Kyoto exists in your head long before you see any shrines or gardens. It’s there long before you walk down a cobbled street past a gleaming convenience store and into a row of old wooden houses. It’s there in your imagination even as the concrete and neon cast Tokyo-like shadows onto everything and you wonder if this is the right place. And it stays in your head long after you leave.
The city is flat, the streets arrayed in tight squares cut through with canals, stretching away on three sides up to the green mountains beyond. It’s a place that favours exploration on foot, or bicycle, and a great many of the locals ride everywhere. Office workers in suits and ties, the so-called salarymen, cycle to their jobs, and young hipsters manage to text and ride deftly through the crowds.
There’s no denying that Kyoto has all the usual ugliness that comes with rapidly urbanised cities. But while in places like Beijing or Tokyo you have to hunt for traces of history and beauty, in Kyoto it pops up everywhere you go. Quite simply, Kyoto is blessed with an overwhelming concentration of shrines, temples, traditional houses and gardens unrivalled anywhere in Asia. And they are more than just museum pieces. In Kyoto the traditions of old Japan are not simply preserved but still practiced, giving the city’s thoroughly modern inhabitants both an outward aesthetic and a cultural pulse as they live within the city.
I had the privilege of spending four nights in Kyoto, walking the streets everyday from early morning til evening, gorging myself on as much of the city as I could get, and though it filled me up, I know I didn’t see half what Kyoto has to offer. I’m going to write a few entries about the place, as it would be impossible to cram everything into a single piece. But I saw everything that defines the romanticised image of classical Japan – moss-covered gardens, red shrine gates in the forest, dark bamboo groves, silent zen rock gardens and geisha walking hurriedly down the cobbled stones of the hanamachi at night. But Kyoto is not just a collection of romanticised images. It’s in your head long before you get there, but the real thing is so much calmer, clearer and more beautiful than that.