Vol. 4 Num 234 Wed. January 21, 2004  

About citieS
Kyoto is like a kimono

Kyoto is like a kimono. If that sounds like a silly stereotypical remark, let me try to wiggle out of it.

I arrived in Kyoto on a chilly December afternoon. Even with the sun out in its orange balm, and being fortified by winter accessories, I thought to myself that I should have picked a better time to travel in Japan.

That night, when I woke up and walked over to the terrace of my room in a traditional Japanese inn, I noticed it was snowing, just the mildest flurry falling stealthily in the dead of the night. Unless I had woken up, I would have never witnessed the silence of the snow. In the morning, there was hardly any trace of it on the ground. I would have to look for evidence on the roofs of the temples.

I had asked my friend Eiji to find a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, and put me up there instead of a characterless hotel. Kyoto is still the cultural epicentre of Japan, and if I am going to get a flavour of it, I must do it as fully as I can, I thought. Well, the ryokan wasn't easy. When I walked into the room, there was nothing, literally nothing, just a Zenish space with tatami mats. The mattress and blankets were in the closet which were laid out later. And the room was a closed box, very chilly. The room didn't even look out through a window. There was a shoji screen that you had to push apart to go to the small terrace that took you to the restroom, a hall down. My snow-viewing terrace!

Eiji is from Kyoto and teaches architecture at a nearby university. He knows the city inside out, and knows the places that are often away from, well, "foreign" eyes. The inn was located in one of the most charming areas of Kyoto, still maintaining the ancient urban flavour. The area was next to a set of grand temple complexes, the Kodaiji and the Yasaka shrine. The city of Kyoto is dotted with such temples. I, on my own, would never have found the inn in that area. In Kyoto, you either have to get local help or hang around for sufficient time to really discover the essence of the city.

For on first glimpse, as you fan out from the train station, the city eludes definition. It appears as many Japanese cities as a disorderly ensemble of the pop, the neon, the stark, the glary, the tall, the short, the non-descript... what have you. In short, a lack of urban coherence in its conventional sense. Well, you fan out, walk, and patiently look for the secrets. And if you are patient, the city reveals itself. Like when you are dressed in a kimono, you cannot rush yourself, you have to set up to a certain pace. The outerwear of the kimono is one thing made for the world, and the innerwear is something else, there is also that exquisite design in the inner back that nobody else can see except for the persons present when the kimono is being taken off. The secret reveals itself in a pact of intimate trust.

I really did not go looking for the intimate realms but the sort of opened up. First, the temple gardens, then the little courtyards, private gardens and forecourts which make up the entrance to a residence, an inn, a café

, or a shop in the old city. In the daytime, the courts are invisible behind the high and blank walls -- oh, I must say, they are beautiful walls which through the calculated cracks and openings in the fine-grained timber reveal a mysterious and meticulously crafted garden or a small pool. If you have business in a shop, you can walk right in. And every detail, and every construction is so exquisitely made that they take your breath away. At night, as you walk down the same streets, again behind the blank and now dark walls, you see the shimmer of the lighted courtyards, which are now really like jewels glimmering in the night. If that is profuse metaphors, you will have to pardon me. That's as much as I can get close to in describing the gardens of Kyoto. Eiji tells me that one day in the year, on some festival, some of the walls are pushed back and all the courtyards are then visible from the street. The people of Kyoto go strolling up and down peering inside on that day without guilt.

The area is also known for the geishas. One travel book mentioned that if you are lucky, one just might be sighted. One drizzly evening, as I was returning from dinner, I saw her, perfect in her lemon-yellow kimono, her hair in a stylized setting, and her face lit by the makeup. She came out of a restaurant, and two men reverently holding an umbrella over her, hurried her onto a waiting taxicab. She was gone.

I was brave going into a traditional restaurant for dinner, brave because there is no menu, only your hostess describes it. And since there is no English spoken, and I speak no Japanese, who knows what you are ordering and how many millions of yen it will turn out to be. I checked my wallet, and walked in. I was ushered into a small room, sat on the floor in front of a beautiful lacquer table, where the only meaningful words I gathered from the hostess seated across me was sashimi, tempura, sake, and her kind gestures. She walked with me to the door after the meal and stood outside in the most courtly way until I had walked almost out of sight.

The gardens of the temple are another thing, but still part of the same exquisite experience. Well, as I found out, Kyoto is a city of myriads of temples and gardens. You could easily spend a month trying to cover the most important ones. I had three days. I could only visit a few of the ones that I knew. And, of all the temples, I just had to visit the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a most precious and exquisite piece of architecture. I will even admit, I went to Kyoto just to see that temple.

Kinkakuji, that's how the temple of the Golden Pavilion is known, was built in the 14th century by the shogun Yoshimitsu as a villa in a grand garden and then converted to a Zen temple after his death. The three stories of the temple are in three different styles, the top two levels are completely wrapped in gold foil. The snow that had collected on the bent roof of the temple, on the day I visited, made it more precious. The temple was burned down twice in its history and each time rebuilt. In 1950, a Zen monk of the temple crept towards Kinkakuji in the dark of the night and burnt it to the ground. It was rebuilt again, but it led the famed author Yukio Mishima (the ultra-nationalist who committed ritual suicide in 1970, but that is another story) to write a book, a fictional account of trying to grasp why a Zen monk, a stuttering, partially lame person who serves in that temple would burn it down. The book is unresolved. Was the monk taken in so much by the lustrous beauty of the architecture, a beauty that eluded him and taunted him and beckoned him, all at the same time... is it possible that the only way to consume that beauty is to destroy it? A Zen parable here on the ephemeral nature of things, or the dark side of the Japanese psyche?

There is a well designed path that takes you to and away from the temple, past a pond, a small pavilion with moss roof and finally the tea house. The path allows you various vantage points to witness the temple as you turn corners, and climb mounds. Except for few points, there are only partial views. You can, as I thought, only walk away from the Golden Pavilion. I stood across the pond, at a vantage point that was populated by an army of tourists even in that weather who were brandishing all kinds of digital cameras and cell phones. No, they were not calling their loved ones left behind at home, they were using the camera on the cell phone. Well, I found my own spot, and proceeded to gaze, stare and glare at the Golden Pavilion as if I could rinse some meaning out of this preposterously beautiful structure. I thought I was beginning to understand why the monk burned it down. Almost... until a camera corps noisily took up position in front of me.

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, an architect and writer, currently teaches at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.