We’ve been avoiding the elephant in the corner all this time in Japan, a country so famed for tradition and rich culture always has a beating heart which feeds that culture. In Japan, that beating heart is none other than the city of Kyoto. We’re finally in our third capital of Japan, from 794 – 1868 the emperor resided in Kyoto, all the way up until Emperor Meiji took the reigns from the Tokugawa clan and in so doing, shifted the seat of power to modern day Tokyo. In this vortex of history, the place that tells us everything about modern day Japan, what’s to do? Well the same as everywhere else in Japan of course, we’re off to look at temples.
From north to south, east to west, it seems that visiting a temple, a shrine, a gate is the thing to do in Japan; almost to repetitious boredom. For these outdoor junkies the continued indulgence in gracious vistas is a conflicting one; where’s the gritty rough edges, the unrefined humanity, the retention of raw simplicity? The cultural fringes we often seek out in travel are nowhere to be found in Japan, just polished refinement of a nation honed in the furnaces of this city, Kyoto. Even the wild coast and untamed forests have an eerie perfection to their beauty that elevates us but seems, at times, too perfect to be real. The heart of the beating heart can wait for just a moment, we step off the train just outside of town for a hike into the forest to see the trees, mountains and of course, temples and shrines.Delivered right to the foot of the pathway, of course, we’re veering around the buildings of a cute old town before stone stairs that have stood for centuries rise up to disappear into the green wilderness of acer trees craning over the path like a protective shroud. We’re hiking up the hill, a mountain before us, sweating and beginning to tire; but this is not how the story usually goes. We pass garden ponds with bright fish, ornate shrine gates as we walk stairs that feel more like a design feature than a mountain path guided all the while by bright orange lanterns. We’re hiking, but we’re not really hiking. Upward into misty mountains we go, not from civilisation into a great wild as we are used to doing but somehow further into the heart of civilisation, into a wilderness that seems to further refine our world.
On this hike that feels more like a pilgrimage we pass tall timber reaching to the sky and bare trunked trees arrayed in perfect form like silent soldiers standing to attention. All around us is a wilderness, it’s a wilderness but it’s also a civilisation from a time past and present. In the temple-a-thon that is Japan we’ve been bombarded by an undeniable avalanche of uncomplicated beauty, the kind of beauty that has no definitive style or affinity with a passing season. In the eerie cloud choked forest canopy the stone, the halls and the gates call out a rare refinement of beauty and civilisation that doesn’t conflict with this environment but is carried by it. Japan might be a beautiful monotony of beauty, but monotony this beautiful can only be Japan and it can just carry on being beautiful; nothing more seems necessary.Tucked in the heights of where feet alone can take us, small shrines, pools and lonely stone lanterns guide our path in a disruption of nature that would often drive us crazy but just manages the fine balance of sitting within nature, not on top of it. Cresting the mountain peak our pilgrimage is complete, the descent begins weaving steeply down through a forest and towards the rushing waters we can only now begin to hear. Down and down we venture along with the rain that pours so relentlessly until we are across that rushing water and the bamboo platforms over the river that house fine dining close enough to touch the gushing alpine stream. Of course in Japan, after a short hike you can enjoy top class cuisine suspended just a metre or so from a postcard stream tumbling over moss covered rocks; that happens everywhere right? Or you can visit another temple across the road, of course, what’s a meal without a visit to a temple?
At every stop in on this venture in Japan we say to each other, not another temple, we’re temple’d out. Yet as we step off the train to each next town or city we’re off to the temples mainly because that’s the thing to do in Japan but because in this very tourist type venture that we’d usually decry there remains an inspiration, a grace that simply can’t be denied. On our way back to town we’re back on the train and facing another Japanese knife edge balancing act, rather unattractive cities that don’t seem entirely oppressive at all. And it has to be said, the centre of Kyoto is not what we’d expect from the beating heart of a nation filled with effortless beauty; it’s actually pretty stale.What’s not stale though are the outlying areas of this great city, and it is a great city. Gion is commonly labelled ‘the Geisha area’ for the proliferation of elegant ladies that occasionally walk the streets in full Geisha regalia, a kind of rare species for an urban photographer. There might not be any Geisha today but there are an inordinate amount of men and women in kimono of all colours. The blocky grey functionality of Kyoto city centre has given way to small gardens, timber houses and elegantly trained trees as todays mountainous beauty shows an urban face. It’s in this area that the Kyoto’s reputation resounds, the beating heart pumps with vigour and power that feels like it will never cease from a time gone by that refuses to be drowned or fade to grey. Japan can be at times a little monotonous, maybe boring; but it’s hardly a burden when it’s beauty that’s more than just beautiful.