Thursday, April 17, 2014


Meditation and modernism in Japan

Executive summary by darmansjah

One of Kyoto poet Buson’s most famous haikus reads: “On the one-ton temple bell a moon-moth, folded into sleep, sits still.” If Japan is the temple bell, Kyoto is the moth—tranquil, delicate, intricate, and wildly mysterious, centuries after the first outsider was drawn to its woodsy hilltop Shinto shrines and rarefied Buddhist temples. The city is about to get an influx of luxury hotels, making room for more tourists, but for now a golden-hour walk along the Kamo riverbank still reveals the gentleness and gracefulness of Japan’s ancient capital, as does a self-guided tour of the 1.1-mile canalside Philosopher’s Path in the Higashiyama neighborhood.

Transfixed by Kyoto’s wealth of historic structures, visitors sometimes overlook the city’s compelling modernist sites. The Shigemori Residence features a dynamic Zen garden designed by mid-20th-century landscape architect Mirei Shigemori. Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando’s eccentric Garden of Fine Arts features oversize portraits of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and an underwater version of Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies.” Some 30 miles east, the Miho Institute of Aesthetics, with an edifice designed by I. M. Pei, opened in 2012. His stainless steel teardrop-shaped chapel is a minimalist architectural marvel that conveys Kyoto’s cutting-edge energy. —Adam H. Graham

Travel Tips

When to Go: Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season typically is late March through mid-April. July’s monthlong Gion Matsuri festival is one of Japan’s oldest and largest events. Fall foliage peaks in November.

Where to Stay: The 535-room Hotel Granvia Kyoto is conveniently located above the Japan Railway Kyoto Station Building, which includes a sprawling underground mall. Spend at least one night in a traditional wooden inn like the 12-room Ryokan Shimizu.

How to Get Around: Take the Japan Railway Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to connect to Kyoto’s efficient transportation network of buses, trains, subways, and taxis. Explore the Higashiyama neighborhood’s shrines, temples, and museums on foot. The Kyoto Tourist Guidebook includes numerous walking tour routes.

Where to Eat or Drink: Many restored machiyas (traditional wooden townhouses) house bars and cafes. Try Urume (lunch only) for heaping bowls of soba noodles. Leave room for freshly made kinako (soybean powder) ice cream from Gion Kinana.

What to Buy: Traditional Kyoto artisanal products include Nishijin fabrics and kimonos, furoshiki (gift wrapping cloth), wood block and rubber stamps, hand-carved wooden hair clips and combs, and Kiyomizu yaki pottery.

What to Read Before You Go: Sake & Satori: Asian Journals-Japan by Joseph Campbell (2002) gives a snapshot of 1950s Japan based on the author's journeys and offers a basic understanding of Kyoto culture and history.
Fun Fact: Its shiragikui (white chrysanthemum) spring water has made Kyoto’s southern Fushimi district a nihonshu brewing hub since the 17th century. In Japan, nihonshu means Japanese alcohol (known as sake elsewhere), while the word sake refers to any alcohol.

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