I FIRST FELL UNDER the spell of Kyoto almost 40 years ago. Fresh out of graduate school with a degree in creative writing, I had managed to postpone entry into the real world by winning a two-year fellowship to teach at an international university in a suburb of Tokyo. For my first venture outside the modern capital, I chose to search for the heart of old Japan in the ancient capital, Kyoto. I arrived on a Friday night and spent Saturday exploring the cobbled alleys, artful shops and venerable temples that seemed to grace every neighborhood. I’ve been back a dozen times since then, and each time I’ve fallen more deeply under the spell of this inexhaustibly illuminating place. Here are three scenes that capture the quintessential enchantments — and corresponding lessons — of Kyoto.
Ryoanji: Slow Down and Focus
The place where my love affair with Japan began was the 15th-century rock garden at Ryoanji temple, in the Arashiyama district of northwest Kyoto, and it’s still the place I visit first whenever I return.
At first glance, the garden at Ryoanji seems sere, severe, even forbidding. There are no carefully cropped pines, no gracefully arching bridges, no reflecting ponds. This is a karesansui, or “dry landscape,” garden. Roughly 30 by 90 feet, it consists of 15 irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes, some encircled by moss, arranged in a bed of white pebbles. A low earthen wall surrounds the garden on three sides, overhung by a narrow, beamed wooden roof; on the fourth side, wooden steps lead to a wide wooden platform and the main building of the temple itself. Beyond the wall are cedar, pine and cherry trees.
I love this garden partly because it is so emphatically not a 10-minute tourist stop. Its dimensions defy the selfie and its subtle simplicity defies quick assimilation. It makes you stop and study, sit and stare until you really see it.
When you slow down and focus, you see how the pebbles have been meticulously raked in circles around the rocks and in straight lines in the open areas, and you see how those lines stop without a misplaced pebble when they touch the circular patterns, then resume unchanged beyond them. You see how pockets of moss have filled the pocks in the stones and how the pebbles echo the sky, the moss echoes the trees, and the wall and roof balance the platform. You see how the rocks seem to emanate a web of intricate, tranquil tension — sky and stone, petal and pebble —within the whole.
You see finally that this is a living Zen koan, because while there are 15 rocks in the garden, they are arranged so that you can see only 14 from any one vantage point. The garden is complete in itself, but for you to fully comprehend it, you have to transcend the boundary between inner and outer, to find and embrace the final stone in your mind.
This is one of Kyoto’s richest lessons for me, and it applies not just to the rock garden, but to the entire city: the more slowly and closely you look, inward as well as outward, the more you will see; take the time to stop, study, focus, absorb and you will be rewarded beyond imagining.
Gion-Higashiyama: Embrace the Past
After Ryoanji, I cross town to the Gion-Higashiyama district in the southeastern part of the city. Some of Kyoto’s most celebrated temples and shrines are here, including hillside-perched Kiyomizu-dera temple, famed for its expansive terrace and soaring views, and Yasaka Jinja shrine, renowned for its Gion Matsuri festival, which dates back to 869 and celebrates Japanese history and culture with displays and parades of floats and portable shrines throughout the month of July.
But I visit this area for its narrow streets lined with closet-size shops, each dedicated to a different traditional craft or product. In just a few blocks, you can get a sense of the sweep of Japanese culture: one shop offers hundreds of chopsticks, each with an individualized design; another specializes in ceramics made by Kyoto-based potters. This one features intricately latticed wooden lanterns, that one exquisite handmade washi paper. One tiny stall sells only brushes used for calligraphy; ask the wizened owner and he will patiently explain how each brush is made and how it should best be used.
The food shops honor tradition as well. In one an artisan makes piping hot senbei rice crackers; in another you can savor sweets made from mochi rice and red bean paste. On my most recent visit I found a narrow storefront elegantly displaying more than two dozen varieties of pickles and a venerable restaurant that prepares tofu a dozen different ways. My home away from home is a two-room teahouse that serves the thick frothy green matcha tea that is used in the tea ceremony; beyond its sliding doors customers are invited to admire a graceful Japanese garden with a compact pond where orange-and-white carp lazily swim.
I love that Kyoto honors and embraces its past in this way and makes that past seamlessly a part of its present. Every shop is like a mini-museum, exquisitely organized and presented, with a dedication to detail, a passion for provenance, and an aesthetic appreciation that illuminate the art and heart of Kyoto old and new.
By day this area is packed with visitors, but after dusk, the streets quiet and the past comes to life in different ways. Wander the hushed, cobbled passageways, and before long you’ll wonder what century you’ve stumbled into. Maiko and geiko performers in exquisite kimono, their faces white as the moon, mince down the lantern-lit streets. The plangent plucks of a samisen drift from a screened second-floor window. If the timing is right, a full moon will shine through the pine branches and cherry blooms and you’ll feel like you’ve become a character in a timeless sumi-e scene.
Cherry Blossom Viewing: Celebrate the Present
And it’s not just the boughs that have bloomed. Overnight, carts have sprouted selling cherry blossom ice cream, cherry blossom–flavored mochi rice paste sweets, cherry blossom– scented senbei rice crackers, even cherry blossom mousse. And the people have blossomed too: all along the path senior citizens smilingly shuffle, twentysomethings in bright pink and blue kimonos titter and flutter, schoolkids in blue and white caps skitter, and foreigners fumble and focus, all raising their eyes in shared celebration toward the exquisite boughs.
At night, I make my way to the grand Maruyama Park, where spotlights illuminate one of the most famous cherry trees in all Japan, a venerable weeping cherry tree, or shidarezakura, that looks like a fountain spraying pink petals. Throngs of admirers speaking a dozen languages pause and pose and snap photos, and the raucous sounds of singing and laughter carry on the air, emanating from great squares of blue tarp spread on the ground, with shoes neatly laid in rows beside them. Arrayed on these spreads are multilayered lacquer containers full of food — sushi, rice balls, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs wrapped in tempura-fried fish paste, salads, fried chicken — and big bottles of beer and sake. And sitting on the tarps are groups of students and salarymen, housewives and fashion models, grandmothers and blue-collar workers, all happily feasting and drinking, breaking into song and dance, guffawing and shouting and swapping tales, expressing their admiration in exuberant ohanami — cherry-blossom-viewing parties — as the Japanese have done for centuries each spring.
The ohanami embodies one more essential Kyoto lesson for me: life is transitory, fleeting and so infinitely precious. We should celebrate the effusive, efflorescent beauty of the moment, and at the same time, absorb the palpable pink and white truth that blossoming bestows: the universe is unfolding as it should, once again blessing us with these offerings of evanescence and eternity.