Many countries tout an old capitol – someplace that was at the center of political, economic and military strength for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years and then discarded when modernization or necessity (sometimes both) required it. Japan is no different, and Kyoto is a huge tourist destination for just these reasons.
I was happy to finally get there, as earlier in the year I attempted to take a sightseeing trip to Western Japan, just to be thwarted by the fact that I was traveling alone. See, none of my friends’ schedules matched up with mine, and I thought, “Eh, I’ll just go alone, take a little trip, see more of Japan.” Right? Wrong. If you try to travel alone, the hotels think you’re going to attempt suicide in their rooms. And that’s even if you can get past the whole “putting your name into the computer despite it being non-Japanese.” Oh, my friends, xenophobia is very much alive and well in Japan once you get past the happy exterior of their tourist campaigns.
Anyway, during the trip with my parents, we were able to spend a full week in the old capitol – something I highly recommend as there’s a lot to see, and a 3-day bus tour just can’t cover the little things like wandering into old print shops or testing the finest sencha at a tea shop. Perhaps the most important reason Kyoto is worth seeing is the fact it wasn’t bombed during WWII; this fact is actually quite well known, and sometimes even touted as a show of American “kindness.” (Perhaps that why it’s so well known…)
I’ve heard varying tales on the reasons behind sparing Kyoto, from a high-ranking general having taken a liking to the city, or even Eleanor Roosevelt having visited it once and not wanting it bombed. While these are nice stories of humanity and connecting with the enemy in the face of war, I really haven’t found anything in an actual textbook to back any of these stories up. What I have found however, are a few references about how the military knew that blowing up Kyoto wasn’t in fact the best way to prove they weren’t “white devils.” Destroying a nation’s thousand-year-old spiritual and imperial capitol would, if anything, give that nation’s people more of a reason to fight back, so the American forces chose to target more strategic cities, such as the business capitol of Osaka, or military ports like Hiroshima.
History lesson and my own skepticism aside, Kyoto is beautiful, and while walking the streets, it’s not rare to see 300-year old homes or businesses. Tradition is a thing hard to break out of in Japan, but it practically shines in Kyoto, and it’s easy to see the positive side of it there. The age of it all is almost tangible, and if you hear someone on the street talking about “the last war,” they’re not talking about WWII, but the Onin War – which occurred in the 12th century.
One of the first places we visited was Kinkakuji (金閣寺), or the Golden Pavilion, which is arguably one of the most famous tourist sites in Japan. The temple and surrounding grounds were built as part of a major 14th century shogun’s (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu) retirement plan, and to show how powerful he was, he quite literally covered the whole building in gold. While you can’t go inside it, the building has three levels, each decked out to represent the roles fulfilled by the shogun: aristocrat, warrior and (ironically) Zen monk. While the main building has been burned down multiple times in war and most notably by a crazy monk in the 1950s, it has always been rebuilt consistent to its original plan and is re-covered in gold leaf every year. It’s just plain eye-catching.
The next sight was that of Nijo-jo or Nijo Castle (二条城), which was built as part of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s (who founded a shogunate lasting over 200 years) plan to make sure his lords in the West were busy with projects while he was off in the East (Tokyo) doing important stuff. The Castle and buildings inside it housed visiting aristocrats and the shogun when he came from Tokyo to the Western part of Japan. The coolest part is that the place has actually survived since 1626, so you can walk around and see all the rooms, sliding doors and interior gardens that were used by the actual shoguns and lords of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Sadly pictures, as well as sketching, were strictly prohibited. Pity, because I was totally going to brush up on my quick-draw.
Luckily, Nijo Castle also boasts an impressive garden, and some pretty gates and outdoor features. Enjoy. Next time, hopefully I’ll write about the other wonders of our sojourn in Kyoto.