Kyoto is my new disneyland
- Boboy S. Consunji () - March 18, 2012 - 12:00am

KYOTO, Japan — The room was small and austere. There was no color to disturb the tone of the interiors. Seven Filipinos and an Australian stranger sat on the tatami, and waited patiently for the teamaster-host to enter. Garbed in a kimono, she did not speak for a good five minutes. She first lighted the charcoal fire to heat a caddy. She bowed slowly, then pulled out a small fan from her obi and laid it down gently on the floor as a welcome gesture. With a tiny hemp cloth, she cleansed all the other delicate equipment on the floor — deep tea bowls that looked centuries-old; a tea scoop carved out of a single piece of bamboo; and a tea whisk, also made of bamboo, used to mix the powdered tea with water. After whisking, she bowed again, and handed the bowls to each of her guests. 

Much as we were dying to drink up the hot tea on that chilly February evening, we couldn’t. We were told to first turn the bowls clockwise, three times, before we could take a sip. We did get to drink all the tea, but I can’t remember how it tasted. After all, it was not about the tea. It was more about “The Way of the Tea,” spelled out as Wa, Kei, Sei and Jaku (harmony, respect, purity and tranquility).

 Several slow and graceful steps followed in the hour-long ritual. Each step underscored those monosyllabic Japanese principles. The etiquette of tea taught us what was at the heart of Japanese thought: societal harmony, reverence for nature and man, the disdain for ostentation, peace, intimacy.

Those same principles I thought were not exclusively Buddhist or Confucian. They were Kyoto, the one place I’d like to visit again and again.

First Impressions: Kyoto Is Tokyo-Lite

Priceless view from the train to Kyoto: The magical Mount Fuji Photo by Ivarluski Aseron

After spending several days in Tokyo, my group thought we should move on to Kyoto to experience the real Japan. Kyoto is said to be the cultural yin to Tokyo’s yang. The two cities’ similarities purportedly end with the exact letters they share. But the arrival at the Kyoto Station from the Tokyo-Kyoto bullet train that took two hours and 45 minutes appeared to be anti-climactic. The station was a magnificent monolith of irregularly shaped plate glass and towering steel frames. Was I back in Tokyo? The human traffic was reminiscent of central Shinjuku. I didn’t see anyone in a colorful kimono. The scene instead was a sea of black, women in tailored Chanel winter wear, men in Comme des Garcons trousers with pockets and buttons whimsically placed. Was this the old Japan of tiny stone alleys and quaint wooden houses? Was I seeing Japan’s future all over again when I wanted to embrace its past? 

But then again, I was still in Japan. It was a continuing journey through fascinating contradictions and incompatibilities. 

It didn’t take long before the beauty of Kyoto unraveled. Soon after we dumped our bags in the hotel that was adjacent to the central station (a lovely hotel — we could open all our suitcases at the same time in our spacious room, unlike our Tokyo experience; the toilet bowl automatically opened when you’d enter and had more bidet options!), we started our tour at a Kyoto temple.

Not All About Temples

The Kiyomizudera temple: Visit this first before temple fatigue strikes. Photo by Peck Imson

Those who’d been afflicted with museum fatigue in Europe could be stricken by its cousin, temple fatigue. Kyoto is second only to Rome in terms of the number of UNESCO Heritage sites, and most of these are temples. I suggest you only pick a few to visit, like the Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion for practicing your chocolate-box photography skills — the gold-leaf covered temple’s reflection on the large pond is a perfect shot from any angle; and Kiyomizudera.

Kiyomizudera is the largest temple in this 1,000-year-old city. It’s on top of the hill and offers a majestic view of Kyoto. I thought the more interesting part was the climb up “Teapot Lane” to the top. It’s a souvenir hunter’s paradise, replete with cute handicraft, omiyage (candies and other edible stuff), fans, parasols, kimonos, handbags made of kimonos, ceramics, spices, incense, paper items, dolls, furoshiki (Japanese fabric wrapping), local art, paintings, scrolls. Nobody does cute the way the Kyotoites do. 

It was a fascinating market scene. I didn’t think it was just the cold Kyoto weather that kept the tourists from engaging in shopping frenzy. The shops cleanly lined the alley. The window displays were lovingly decorated, with nothing garish in sight. The shop owners tended their shops with such dignity and elegance that it felt wrong for a shopper not to treat their merchandise with the same respect. It was a preview of Wa, Kei, Sei and Jaku, over a jar of pickled radish, among other things.

Dusk set in while I was wandering around Kiyomizudera in search of a noodle house. I found myself in an alley lit only by red lanterns bobbing above wooden houses. A faint melody on bamboo flute was playing. The only other sound I heard was the clip-clopping of sandals from a woman who seemed eager to join her family for dinner. It was a scene straight out of an old Japanese triptych painting. 

Of Nightingales, Tofu, A Lone Geisha, And My New Disneyland

Small wooden plaques where wishes or prayers are written by Shinto worshippers.

The best way to have an even more magical tour through Kyoto is on bicycle. I regretted not doing that because I opted for the lazier bus tour. My friends Dennis Lustico and Rocky Tirona rented bikes, and swore it was worth every yen. The tour, led by a middle-aged woman, took them to the same major destinations where our bus stopped, but the bike lane was already a sight unto itself — wide, neatly paved, free from careening motorists that irk us every day on EDSA. Their ride also afforded them a priceless peek into everyday Kyoto living; plus, they saw more geishas.

The bus tour took us to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Emperor’s home a century ago. It was good I saw it in winter because there weren’t many tourists. Even without the cherry blossoms, the gardens were beautifully landscaped. Some trees were delicately wrapped to protect them from the cold. Security was tight. The main structure itself was off-limits, but even from a distance, the grand architecture, lavish paintings and intricate carvings were enough to bring me back to the Edo period of shoguns and ninjas.

Incidentally, before our 30-man group was escorted into the sprawling site, we were asked to assemble in straight rows of six so they could precisely count us, much like what you’d see in a parade for Kim Jong-Il. I thought that was so nerdy of the Japanese. But again, cute.

The Nijo Castle tour was more tourist-friendly since we got to retrace the steps of shoguns past. The guided tour was interesting, filled with stories of how distrustful the shoguns were. The tatami mats were thick enough to repel assassins underneath; the harem was armed with daggers tuck under obis; and the floors squeaked like nightingales as early-warning devices for intruding ninjas. Pomp, pageantry, paranoia.

But my two top memories of Kyoto would have to be Gion and Nishiki Market. Gion is the only geisha district left in Japan. Here is wanderlust realized, as you snake through a collection of streets with old buildings, teahouses and restaurants offering Kobe beef. I caught a glimpse of one genuine geisha shuffling in between gigs in her cumbersome sandals and kimono. That was a money shot.

At the En Tea Ceremony House: The tea was forgettable but the ritual was enlightening. Photo by Ivarluski Aseron

Our last day was spent at the Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto. The “Kitchen of Kyoto” is rich with history and tradition. Think Farmers Market in Cubao, but bigger, even much cleaner and more colorful. It started as a sprinkling of food stalls to serve Shinto worshippers on weekends. It had since evolved into a huge complex offering seafood, meats, produce and pickled stuff. While looking for Kyoto’s tofu, coveted all over Japan, I chanced upon ancient temples and cemeteries. And as I walked a few steps further, I found retail stores attached to the Nishiki. Apparel, footwear, pet cafés, second-hand luxury goods, Pachinko shops, ice cream bars, curio shops, Japanese art, cinemas, and more footwear. I found Disneyland in Kyoto.

A Tourist Reborn

Most people who plan to visit Kyoto have the notion that Kyoto is good for a day trip. It actually deserves as much time as you’d give Tokyo. The three nights I spent there weren’t enough to take me to other gorgeous attractions I saw in travel guides: the Ryoan-ji rock garden, Sagano bamboo grove, Toei Kyoto Studio Park, International Manga Museum, Silver Pavilion, Shijo-dori shopping district, the arty East End, nearby Nara, and the hills that Kyoto-born Haruki Murakami pictured in his elegiac Norwegian Wood. I want to go back. Our guide told us that those born in Kyoto never leave Kyoto. I was reborn as a tourist in Kyoto, who would choose genuine and peaceful over trite and loud, basically anything un-Japanese. Kyoto beckons me to continue a most wonderful journey.

* * *

E-mail boboyconsunji@gmail.com.

A LONE GEISHA A TOURIST REBORN IVARLUSKI ASERON KIYOMIZUDERA KYOTO TEA WAS I
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