzarding, freezing and dangerously icy on my way into a new part of town. I was hoping the hills would not be too steep. A climb would be fine, but stopping on a descent, even with my feet, would have been a challenge.
A narrow wooden-building-lined alley is exactly what I pictured of Kyoto before coming, albeit not in the snow. The whole street above was lined with shops selling almost anything Japanese you could imagine, including my first sight of one of the inimitable Studio Ghibli shops, commonplace in Japan of course but as a recent and geeky addition to the country I was distracted here for some time.
Nonetheless, I found myself quite soon at the fabulous Kiyomizu-dera, a temple originally built in the eighth century and dedicated mainly to Kannon, a Bodhisattva associated with compassion. Her temple is quite something in the snow, even if I managed to arrive at exactly the same time as at least three busloads of Chinese tourists (making it feel even more like Edinburgh).
In the inside of the temple, at the pre-requisite “no photographs here, please” bit, I was directed to some stairs that led down into complete darkness. After removing my shoes, I curiously followed the Buddhist mantra beads affixed to the wall and rounded a corner at the bottom of the stairs, relinquishing the use of my eyes and trusting in Japanese level flooring.
The rationale behind such a devotional practice is to make the worshipper vulnerable, to rob them of the sense by which they normally navigate and get them instead to trust in, well, their ability to follow instructions and keep hold of the beaded handrail. Around several corners I was guided. It was the sort of darkness in which I could not see my hand in front of my face. This is meant to symbolise the womb of the Bodhisattva, and my trust in her. I walked slowly, nonetheless. At the end a low light off to my right in the winding temple corridor illuminated gently a large, round stone, upon which I was instructed beforehand to place my hand and make a wish. If sincere enough, it would be granted.
I may be one of nature’s own skeptics, but, just in case, I asked to have completed my PhD by the end of the year anyway. I definitely sincerely want that. To leave the corridor was to be reborn into the world, and perhaps it was the age of the temple or the practice but it certainly felt good to pass into darkness and then light. Perhaps the mysticism of the event was clouded somewhat by being bumped into from behind by about four other tourists. It was, on reflection, rather funny, considering that the only words I know in Mandarin are “hello” and “thankyou”, neither of which are particularly appropriate in the context.
Kannon was not the only figure to whom areas in the temple were dedicated. I found many people lighting incense for a god of (I think) prosperity in business, to whom as nobody seemed to object I also lit incense for on behalf of Alison’s catering company.
I rather like these temples, having been to a few. I think the main reason for this is the fact that even though tourists are welcome (after a donation, of course) you will still see many people offering worship and visiting deities and spirits in the midst of people taking photographs (where it is permitted). This is the essence of the past and the present melding together here. One does not have to lose the past to live in the present. Or, in the case of Japan’s level of technology and infrastructure, one does not have to lose the past in order to live five to ten years in the future. Culture does not, to contradict Indiana Jones entirely, belong in a museum.
I returned, through more freezing ice and snow, not to mention more than one altercation with a bus, to find my flat under guard, thanks to the children who live opposite.
This not only did the job of clearing all the snow from the alley, but meant that I jumped about a foot in the air when I parked my bike and turned around to see it behind me.
It is warming up slightly as I write this, with the snow turning to rain on all but the highest of the surrounding hills. It was a nice snowy weekend, but I’m grateful more still for the ability to traverse the city at speed without my heart in my throat and my hands on the brakes.