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A quick rest at the base of Kyoto's To-ji TempleAug 18-25, 1999  Kyoto, Japan

It's on the steps just outside the translucent, gridded white paper walls of the Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, that we pull off our sandals, step across the threshold, and enter the sanctuary of the cavernous Great Founder's Hall. Entranced and in awe, we shuffle slowly across the huge expanse of the empty, furniture-less floor, in towards the altar that stretches stately across the temple's far wall. With each new step, I can feel myself gradually being seduced by the smooth feel of the rice straw tatami mats, cool against the tender skin of my bare feet. And becoming spellbound by the subtle, husky, fresh-hay smell of those same mats. And being enveloped by the simple, soothing, but rich combination of the temple's three predominate hues - the muted blonde of the tamati mats, the chocolate-brown of its pillars and beams, and the lustrous gold of the fixtures and inlay.

A priest initiates his secretive rituals at the gilded altar tableAs we settle on a spot to the right rear of the hall and squat down for a rest, I'm distracted by motion in one of the immense chamber's far corners. A dark-robed priest emerges from the shadows and silently glides across the lacquered floor of the alter, inwards towards its center. With a quick turn, he faces the gilded altar table and initiates his secretive rituals.

Priest's townhouse - downtown KyotoThis is it, I think to myself. This is just how I thought it would be. This is exactly how I'd imagined it would be like, look like, smell like, and feel like to be here, visiting this strange and unfamiliar land on the other side of the globe. In fact, even though it was almost two years ago, I can still remember distinctly the moment that we jotted down 'Japan' on our wish list of stops for this trip. I remember daydreaming about the grace and beauty of the astute but shy geisha girls, the skillful and shameless political maneuvering of the ruthless shogunates, and the legendary fighting feats of the fearless samurai warriors.

Laura models her favorite colorAnd now here we are, in the heart of Kyoto, or 'Hana no Miyako' (the 'Flowering Capital' as it's called by many Japanese) simply soaking in the ambience and character of the ancient and mystic Japan. Even though Tokyo now serves as the country's administrative capital, Kyoto still blooms with fields of the archipelago's open-air archives. It's not surprising that, as the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years (half of the country's recorded history), Kyoto holds a unique place in the hearts of the nation's citizens, and commands a choice spot on the itinerary of the country's visitors.

the gracefully curving slopes of the city's temple roofsThere's just so much to see and experience here. From the gracefully curving slopes of the city's temple roofs, jutting skywards aside the carefully combed pebbles of her rock gardens; to the crisp purposeful lines of the former capital's aged wooden houses, neatly lining the narrow cobbled lanes of her quiet thoroughfares, it's all here. Ironically, it's the sheer beauty and number of these very treasures that have saved the city that holds them, from the ravages of war. Story has it, that the former imperial seat is one of only a few populated areas in Japan to escape Allied bombing during the final months of WWII - although it seems that she escaped this fate only by the slimmest of margins.

'Wish', or prayer tablets outside a Buddhist templeDocuments from late in the war indicate that the city was actually on the short list of targets being slated for one of the two ultra-destructive A-bombs. It was the influential voice of Henry L. Stimson, then U.S. Secretary of War, who proposed sparing the city that he called "a shrine of Japanese art and culture". While figuratively it's only one 'shrine', but more literally, it boasts more than 200 actual shrines. Oh, and over 1,600 temples, along with thousands of historical houses and shops, all packed into these wonderfully curious little neighborhoods.

Johnny Hillwalker deals a hand of Japanese style plastic playing cardsFortunately, we still have the majority of the afternoon to explore one of these historical downtown areas, the one between Shimogyo-ku and Higashiyama-ku. With the help of our guide Hajime Hirooka (or, as he likes to call himself, Johnny Hillwalker), we leisurely wander the centuries-old streets, occasionally ducking through a twisting back alleyway or two, only to pop out again on yet another narrow avenue, lined with neat rows of machiya (townhouses). From the outside, each home looks calm and quiet, even empty. But behind the ricepaper shades, there's often a flurry of activity.

Spying on two young ladies working together to make fansAs following the traditional ways of the city's tradesmen, family members toil in cottage workshops, crafting Kyoto specialties such as prayer beads, ceramics, and those famous folding fans (invented, centuries ago, right here in Kyoto). We pop into one such folding fan, or Kyo-sensu studio, to spy on two young ladies working together to glue paper onto the fan's wooden spikes. Another stop treats us to an impromptu demonstration of the delicate art of ceramic painting. We wind up our walk, just as the heavens open with a pouring rain, with a dash into a rustic confectionery and tea house for a button-sized sweet and a miniature cup of green tea.

Garden bridge nearby a Shito shrine in downtown KyotoWe've spent the earlier part of this, our second day in Kyoto, taking in the simple splendor of even more of the ancient capital's temples and castles. There was Nijo-jo Castle with it's 'nightingale floors' - floorboards designed to squeak like birds, warning the ruling shogun of possible intruders. And then To-ji Temple with its tempting Kobo-san Market. Now it's time for a little R&R. Now, more towards the end of our trip, it's become fairly rare that we follow the advice of guide books when selecting a place for chow. Generally, searching until we find someplace that 'looks interesting' has proven to yield more culturally, if not sometimes more gastronomically, rewarding experiences.

Pondering how to spend your evening?  Try A BarAnyway, so far this place - 'A-Bar' - has offered us both. Our book bragged it to be "the best place to start the evening, in any season", so here we are, downing some beer and a few sakes with six young Japanese with whom we've ended up sharing a table. Everyone's starting to loosen up, as our waiter hops over with one more brew. While he demonstrates his skill with chopsticks (by popping the top off of our next bottle), Laura's complimenting Yoko, one of the girls next to her, on her ying/yang earrings.

"Kapmai!  Here's to Japan!"With what seems like less than even a second thought, Yoko takes her little ear adornments off and gives them to Laura. "You like? Here, for you" she says with a smile. Touched and surprised, Laura takes hers out of her lobes, and hands them to Yoko. "They're not nearly as pretty as yours, but here, you can have mine". Laura offers.  They embrace, jewelry swappers, and now new found friends. Yep, this is it I think to myself. This is just how I thought . . no, no, more like I hoped, yeah hoped it would be, to visit this strange and unfamiliar land across the sea. "Kampai" (cheers) I offer raising my glass to our new found friends. "Here's to Japan!" "Kampai!" they all toast back, in hearty agreement.

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Last modified: October 10, 1999    Photographs and text 1999 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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