Monday, January 20, 2014

Memories of Japan: Kyōto and Kamakura, Capital Cities of the Past

Kyōto and Kamakura
Today is Monday, January 20, 2014. 

Kyōto and Kamakura are forever linked in my mind because they have so many things in common, even though they are completely different.  I fell in love with both cities, for different reasons.  I've already told you a bit about Kamakura.  I also told you about spending an afternoon with a rock garden in Kyōto(Follow the links to my earlier blog posts.) Today I'd like to compare and contrast the two cities a bit and tell you a little more of what I loved about them.  Most of the pictures for this blog post are from

Golden Pavilion in summer
Both cities had the distinction of being the capital of Japan for a time.  The city of Kyōto was laid out intentionally by Emperor Kammu (737–806), the 50th emperor of Japan, who reigned from the year 781.  It was called Heian-kyo at the time ("Peaceful Capital").  Kammu borrowed his plan for the city from the ancient city of Chang-an in China, using the principles of feng shui.  The streets were laid out so that each block was perfectly square, and each street had a name, which is a rare thing in Japan.  (Only major streets have names, and many of these go their names just ahead of the 1964 Summer Olympics, which were held in Tōkyo.  Otherwise, it's not the streets that are n amed, but the intersections!)  The Imperial Palace was in the north, facing south, and things were labeled with respect to the way the palace was facing, so that on a conventional map where north is at the top, the Ukyō sector
 (右京, right capital) is on the left (west), while the Sakyō sector (左京 left capital) is on the right (east).

Golden Pavilion in winter
The city was renamed Kyōto (Capital City) in the 11th century, and remained the Imperial Capital, throughout the time when political power fell into the hands of the Shōoguns (1192-1868).  The Muromachi Shōgunate called Kyōto its capital until the 15th and last shōgun of the line was driven out. One of the shōguns enlarged Kyōto a bit and ordered extra streets to be built in the northern part of town, cutting the square blocks into rectangles.
  The succeeding Shōgunate moved their capital to Kamakura, which is why I say that Kamakura was also a capital city of Japan.  The Tokugawa clan moved their capital to the town of Edo (modern-day Tōkyo), and when Emperor Meiji took back political power for the Imperial Family, he formally moved the capital to Tōkyo.  Kyōto remains the capital of Hyōgo Prefecture.

Silver Pavilion - no silver!
To this day, Kyōto has remained the cultural capital of the country, even though the seat of power is no longer there.  During World War II, Kyōto was on the list of possible atomic bomb sites, but Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson argued against bombing a city with so much cultural history.  The city was largely spared of conventional firebombs, as well, which means that it retains much of its pre-war architecture.  While I was in Japan, though, I was told over and over that the Japanese left nothing to chance.  During World War II, the buildings designated as National Tresures were camouflaged.  Water tanks and firewalls were installed, and many of the movable objets d'art were taken to rural areas for safekeeping.  Throughout Japan, 206 National Treasure buildings were destroyed, but most of the ones in Kyōto were saved.  Because of the abundance of traditional architecture, the Japanese film industry makes its home in Kyōto; many Japanese historical films are shot there, and tourists are welcome to watch filming.

Most people know that Kyōto is famous for its geisha, entertainers who spend years learning the arts of entertainment, and no, I don't mean sex.  They learn how to wear a kimono (Theirs are different from normal ones.), how to wear their hair in a special style, how to apply special, traditional makeup, and how to sing, dance, recite poetry, play party games, play instruments, make conversation, and put people at ease.  (Did you know that their white face makeup was made with bird droppings?  No kidding!  It was also made with lead, but when they found out what that does to the skin, they switched to rice powder.)  Some of their arts would probably put some Americans to sleep, rather than titillate them.  By the way, the reason they needed a patron is that they had a rule that they could never wear the same kimono twice for a patron, and each kimono costs thousands of dollars.  They kept a diary of when they saw each client and which kimono they wore for the occasion.  The kimono actually belonged to the "house" the geisha worked for, and was shared by all the geisha in the house.

Geisha - they wear their kimono neck
much lower than usual, and they put
makeup on their back, neck and face.
Kyōto's population exceeded 1 million in 1932.  Its population as of 2011 was 1,43,746.  Kyōto is Japan's 8th largest city, but its population is declining, so it is expected to be ranked 9th, behind Kawasaki, very soon.  Kamakura, by contrast, has only about 170,000 people, so it is considerably smaller than Kyōto.

It's ironic that Emperor Kammu moved his capital to Kyōto in order to avoid interference from Buddhist priests, who were, at that time, getting to be politically powerful.  The reason? Kyōto now has 1600 Buddhist temples and only 400 Shintō shrines. As for politics, there is actually a Buddhist political party in Japan, called Kōmeitō, funded by the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, but it has never held a majority in the Japanese governing body called the Diet.  There have been backlashes against Buddhism at certain times in Japan's history, the most recent of which was at the beginning of Emperor Meiji's reign.  Nowadays, however, the two religions coexist peacefully, for the most part, as I've written before.  Shintō is the informal state religion of Japan, and so-called "ultra-nationalists" tend to favor Shintō, but the religion does not back any particular political party.  There was one party formed in 2005 that was based on Shintō beliefs, but it was disbanded in 2013. The Association of Shintō Shrines remains a powerful political lobby, and has influence with the Education Ministry, as well. 

As I wrote before, Kamakura is also full of Buddhist temples – 65 of them, as opposed to only 19 Shintō shrines.  Since the samurai warlords who established Kamakura as their center of government favored Zen Buddhism, Zen temples are prominent in Kamakura.  There are Zen temples in Kyōto, as well.  The biggest difference between the temples in Kyōto and the ones in Kamakura is that the Kyōto temples are famous for their gardens, both plant gardens and rock gardens, while Kamakura temples have more cemeteries that tourists can wander around in.

Washi paper
I've already told you about some of my favorite places in Kamakura, including the giant bronze Great Buddha statue, Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, where the archery festival is held, and the Tōdaiji "Divorce Temple."  I also told you that I loved Kamakura-bori, carved wooden lacquerware.  I described going to a temple in Kamakura on New Year's Even to ring the temple bell.  The other things I enjoyed doing in Kamakura were the hiking trails in the hills surrounding the city and shopping on the main street for washi paper made from fibers of the bark of the gampi tree, and for glass foil jewelry.

Torii Gate at Heian-jingu
What do I love about Kyōto?  There are so many temples and shrines there that it's easy to get "templed-out," but I never got tired of visiting temples, ever.  Maybe that was because I didn't have to visit them all at once, but a few at a time, over the course of several years.  

I was able to see all the most famous temples and shrines, including the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) and the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji).  The Golden Pavilion actually has gold-foil on it, and it shines in the sunlight, especially when the ground is covered with snow.  It was originally the villa of a rich nobleman who ordered that it be turned into a Buddhist temple upon his death.  Like a lot of temples in Japan, Kinkakuji suffered damage from fires a number of times throughout its history, and had to be rebuilt.  (Japanese temples always have a building plan secreted in a remote location in case of fire, and the Japanese are famous for rebuilding their temples exactly to original specifications.  I learned this from a Japanese architect.)  When the temple was rebuilt in 1955, it was said that the gold-leaf covering was probably more extensive than in the original structure.  (If so, I'm glad.)  The burning of the temple by the monk was fictionalized by writer Yukio Mishima in his book, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Main Gate at Heian-jingu
You might expect the  Silver Pavilion to be covered with silver, and it was intended to be, but that never happened.  Like the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion started out as a villa owned by a nobleman who wanted it dedicated as a Buddhist temple after his death.  But during the Ōnin War, a civil war that lasted 10 years, construction of the Silver Pavilion was halted, and the silver-foil was never applied.  The structure is still plain wood, but it is now prized as an example of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which values the imperfection of things.  Both the Silver Pavilion and the Golden Pavilion are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Another favorite of mine in Kyōto is Ryōan-ji, the temple where my friend Mitsuko and I spent a rainy afternoon gazing at the famous rock garden.  In addition, I loved Kiyomizu-dera, the "Pure Water" Temple, named after a waterfall that exists within its complex.  Kiyomizu-dera is located on a steep hill, and the large veranda at the back of the temple looks out over a sheer cliff covered with dense foliage.  The most amazing fact about Kiyomizu-dera is that it was built entirely without nails, using a technique called joinery.  (American log cabins were often built this way, as well, but the technique is slightly different in Japan.)  The temple was originally constructed in 1633. 

At Kiyomizu-dera tourists catch the water coming
from the roof with long-handled dippers, then
ritually cleanse their mouths by taking a sip
of the water.
On the road leading up to the temple – and I do mean up, as it is quite an incline – there are quite a few shops where the famous Kiyomizu-yaki ceramic pottery is made.  Kiyomizu ware is known for elegant design and pure, intense colors.  Most of the potters, however, moved their production facilities away from the Kiyomizu-dera area about 20 years ago.  The new workspaces were much more spacious and allowed them to use gas-fired furnaces, instead of wood-fired kilns. From August 7-10 there is a huge pottery sale, because for the O-Bon festival, which honors spirits of the dead, Japanese traditionally buy new bowls for their household altars and family grave sites, in which ritual offerings of food are presented, and incense is burnt.  


Sale of Kiyomizu-yaki for use with altars and family graves

The scaffolding holding up the back veranda at
Kiyomizu-dera. Keep in mind there are no nails
whatsoever in this structure!
My favorite shrine, hands down, was Heian-jingu, which is actually an upstart in Kyōto, built in 1865.  It is a partial reconstruction of the original Imperial Palace when the city was first founded, and dedicated to the 50th emperor, Kammu, who moved his court to Kyōto.  In 1976, several buildings were burned down by an arsonist, but the buildings were reconstructed with donations from the public.  The iconic torii gate at the entrance to the shrine is the largest in Japan.  (More about torii gates at a later date.)  There is a garden with a pond at the back of the complex that is famous for its ponds with water imported from Lake Biwa, the deepest lake in Japan.  Visitors to the shrine can see and feed the turtles and fish that live in the ponds.  Here are some great photographs of the shrine.  

If you walk around the block where the shrine is located, you will find behind the shrine a great little emporium called Kyōto Handicraft Center that caters to foreign tourists.  I loved going there to watch craftsmen make items such as cloisonné jewelry on the first and second floors.  The things for sale on the lower floors are really spendy, but the items get cheaper, albeit a bit tackier, on the upper floors. Please do give the polyester "kimono" a miss, unless you want to wear it as a bathrobe. A better deal is a cotton yukata.  The sixth floor has a fairly inexpensive little restaurant.  The staff always has someone who can speak English, and I always encouraged my guests from the USA to have their purchases sent directly home so that they could buy duty-free.  The store is apparently doing some renovation, and may be moving soon.

Cloisonné: Metal base before the ceramic
paste is filled in.
Some snotty tourists may dismiss this place as a "typical tourist trap," but I have to say that for the price, service and convenience, it's a pretty spectacular deal, especially when you don't have to tool around all day just to find souvenirs and lug your purchases all over the place, then worry about how they will fit into your suitcase, whether they will be broken when you get back home, and how much you will have to pay for overweight baggage, plus pay customs duty when you get home.

After the ceramic paste has been filled in and fired


Cloisonné (shippo-yaki) jewelry was a favorite of mine.  My great-aunt Gertrude bought a gorgeous bracelet in Japan back in the 40s or 50s that I still have, and I found similar, but more modern items when I was there.  Cloisonné is silver and gold shaped into three-dimensional designs, then filled with colored ceramic paste and fired in a kiln.  The technique began in Byzantium, traveled to China, and then to Japan, where the Japanese gave the technique their own little twist.

Traditional pickles sold in Kyōto
Kyōto has some fabulous food.  The city is famous for kaiseki ryōri, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal.  The city has a farmer's market where you can find pickle shops.  Japanese pickles are made from a number of different vegetables and types of seaweed.  At the traditional shops, they sell pickles out in the open, in barrels, and you can have samples of the different types of pickles. Some are salt pickles and others are vinegar pickles.  They say that pickles help one digest the starchy rice that Japanese eat so much of.  Maybe that's why people are so thin, even though they eat so much rice.

Yaki imo seller's truck
One favorite food item in Kyōto was yaki imo, roasted sweet potatoes, cooked over a wood stove in the back of a truck or trolley.  The yaki imo seller has a traditional song that he sings as he drives his truck or pulls his trolley through the streets.  During the day, kids follow him around for a snack, just as kids here follow the ice cream truck.  They also sell sweet potatoes at night as a snack.  I loved hearing the song late at night in my neighborhood in Tōkyo, sung by a very old man with a sweet voice as he pulled his trolley through the neighborhood streets.  Here's a video where you can see the truck and hear one version of the song.

Traditional yaki imo man with wooden trolley that he pulls along.

Nama yatsuhashi, cherry-blossom, cinnamon and
green tea flavors
My other favorite food from Kyōto was nama yatsuhashi, which looks like triangular wontons (dumplings), except that they have a chewy, mochi-like texture and slightly sweet taste.  They are filled with azuki (red bean) paste, which is sweet.  Traditional flavors include green tea, cinammon, and "cherry blossom," which isn't so much of a flavor as a color.  These days, I hear they come in a lot of other flavors.  My favorite was cinnamon. :-)

The sweet azuki bean paste inside yatsuhashi.

1 comment:

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