A Random Walk Through Kyoto

Although our visas indicated that our official reason for visiting Japan was to attend a conference, in truth we were hardly ever spotted at the conference site. Except for maybe the first half of the first day, during the opening ceremonies (for the free dinner), and the day of our presentation, the rest of our one week vacation became literally that: prowling the streets of Kyoto, getting lost in the city’s subway system (maybe it’s no Tokyo, but compared to Manila, it’s a labyrinth in its own right), and partaking in all the ramen and unlimited yakiniku the country had to offer. Now that I think about it, that sounds about all we really ate during that week.

The golden pavilion seen from behind, with the fishing deck visible.

On the one of only two days that we were actually able to wake up in time for the conference’s early call time, all the seminars were cut to cover just half the day so the attendees could spend the rest of the afternoon touring Kyoto. The organizers were offering group tours for a nominal fee, but we decided to ditch all that and DIY an itinerary that was more our speed. After getting unlimited bus passes from a 7 Eleven outside the conference grounds (the Kyoto TERRSA somewhere in Minami ward), we rode north towards the Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion that features in one of Yukio Mishima’s novels.

The entire theme of our one-week visit was the constant amazement at the Japanese’s insistence to remember. The structure that stands now, that greeted us during our visit two years ago, is a reconstruction from 1955. The original temple burned down twice: first during the Onin Upheaval that lasted from 1467 to 1477, and then again on the morning of July 1950 by a novice monk named Hayashi Yoken – the incident that became the subject of Mishima’s novel. The present pavilion is said to be a close copy of the original, a villa converted into a Zen temple after the death of the shogun Yoshimitsu. The lacquer and gold coating have been renewed here and there (the gold leaf covering was replaced with thicker material back in 1987), the paintings and roofing reworked (the last restoration being in 2003). As a result, the pavilion, and the rest of the buildings in the complex, stand proud and fresh, as if pulled right out of history.

The head priest’s quarters.

This insistence that must seem natural for the Japanese psyche gives a breath of fresh air to someone more familiar with the Filipino proclivity to forget. Back home, heritage sites are demolished or defaced without so much as a pang of guilt, so long as someone is writing a fat check. History is swept under the rug, while politicians ask the public to leave all remembering to the overworked, underfunded historians locked inside the universities. While Japan is no stranger to historical revisionism, its national psyche nevertheless is in a constant act of reaching backwards, rowing against the current, always creating and preserving a coherent understanding of itself, whilst us Filipinos drift aimlessly with the tides, unaware of who we are or where we’re headed.

The pavilion, under sunlight, bathes in the warm tones of the pond (the kyoko-chi, or the mirror pond) and the greens of the inscribing garden. In this ambiance, the gold leaf covering the second and third levels of the pavilion serves as a welcome tonal counterpoint: standing out as the obvious centerpiece. Though the temple was originally built in a period of Japanese history known for its excesses, the golden color of the pavilion is supposedly an intentional symbol of purity from death, a running theme in much of Japanese expression.

Tourists and locals mill about the garden. While photographs of the pavilion invoke a sense of meditative calm, in truth the scene is noisy with low murmurs and the incessant clicking of smartphone cameras. As this was in July, the day blisteringly hot despite the typhoon just three days prior, many of the visitors have donned their yukatas, the traditional Japanese summer clothing. I ask my friends to take a photo of me with two locals, who accept my request with a smile, even though I hardly even knew their names, or they mine. After shooting a few photos of them and us together on my camera, they insisted on taking some photos with their smartphone as well. Then they gave me and my friends a welcome in giggles and smiles, and we expressed our adoration of their country. I would have preferred to stay around, to take in more of the strolling garden and the relatively modest architecture of the neighboring priest’s quarters, but the swell of tourists kept pushing us onwards, until – too soon – we were back at the complex gates.

The niomon, at the entrance of the Kiyomizu-dera complex.

Not wanting to cut the tour too short, we loaded into another bus this time going East, to the Kiyomizu-dera, a contender with the Fushimi-inari shrine for the (cliched) image of Kyoto. The choice of our second destination was due, in part, to a miscalculation: the entire transfer easily took a full hour from the short window we had, as a lot of the establishments were closing as early as five or six. By the time we finally stepped inside the Kiyomizu-dera complex, the sun was on its way down, and my camera had already lost its battery. All my photos of the stage and the surrounding pagodas in the complex were taken the following day, when we decided to completely ditch the conference activities and take the one hour train ride going to Nara. Just as we completed the uphill walk through a neighborhood of traditional Japanese houses, a man with a megaphone was announcing that the site was closed.

Disappointed, we took a few photos of the outermost pagoda, some more locals in yukatas walking around outside the complex, and then proceeded on our way back to the main road. Going downhill, however, we decided to take a few random turns through the neighborhood, marveling at the wooden panels and hanging eves of the old houses. The neighborhood, like all neighborhoods we’d come into during our trip, carried the silence of someone brooding. Except for the restaurants and souvenir shops taking in business, windows were always shuttered, and not a hush of activity can be heard through the walls. Were the Japanese a very quiet people, or were their houses built with really thick walls?

Eventually, night fall over us while we made our aimless walk through the neighborhood. Feeling famished from our afternoon, we took a chance at the first restaurant we could find: a modest eatery inside one of the houses in a spot that I’ve now forgotten exactly where. The home-cooked tofu and noodles were alright, but what really made our evening was the wacky waiter who somehow figured out that we were Filipino, and proceeded to impress us with the handful of Filipino words and phrases he’d picked up from other tourists who had come this way. He even had a notebook for them. Pat and Sean, themselves having a handful of Japanese with which to converse with him, proceeded to teaching him a few more words, like the name for various cutlery and food. He nodded enthusiastically, writing everything down in his notebook whilst trying out the exotic pronunciations.

Leaving the premises, we made a note to remember the place, promising to come back soon, more for the memorable waiter than the food itself. Although by now I’ve lost the note that I’d saved into my phone. Maybe my friends still have the name or address saved somewhere.

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