Alone in Kyoto: Pico Iyer in a Winter Without Tourists

Earlier this winter, I went on a warm evening to Chion-in, the extremely forbidden gate temple along the hills east of Kyoto. One of the most famous Buddhist sites in Japan, it’s a popular gathering place for crowds to hear a giant bronze bell ring 108 times on New Year’s Eve, dispelling illusions of a coming year. end.

On this evening, like other temples around the ancient city, its doors were opened to celebrate the annual “Morning,” or illuminating after the darkness of its halls and gardens. Remarkably, there was no one in sight when my wife and I arrived; two years ago, there was a riot that extended to nearby Maruyama Park. More notably, this year we were allowed to climb the steep steps in its 70-foot gate and saw a golden Buddha, with 16 disciples, watching from a hall almost all last night. the glare of what is now a built house. -up, the modern city is constantly bustling.

Japan is brilliantly blue during the winter, and in the 30+ years I’ve been here, I’ve found the months to be as tranquil as a hidden gem between the seasons. Everyone knows about the cherry blossoms in April and the maple leaves in November, and the summers are so hot and sweaty that many of us try to escape then. But winter is clear, dry and invigorating; although there have been a few different snowfalls where I live this year, they are more fuwari-fuwarias they say here, or float, more shin-shinsilent and unceasing.

And when 2019’s nearly 32 million international visitors are virtually gone – Japan has held its borders very firmly for almost two years now – suddenly the old attractions are fresh again. A city that I associate with reserve and admire feels as if it were liberated from a series of social obligations and allowed to be private and self again.

The ponds and landscaped gardens of Eikan-do Shrine © Bridgeman Images

My wife (a lifelong Kyoto) and therefore I wandered around like never before enjoying the familiar tranquility. We went to the temple called Eikan-do to sip a cup of solid green tea under red umbrellas as the end-of-year maple leaves burn carpeted the aisles. A country bus took us around twisty turns, deep into a car-free quiet, to the small farming village of Ohara, 30 minutes north. As the sun sets on rusted leaves and azaleas, the Sanzen-in temple’s Garden of Pure Pleasure affects me more than ever, if only because I seem to age when it hasn’t. never happen.

Map of Kyoto, Japan f

In the even older 8th-century capital Nara, 20 miles south of Kyoto, the central temple known as Kofukuji has closed its doors so we can enter the second tallest wooden temple in the world. country and see centuries-old statues. A few weeks later, its rulers opened its new Golden Hall for a rare chance to see some other rarely seen deities. Only a handful of locals have proof.

Part of Kyoto’s particular appeal is that it is always finding new ways to express ancestral opulence and caution. Like the other seasoned beauties of the world – I think of Venice and Shanghai – it seems to know how to change with the seasons to stay fresh and alluring. On Christmas Day, we went to lunch at the trendy Ace Hotel, one of dozens of new establishments set up in response to the pre-pandemic tourism boom. A variety of high-end boutiques have sprung up around it, offering everything from books to designer chocolates.

Newly planted rice plants in flooded rice fields in Ohara © Alamy Stock Photo

Quite often in Kyoto, it’s hard to tell if you’re bowing to an ancient spell or a modern one. Japanese nightlife has long been magical using lanterns that are dim and quiet enough to create a deeper sense of mystery while illuminating a dim path into the center of darkness.

In December, postmodern lanterns are beautifully arranged along the riverbank in Arashiyama, western Kyoto, and the famous bamboo grove is transformed by indigo and sapphire lamps. In the city center (where Nintendo and the International Manga Museum are located), even the huge central train station has been transformed into a wonderland with corridors equipped with lanterns and projection video screens. autumn leaves and temples above its rushing elevators. Every night, the LEDs create new patterns over a series of steps.

Bamboo groves in Arashiyama, western Kyoto, light up at night during the Hanatouro festival © Shutterstock / Nishitap

The core of the Japanese aesthetic shows that nothing lasts and that is why we must cherish it. The heart of beauty is its growth (hence the glorification of fleeting cherry blossoms). We know this hiatus – with the attractions relatively empty – won’t last forever, just as my wiser neighbors know that pandemics (like wars, hurricanes, and hurricanes) god) won’t happen forever. Then, when it’s better, to enjoy new attractions – the sleek Park Hyatt, for example, is among the narrowest and most picturesque sloping pilgrim streets in the entire city – when Do they bring new life to old places?

On my last day before my rush to fly to California, I urged my wife to come with me to Chishaku-in, an often neglected shrine along the eastern hills. Now, when the golden light of the late afternoon, uniquely sharp in the middle of winter, lit its streets, we were told we had the rare chance to see a dragon snarling on the roof. of a temple next door, a small Buddha on the other side. In the main garden, long considered one of Kyoto’s hidden treasures, the trees shine, the electricity in the dying lights, alongside a pristine landscape that recreates a mountain in China , the silence becomes deep and sweet by the sound of falling water.

Sanzen-in Buddhist Temple, in Ohara, 30 minutes by bus from Kyoto © Alamy

The crows are standing still as the days come to an end. We could hear – never before – monks chanting in front of a Buddha lit by four candles in one of the meditation halls. There is no one to be seen in the radiant tranquility but ourselves.

The first time I visited Kyoto, as a tourist, I stayed in a small guesthouse right by the road, and wandered every morning to the spacious compound, in my innocence convinced that it must be one of the landmarks of the ancient capital. In fact, it has on several itineraries in an area of ​​1,600 temples and 17 world heritage sites. But now it really is a miracle and I realize that even after 34 years of living recently, I can still be strongly influenced by a simple sense of pristine tranquility. The best lesson of the pandemic for me is not to take anything for granted; The fact that nothing exists is reason for glory while it exists.

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