23.06.2009, Kyoto, 2nd day


Up at 2.30 AM, spent useful hours reading up on Kyoto and gave my day a loose plan. It turned out very loose, I walked and walked following my nose. Must have done about 20 kilometres. Saw loads of temples, but mostly urban fabric. Lots of that. Many of the temples I came across I had studied from books which was fun, because you recognize them as you approach. My pictures, looking back on them just now, seem disappointing at a first glance: an overcast sky and muggy weather do not help the intrepid photographer. I started at 6 and walked towards Nijo castle. Made a quick stop at the family supermarket where I bought yoghurt, juice and a can of coffee. I was much too early for Nijo, so I decided to zig zag the grid down to the station. All of the streets were spotlessly clean and at the same time cluttered with stuff and endless rows of extremely indifferent buildings. Everyone is allowed to design their own plot it seems and people like shiny brown tiles and other cheap materials. In that sense Japan is very third word-like, much of the building would fit quite well in Kingston Jamaica or Lagos. Quite a few older ladies were up and about tidying their streets and tending their potted plants set on the street up against the wall of their houses and scanning the ground for the tiniest bits of rubbish. The men were walking briskly to work, mostly wearing summer suits, which you can identify by the easy way they catch the wind and flutter. As I neared the station I came across the Higashi Honganji temple and realized what I had been missing in my study of Japanese architecture from afar: a sense of scale. The thing is simply monstrous, huge! At the moment of writing the immense structure was covered in a massive steel envelope with scaffolding. It was being restored to its garish glory. If anything, that helped bring the size of these temples home to me. Mind you this one is the very largest of the large ones. Without descending into history, which I will gladly leave up to others more capable than I am, I did like hearing about its Machiavellian raison d ĂȘtre. Divide and rule. Hideyoshi, feeling that the Buddhist sect of the nearby Nishi Honganji temple was becoming too powerful decided to generate a rival sect to share the religious cake& Clever.

After the temple I spent a happy half hour at the extraordinarily ugly train station but not before having photographed the back of the Kyoto Tower Hotel. Whatever wars, fires and modernism did not manage to destroy of Kyoto was left for Postmodernism to finish off. Wars and fires destroy fabric, stuff, styles destroy the feel of a city by asserting and imposing their own feel on top of what is already there. But in destroying one thing they create something new. Good modernism had something. Is there good postmodernism? I doubt it. Whatever the answer to that, this country was far too rich for its own good during those dreadful eighties and nineties.

At the station I was too early for the tourist office by a mere quarter of an hour and so I had a coffee overlooking the central exit from a great height, enjoying the steady stream of people as they skipped and jumped to work. At a certain point l spotted a lady holding up an umbrella. That wouldn't have caught my attention, as many ladies have their umbrella's up against the sun and a very nice habit it is. Now Kyoto station is vast, but here she was with her umbrella up inside the hall. That was worth watching, so I observed her for about 10 minutes in her circuit around the immense hall; she followed a path of specially profiled tiles laid along the periphery of the hall for the benefit of the blind, and would stop and bow deeply here and there at imaginary beings in special places. A very gentle and above all polite madness. Later I saw her outside in the hot sun. She had folded up het umbrella and was sitting with great concentration among her bags, thinking about things.

I went on to the Sanjusanden Jo. I first tried my luck at the Yogen-in temple where they fob you off with a written letter saying that you cannot get in without a guide if you do not speak Japanese because " you wouldn't understand the paintings" What presumption! And what a stupidly prescriptive attitude to aesthetics. I felt mortally offended but remained impeccable in my behaviour to the smiling lady who had handed me the epistle. I merely shrugged my shoulders and swallowed a curse. If they don't want the temple full of babbling tourists, with which I can completely sympathize, as I am one myself and know what horrors I am capable of; they should come up with a less obvious subterfuge or try honesty. Anyway the Sanjusanden Jo is adequate compensation. A wooden hall, 33 bays wide, with its main opening in the centre of that long stretch, housing 500 hundred "Kannon" buddha's who may, as the book says, be female but nevertheless have curly thin moustaches etched into their faces and have loads of arms for carrying symbols. They stand, almost identical, gold plated, life-size, on a grandstand, like a huge audience at the races watching a thousand years of wish driven supplications by the devout and, more recently and steady flow of tourists of which some are genuinely interested. There was an American family drawing out their vowels of amazement. The father was there with a notebook copying all the accompanying explanations in English. The Hall, glorious and dark, smelt of dust and incense, depending on  where you stood. A priest kneeling opposite the central Buddha, much larger than the others and seated on a lotus flower, was chanting his prayer while hitting on a thing with a name, which I do not possess, but it looked like a birdscull. I later saw them at every temple I visited, so I'll have to find out their significance to religious technology. The ancient wood felt smooth and electric. I looked closely at the shoji screens separating us from the outside, seeing how they were made up of alternating horizontals and verticals forming double square rectangles. This was an interesting thing for me to notice and I was much pleased with myself.

I walked on to the Kiyomizudera temple, with its fantastic trabeated substructure. I missed the womb-like Tainai meguri temple, so I shall be going back tomorrow before I hit the philosopher's walk. I also missed the Kodaji temple, for some reason, probably because I was fobbed off by the boutique-ified streets of Southern Higashiyama with their Migashi houses full of surplus stuff to buy. I shall be going back to the Kodaji as well. I did go in to a lot of other temples and shrines but the only one really worth mentioning is the Shoren-in, which was lovely as a place of aristocratic retreat with its system of connected pavilions and the beautifully orchestrated interaction between the interiors and the intimate gardens. What a wonderful way to live!

I then went to the Imperial palace and booked myself for a visit to Katsura for Thursday afternoon. That is going to be the highlight of this trip, I already feel it. Getting permission to go there is like going through a visa application procedure to visit another country. I had to present my passport and fill in an elaborate form, twice. Anyway, after that I had had enough and walked straight back to the hotel without any more zig-zagging. After a short rest I went along Pontocho street, parallel to the river, which gives a new dimension to the idea of narrowness. No more than a corridor really, stringing more than a hundred restaurants together. Bodies standing in doorways were trying to entice you, in the gentlest possible way, into their elegant, fully authenticated wabi sabi interiors for suchi and sake. These bodies have to be negotiated in concert with the oncoming traffic of preoccupied Japanese business men who know where they want to go and want to get there in good time. I should have gone to sit on the embankment to watch the river go by. But I didn't, stupidly. Instead I went to bed too early, and now I'm awake again ready for day three.

Higashi Hongang-ji. The large pavilion is covered in scaffolding
Puzzler's delight near the station
The kyoto tower hotel, from behind.
The other entrance
Sanjusanden-jo as length
as repetitions
as symmetries. I wasn't allowed to photograph the Buddha's inside
The Shoren-in
Ah, so.
An exquisite roofline
Street diagrams of subterranean topography
A manhattan-like cemetry on the way to Kiyomizudera temple
Buddha's with napkins at the Kiyomizudera temple
A beautiful example of a Kura, a treasury as an insurance against fire
Lovely detailing of a bamboo barrier
The wishfulfilment industry at the Kiyomizudera temple
Serious substructure of
Ah, so. What I want to know is... is this a literal translation of what it says in Japanese.
Southern Higashiyama
Streets in Southern Higashiyama
Turning a corner
Geisha's in Southern Higashiyama, busy preparing for a polite photoshoot with visionary photographer
I have a theory about manhole covers. They were designed by seriously frustrated urban planners
Looking back to the temple gate.
The coarser gravel isthere to cover and thus hide a lid as well as mark it
A pillow for a precious painting
Stone steps up to the veranda
The man on the coffee vending machine has a winning smile
Detailing of the bamboo skirt
Two lovely traditional houses, one with it Kura set at right angles to the main volume.