Revisiting Kyoto

Silver Palace Garden

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Kyoto, Japan. In fact, and if my memory doesn’t betray me, it has been around 24 years since I set foot on this ancient capital. Over these years, however, it became impossible to get thoughts of Kyoto off my mind. The shrines, the Shogun castles, and the well-worn streets of Gion were almost reaching the level of fantasy in my mind. I simply had to go back, someday. Just didn’t think it would take me this long to return. But even if late, I couldn’t be happier to get back to this wonderful city of geishas and polished wood temples. It is indeed a special place, and one of the “must see” cities of the world that lives up to its reputation, but also a somewhat changed city from the one I visited as a relatively young man.

View of Kyoto City

Ancient Kyoto remains as wonderful as ever. The squeaky, labyrinth halls of Nijo Castle, the magnificence of Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), the lush gardens of the Imperial Palace, and the mysterious streets of Gion are all there, and more. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and about 160 temples, Kyoto will keep you as busy as you want to be. But while this impressive array of famous places to see are reason enough to book those plane tickets, for this old traveler it was a more serene part of Kyoto that held the greatest attraction. These were the empty streets of Gion very early in the morning before the crowds appeared on the streets, the narrow lanes of Nakagyo Ward with its hidden temples, and the twisty, steep streets around Minamimachi and the Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine. To walk these ancient streets as the first rays of sun are appearing over the horizon is nothing short of subliminal, an imaginary trip to the times of Shoguns and merchants who once roamed the city streets. And when the crowds inevitably show up, there’s no better place to hang out than at the Nishiki Market between Teramachi and Shinmachi or the incredibly busy Shinkyogoku shopping district. No personal space here, just wall-to-wall people in search of all sorts of delicacies, from the familiar to the absolute bizarre. These two sides of the city, the contemplative and the mercantile, pretty much appear everywhere you travel in Kyoto.

Ancient Kyoto

But something about Kyoto has definitely changed in the past 24 years. The biggest change has to do with the amount of people traveling there for holidays. From the Golden Temple to every major shrine in the city, the amount of visitors borders on the incredible. New hotels and a greatly renovated central train station appear to struggle to accommodate the onslaught of tourists like “yours truly” descending on the city from all corners of the world. A city that has always been famous is perhaps even more famous today than ever, if that is even possible. The result is that if you are looking for that Zen feeling that comes to mind whenever we think of Kyoto, you really have to work on the time of day you plan to visit most neighborhoods there. It’s still there, but not at all times of the day.  The good news is that all sorts of modern transportation options are available throughout the day, so getting to places is relatively easy.

Geishas

Busy or not, Kyoto and its ancient cultural heritage are not to be missed in a lifetime. In contrast to Tokyo’s forward looking personality, Kyoto is all about looking back. History, that much neglected concept in so many parts of the world, becomes something that like the wind, you can actually feel in Kyoto. A sudden realization that while much has been gained with time, much has also been lost. And as in other great and ancient cities around the world, the forces of modernism and history are engaged in a fearless battle for people’s feelings and attention. These dual forces define modern Japan, and make it one of the best travel destinations in the world. Can’t wait to get back.

 

The Refuge Of Simplicity

Purple

Butterfly

There is something refreshingly simple about visual isolation. Not sure whether it is because of what we choose to leave out or because what we choose to accentuate. But whether it is the result of subtraction or addition, our enjoyment of visual scenes seems to be directly related to this simple visual arithmetic. Everyone has their favorites, but for me, subtraction seems to win most of the time. That is not to say that my intent is to photograph a single object in a scene, but rather that in every scene recorded, I find it more appealing when something within that scene plays a dominant or prominent role. It could be a castle at a distance, or a gentle hand over a book, whatever. What matters is that the photo is clearly anchored on an object, or a theme, as opposed as having every item in the photo compete for your attention. Granted, though, that focusing on an object is not as complicated as focusing on a theme. A photo of flowers will always be easier to capture than a photo depicting melancholy. But something must dominate the thought process, something must stand out to be remembered, and if a photographer is lucky or skillful enough to capture both an object and a mood, then that is payday in a creative’s life. Easier said than done, but undoubtedly the magnetic force that keeps us on the eternal journey of discovery.

 

Urban Zen

Lausanne Plaza

Living right next to a big city, you can’t help but become aware of the impact that architectural development has on the people who occupy these urban centers on a daily basis. No doubt that a lot of thought has gone in producing the type of urban environment in which some of us live, and no doubt that what has resulted from all that deep thinking is what confronts us every day as we go about our daily routines. So, with this in mind, it seems to me that there are a couple of overarching goals that influence the development of major city centers around the world. From what I can discern, the development of cities tends to promote either need to design these urban centers to increase the flow of people (efficient movement from point-to-point), or the promotion of lingering. That is, some cities are made for people on the go, while others seem to cater primarily to people’s need to hang around and interact. Hurry up or slow down, that’s pretty much it. And yes, the illusive balance between the too remains a goal in many places, even if somewhat haphazardly achieved.

The photo above of downtown Lausanne, Switzerland is a case in point. I took this photo some years ago during one of my many trips to that wonderful city by Lake Geneva, and it kind of illustrates what I’m talking about. The hilly city of Lausanne is literally built for lingering. Just about everywhere you go in the city, you will find small parks, lots of benches, and an atmosphere that calls out at you to stop and take in the surroundings. The place is definitely not designed for the worshipers of the “New York minute” lifestyle. Quite the opposite. In Lausanne the problem is finding the will and disposition to overcome the internal voices screaming at you to get off the fast-moving train of life and to transform minutes into hours. The city’s architectural design, with its public art displays and congenial gathering spots, is like an antidote for the never-have-time crowd. Call it architecture as therapy or whatever, but somewhere between what your eyes see and the opportunities to linger, your mindset is altered in ways that are hard to describe. We may not totally understand this metamorphosis, but it happens, and it is very real. We slow down, we take the surroundings, we imagine, and we feel less stressed. Medicine for the soul, and a welcomed break from the race around us. Architecture and art as medicine for the modern human condition. Who would’ve known.