Kyoto: Take it Slow
By Peter Wortsman
Kyoto, the erstwhile imperial capital and still the cultural capital of Japan, sits like the palm of a hand ringed by the great curling fingers of the Tamba Highlands. The first-time visitor is suffused with impressions varied and vivid. “Please pour water gently and concentrate your attention on the sound the water drops make!” reads a sign beside a traditional bamboo water harp in the garden of Eikan-dō, a ninth century Zen Buddhist Temple nestled against the hillside on the northeast rim of the city. Close listening demands deceleration and an attention to the seemingly superfluous, the fleeting impressions you would otherwise ignore. The consequence is a perfect serenity that held, with lapses, throughout my week-long stay last November and still lingers when I conjure up the memory.
Sheets of rain straight out of a Hiroshige woodcut fell the next day on the famous “dry” landscape rock garden at Ryōan-ji, the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, a Zen temple in the northwest sector of the city. The rain seemed to mock the garden’s illusion of dryness, but the mighty immovable boulders and the gravel bed, into which the monks rake a different pattern every day, sucked up the moisture, taking weather conditions in stride. And beside them, protected by the overhanging temple roof, sat an old man photographing the stones, with his grandson on his knees, the boy waving a little red leaf like a banner to celebrate the advent of the fall foliage season. Neither stones nor humans were phased in the least by the downpour.
With its 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, including some 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in or surrounding the city, Kyoto remains a rare haven of the spirit in the maelstrom of the modern world. Even its traffic lights, enhanced by auditory signals for the blind, a nightingale tweet for red, a cuckoo bird call for green, add to the effect.
Those seeking spiritual healing can hasten to the Hall of the Medicine Buddha in Tō-ji Temple. For more palpable complaints, patients repair to the hospital of Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, on the grounds of Shoren-In Temple, a school geared from its founding in 1872 to the teaching of Western medicine. Kyoto University School of Medicine, another one of the city’s distinguished institutions of higher learning, boasts, among its degree recipients, Hideyo Noguchi, a bacteriologist who proved that Treponema pallidum (syphilitic spirochete) was the cause of syphilis. His face graces the 1000 yen banknote.
The health-conscious traveler will want to sip plenty of green tea, for which Kyoto is famous. In addition to its restorative qualities, it is thought by some researchers to slow the growth of certain cancers. Introduced to Japan in the 13th century, the tea’s preparation evolved in Kyoto into a ritualized tea ceremony considered the quintessence of Japanese culture. You can take your tea less ceremoniously, but no less refreshing, at most temple gardens or sip in style and sample traditional sweets at the Toraya Karyo Kyoto Shop, a longtime purveyor to the imperial household.
I bought a pound of high-grade green tea at a tiny stand with a roasting oven that looked like an alchemist’s lab at Nishiki Market, the narrow covered outdoor market that runs from Teramachi Street to Takakura Street. Along the way I sampled and savored yakitori spits of grilled baby octopus and quail, Japanese pickles, and other choice tidbits.
But Kyoto’s greatest asset is unquestionably the civility of its people. On countless occasions, signaled by an unfolded street map, unbidden strangers came to my rescue when I seemed lost, and despite their dearth of English and my ignorance of Japanese, managed to get me where I wanted to go. Rushing to catch a train on my last day in Kyoto, I asked directions of a couple, who proceeded to hail a cab, invited me to climb in, whisked me to the station, insisted on paying the fare, and led me to the right platform before smiling and waving goodbye.
Photos by Peter Wortsman