Almost a year ago, I was invited to join my wife on business in Japan. She had been once before, four years earlier. She had raved about the ancient capital of Kyoto, its magnificent temples and amazing civility. The destination this time? Hiroshima.
I must admit, I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of travelling long-haul to the site of the world’s first nuclear attack. But, when she pointed out that it could be the final destination in a longer trip, I started warming to the idea.
Japan really is a very long way. But Lufthansa made the trip especially tolerable, and we were negotiating Osaka’s rail system before you could say “arigato gozaimasu” (about twenty minutes). Soon we were on the slow train to Kyoto.
I was surprised by how westernised the centre of Kyoto was. The faces and the signs were the main clue as to your location in Japan, which was pretty built up and lacking in green spaces. Once we’d stumbled jet-lagged into our ryokan (traditional hostel), we hit the trains again for our first sample of Kyoto architecture — a Buddhist temple in the outskirts.
Trying our best to overcome the weirdness of bedtime feeling in the middle of the day, we had our first meal in a Zen Buddhist temple. This was a traditional sat-on-the-floor-eating-unidentifiable-objects-with-chopsticks type affair. It was a peculiar but fabulous experience, which I’d be hesitant to repeat, but glad I indulged, all the same.
The temple looked very much as expected: big ornate steep curved roofs, sliding wooden doors, paper-thin walls and matted floors. They were surrounded by carefully manicured gardens, which involved koi, herons and gnarly trees. We had found the traditional Japan.
There were quite a few temples in our five-day Kyoto itinerary. We soon became well-acquainted with them. It’s safe to say that we were all templed-out by the end of our stay. Don’t get me wrong — they are amazing beautiful and peaceful places — but you start to yearn for something a bit different after a while.
I guess the architecture is only part of the story. What I can’t seem to convey in my photographs is the atmosphere of tranquillity in these places. The sounds too. I became accustomed to chanting, droning, bells, gongs and clunking wood.
I’ve got to admit too, that most of these photographs give the illusion that these places were empty. Far from it. Kyoto is a large busy city, and there were tourists everywhere. I had to be determined to get some of these images without heads, hands and cameras getting in the way.
As well as the temples and pavilions, we visited a lot of Shinto shrines. These were characterised by the propensity of Torii gates, which were orange and black and varied in size from modest to bloody huge. More on this maybe next time.
I’ll leave you with the most impressive shrine in Kyoto, which includes of hundreds of torii in lines creating paths up the hillside, and is over 1200 years old.