This week, I had the good fortune to visit Kyoto. Readers of this blog will know that I visited Kyoto barely 6 months ago and fell absolutely in love with the historic, spiritual heart of Japan. It was sheer delight when I found out I would be back there this month.
This time’s visit was different, however. I went as part of a group from work, and the visit was much shorter, just a day. We had a guide to take us around, stayed at a pretty nice hotel, and ate at Indian restaurants.
The last time I was there, I was on a personal, solo trip, and stayed in Kyoto for a good 4-5 days. I stayed at a traditional ryokan inn and then a decent, low-key hotel. I took buses and trains, walked quite a bit, and ate at local restaurants in the Japanese tradition. I did barely two things in a day, like visit a zen temple in the morning, and then another one in the afternoon. I lingered and loafed, without hurry, without expectation.
Undoubtedly, the latter is the true way to see Kyoto. I mean, really see Kyoto for what she is. Kyoto is a city that doesn’t want to be anywhere else except where she is. While Tokyo and the rest of the world frantically speed ahead to catch who knows what, Kyoto rests in tranquility in her spot, like a lotus in a still pond. That’s why, you have to slow down too.
Walking through the bamboo forest at Arashiyama, the first time around, I breathed in the fresh green scent in the air. I heard birds overhead, I saw leaves flutter gently and then go still until another breeze stirred them again. At Nijo-jo Castle, I imagined the trepidation and awe with which visitors to the Tokugawa shogun waited in the third room, surrounded by menacing tigers on the walls around them, painted to intimidate. I pictured what life in ancient Japan must have been like, the immense power held by the shogunate.
The first time around, I walked through tiny lanes to find the oldest zen temple in Japan, snuggled within a residential neighbourhood. I meditated at another zen temple amidst a large campus, where apprentice monks could be seen going about their business. I hiked through thousands of bright orange gates at the Shinto site of Fushimi Inari to reach the summit point, from which I could scan the entire city beneath me.
There was no agenda except to be where I was. Because of this, I think, Kyoto unfolded herself. Her old stories flowed out. Her images painted themselves in the clear blue sky, in the grey pebbles carefully raked, in the brilliant green Japanese maple trees.
I loved being back in Kyoto. I will go back every chance I get. Like an old friend, though, Kyoto will best show her real self if you give her time to be herself.