KYOTO, JAPAN — Green. Everywhere green. The depth of green that you only notice after days in the concrete and steel and asphalt of the city. Kyoto — Japan’s ancient capital — is also its youngest: born every day anew in a layer of moss, reeds, bamboo.
After a week in the megatropolis that is Tokyo-Yokohama-Chiba, we needed to evacuate to fresh air, space, quiet. Flying south on the Sakura Shinkansen — one Japan’s famous bullet trains — Kyoto was only a four hour ride, but a complete world away.
Until the Meiji restoration in the late 1800s, Kyoto was the heart and soul of Japan. In fact, even when the Shogun moved the capital to Edo, they renamed that city in respect to Kyoto’s legacy (“Tokyo” literally means East of Kyoto). Today, it’s still the storehouse of Japanese culture, with hundreds of shrines, temples and monuments snuggled in the valley between the Higashiyama and Arashiyama mountains.
Kyoto is shaped like a long, deep bowl, with the living population centered in the bottom along a wide river and the eternal population of gods, ghosts and monkeys residing in the mystical hills on either side.
Our first stop was the western Arashiyama highlands: dry, rolling hills that are sliced apart by the rapid-fueled Katsura-gawa river and accessed by a turn-of-the-century wooden street car.
Dotted along these western hills are a number of quiet palaces, shrines, temples and resting places. This is the wild west of Kyoto, where the green of bamboo and ferns overgrow the brick and stone of man-made endeavors.
We explored some of the loveliest temples, wandering through calm gardens, by the trickle of man-made streams and wondering at the perfection of lovingly cared for flower gardens.
The Arashiyama bamboo garden is acres of old growth bamboo that seem to swallow sound, light and visitors into its depth — nearly like being under water with the diffused light and muggy humidity. Located in the hills around the Tenryu-ji Temple, this grove reaches hundreds of feet into the Kyoto sky — a natural juxtaposition to Tokyo’s glass and steel skyline.
We strolled in silence through the deep green glow, exiting on the far side of the mountain near the banks of the Ōi River. There on the riverside, we relaxed in the dying sun, sipping cold Kirin and watching the long outboard motor longboats transporting locals home from work — again, quite a different type of “rush hour” than you find in the frenzied, overfilled capital.
Kiyomizu-dera is an ancient Buddhist temple built of huge timbers in the trees above the city — the incense smoke from its inner temple floating down through the leaves.
Before you enter the temple proper, a common excursion is to enter the “womb of the Bodhisattva” — a pitch black underground realm where you (blindly) follow the 100m path to a center temple with the softest glowing light on a massive stone, representing the birth of the world.It’s an experience completely unique unto itself.
Out in the sunshine, we explored this massive Swiss-Family-Robinson-like complex, enjoy a meal of cold Soba looking over the ravine. Then it was down the slope, following the pilgrim’s path through the neighborhoods of Ninen-saka and Sannen-saka: traditional quarters where Geisha still roam.
Heading north, we wandered through the modern Maruyama-koen park, before diving back into the highlands protected by Nanzen-ji.
One of the most important Buddhist temples in the world, the massive complex is dominated by the largest wooden gate in Japan. From its roof, you can look down on the entire city below. But the true splendor isn’t the complex’s massive structures; it is its most diminutive and understated.
In the foothills above the temple, there’s a tiny path that runs under an ancient aqueduct that supplied the monks with fresh water all year long.
You can follow the dirt trail past a quiet cemetery and up into the hills, where eventually you come to a small clearing with a tranquil temple and 100m high waterfall.
With no one around besides the calling birds and splash of the water, this is truly place where you can feel closest to nirvana. It may be the single most peaceful place on earth.
Quiet and full of thought, we made our way back into the world of the living. Kyoto city has the same energy and wonder as does every Japanese city, but without the frenzy that you find in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka. In fact, it’s most touristed locations are the several “Geisha districts” — tiny alleyways that lead through the city offering tiny bars, sushi stalls and of course homes where the Geishas entertain their guests.
It’s here that we ended our few days in this amazing city: following the blood red lanterns and flashing neon that — try as they might — couldn’t erase the memory of green that was stained into our minds and souls.