The walk that made me love Japan
(Candace Rose Rardon)
My favourite Kyoto walk begins at a half-hidden temple called Gesshin-in – two-storey, white-walled, eminently missable – on a lane dominated by huge Buddhas, high towers on either side, and shops selling exquisite prints of kimonoed women and samurai warriors. It’s in the very centre of Japan’s ancient capital, between the can’t-miss sights of Maruyama Park and Sannenzaka, just next to the steps leading up to the temple known as Kodaiji.
As you stand on this narrow street, Nene-no-michi, looking west (downtown happily obscured by low bamboo fences and thickets of flowering maples), you’ll see scores of visitors surging past you, south, to climb the narrow sloping streets of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka. Glamorous Japanese couples linking arms, foreigners with Nikons around their necks, chattering matrons and (in the daytime, at least) school groups – all are hurrying towards one of the last pilgrims’ districts in Japan, leading up to the legendary Temple of Pure Water, Kiyomizu.
Sannenzaka is golden in the late afternoon, and though it’s full of souvenir shops crammed with Hello Kitty key chains and posters made for Bieberites, though its lanterns sometimes come with outlines of Mickey Mouse’s ears on them, it’s still quite magical, with its walkways between shops selling dark blue Kiyomizu pottery, its tatami tea-rooms, the sight, as you ascend the steep paths, of slanting grey roofs extending below you towards the city. At the top, behind Kiyomizu, you come to a waterfall surrounded by hills that take you back to the world that might have been here before a soul had seen it. The temple itself was in place two centuries before the second millennium began.
But even as the crowds throng toward these postcard vistas, I recommend you move in the other direction, towards what ultimately looks like chaos. Turn right, and start walking towards the Gionkaku Tower at the end of the street, beside a modern temple. If you want to absorb Kyoto, you have to head into the clamour of downtown and find those graces that are not incidental to the place, but at its very heart. Both shopping streets and templed hills, after all, glow in the late November light with a magic-hour sharpness that deepens the blue above even as it catches the leaves whose turning speaks of coming winter and coldness and dark.
- Three kimonoed women walk up the steps to the shrine of Kiyomizudera Temple. (Candace Rose Rardon)
At the end of the lane, a right turn will bring you to the low entrance of a place where you can learn to make green tea, and to the Edo-period cottage built by a poet in memory of the haiku master Basho, who cherished the area because his teacher once lived here. Then, walking north along the wall running besides Daiun Temple, you’ll arrive, within less than a minute, at a wide walkway on your right leading up to Otani cemetery. It was this broad avenue, hung with bobbing white lanterns, alight with girls fluent in yukata (a light kimono) and little boys carrying lit-up white globes, that greeted me my first night in Kyoto, in 1984, on a three-day visit through Japan with my mother, en route to India. The city was marking Obon, the brief interlude when departed spirits are believed to return to their earthly homes to look in on their loved ones, and every year in mid-August I now come back, and walk up amid the lanterned headstones of Otani, something of a returning ghost myself, to watch the lights come on in the city below and every barrier between the living and the dead dissolve.
Step into Maruyama Park, in front of you, and you’re met by a three-storey European building, formal as a Berlin concierge, and dating from 1909, not long after Japan first began throwing open its doors to the West. The whole exquisite expanse around it, with its pond and statues and pathways leading to elegant restaurants – and a street of secrets behind – has a 19th-century flavour to it, as if made for providing Baudelaire with his absinthe. Take the first left, towards a Shinto shrine’s orange torii gate, and you see paper prayer slips fluttering from a tree like cherry blossoms; on your right is the most famous weeping cherry in Japan, and a grove of cherry trees that burst into bloom each April, when hundreds of people sit on the ground under the pink boughs and sing boozy songs.