Notes from Kyoto
With my head against the train window, I napped. Just when dreams began to penetrate the consciousness, an announcement abruptly ruptured the hypnotic trance. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity — mobile phones came out and people crowded near the windows. I looked out. There was Mt. Fuji, alone and proud, despite its blunted peak, wearing a thin sheath of snow. I took the accidental sighting as a sign of good things to come.
I was on a business trip to Tokyo, and had taken the Shinkansen bullet train that morning to Kyoto. The former imperial capital of Japan has enough to offer to keep a first-time traveller occupied for at least a week. I chose to spend at least a day in this city that I had been wanting to visit for several years.
A common complaint about Kyoto is that the city overspills with tourists throughout the year. However, I was there in February and was relieved to find no tourists since the cherry trees had not blossomed. That meant I could walk around freely checking out Shinto shrines, Zen gardens, and the famed walking paths of Kyoto without standing in long queues of selfie-seekers.
Kyoto Station is a big modern glass and steel architecture with multiple entries and exits that make it easy to get lost. But the tourist information office at the station is manned with helpful English-speaking staff. Given that I had eight hours in the city, they helped me identify the main shrines that I could cover.
I started at the Inari shrine, marked with thousands of vermillion toriis. The toriis are essentially wooden gates that, when one passes through, symbolise the transition from the mundane to the sacred. Such gates were found at several Shinto shrines, but the Inari shrine had a circumambulatory route that ran up a hill and back, punctuated with toriis. Some claim that toriis are a borrowed artefact; they are similar to torana gates found in Indian Buddhist shrines, especially at Sanchi Stupa. I walked the path, which overlooked a fish pond, in quiet solitude. The feverishness of Tokyo that had rubbed off on me began to fade away.
Kyoto is not small. One relies on its well-connected public transport system or taxis to get from one point to another. Taxis are cheap and easily accessible. Uber hasn’t had much of a success in Japan since taxis are reasonably priced anyway. I hailed one to Ginkakuji shrine, which marks the beginning of a 2 km walk called the Philosopher’s Path, named after a famous Kyoto university professor, Nishida Kitaro, who walked this path every day. The path was lined with thousands of cherry trees still clad green. I didn’t mind. I walked leisurely, noticing the delicate Japanese architecture that had inspired Le Corbusier also.
A short detour took me inside the Ginkakuji shrine. As in most Japanese shrines, a walking path encircles the main shrine. . On the path lay beautifully manicured moss and dry sand gardens.
Time slipped through the fingers like fine Japanese sand. Yet even I, a checklist-ticking, obsessive traveller who wants to cover everything, felt oddly calm. I had not seen even a quarter of Kyoto.
As the darkness began to spread softly, settling on the traditional wooden machiya houses like black dew, I walked around aimlessly in Kyoto’s Gion district to fold my visit. There, in a traditional tea house, over a hot bowl of matcha and wagashi, I reflected upon the day. I had come to Kyoto seeking beauty, and I didn’t have to travel far. Every nook offered a peek at the calming spiritual glue that has still not come undone despite Kyoto’s modernity.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu