Sunday, November 16, 2008

Discovering Kyoto

Even after three days in Kyoto, I wasn’t experiencing any epiphanies or even enlightenment and I was getting impatient. On the fourth day that changed.

A friend (Rajesh) asked if I had ever thought of writing about places that had “stirred my soul.” I hadn’t, but when I thought about it my experience in Kyoto came to mind.

Since Tokyo has more international flights, more people end up going there. But there are many who swear by all that the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe) has to offer. We went to Kyoto this past September, carrying a must-see checklist.

Right at the airport, we bought the Kansai Thru pass which allows for 3 days of unlimited travel via most buses and trains in the area. Armed with that, we hit the sights with gusto.

For three days, from morning to night, using guidebooks and maps, we covered as many sights as we could manage -- exquisite temples, world famous Zen rock gardens and parks.

In addition to sights in Kyoto, we went to Nara to visit the gigantic wooden Todaji temple, and to see the ubiquitous deer that were fearless and demanded to be fed. We went to Kobe to see if there was any visible aftermath of the devastating 1995 earthquake. The only hint of it was the memorial flame in a park. And at night, we walked in Kyoto's geisha district hoping to catch glimpses.

Kyoto was great and very enjoyable, but somehow the magic I was expecting never materialized. As with all travel, there were some negatives. Our hotel room was very expensive for what we were getting. And when I went down to the receptionist to pay for the second night, he raised the tariff further saying it was the weekend. Vegetarian food was not just pricey, but also very hard to come by. We had been to Japan before and so we expected this, but these little things make it that much harder to fall in love with a place.

After three days, on the night before our flight to Korea, Rupal suggested that we stay in Kyoto for one more day. We knew that it was very unlikely that we’d ever come this way again. So I agreed and we decided to stay back for the 4th day in Kyoto.

We didn’t have big plans for the day. After a leisurely breakfast we headed out. There was a very light drizzle, almost spray, and so we took 2 umbrellas that the hotel provided and went off looking for a stroll that had been dubbed the Philosopher’s Walk. The 2 kilometer-path was right next to a stream and the very few people who had come in spite of the drizzle were amply rewarded.

In a small temple that only one of our guidebooks even mentioned, we were blown away by the stone-and-grass landscaping. I met and chatted with a Kyoto-and-San-Francisco based artist who had an exhibition going inside the temple. In that subdued rain, all the green seemed so much brighter. The temple had an adjoining cemetery and the floral and bamboo arrangements around each tombstone looked like they had been created for still life paintings.

Since we had time, we visited the Heian jingu temple. We followed a tour group into a side garden, which we might have overlooked if in a hurry. There were exquisite curved stone bridges and gazebos and lily ponds. The whole place was so beautiful that we must have taken dozens of photos. I overheard the tour guide telling her group, “In the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, this is bridge from which the geisha she sees the Chairman for the first time.”

In that unhurried pace, stopping wherever we felt like, we finally understood why some were raving about Kyoto. So yes, Kyoto did stir my soul. But I guess I had to be there for three days, ‘to prepare my soul’ before it opened up enough to get stirred.


  1. Ram, I had one such experience in Kanya Kumari.

    Near the entrance lines to visit Vivekananda Rock is a small temple. I was staying at a hotel near this temple and had a few minutes before we were to leave the place.

    Leaving any place fills me with a sadness, that I cannot comprehend why. (I was there only 1 night.)

    In this frame of mind, and along with my almost atheistic beliefs, I entered this little old temple. There I saw an old lady and either her daughter or daughterinlaw singining Bhajans. I was taken in by the sheer devotion. They were clearly reaching out to something larger than themselves. My rationalist views took a deep pounding at this moment. It was the most stirring moment of my trip to India that year.

    I still get deeply moved when I recollect this moment.


  2. Thanks for sharing, Arvind.

    It so happens that I was in KK last December. The temple near the ferry terminal is the Kumari Amman temple (after which the city gets its name) but surely your experience must have been at a smaller temple nearby.

    Your comment reminds me that we all must have had many such experiences. I will try and recollect a few, and if I do, I will surely post about them.