May 23: Checking the Heartbeat of Kyoto

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Our first day in Kyoto, we decided to visit the Kyoto Handicraft Center, and we decided to walk there. The walk was longer than we thought and our map not as detailed as we could have hoped, but we passed several tourist sites along the way and, to borrow a phrase from BBC’s Sherlock, got “the heartbeat of the city” (oh sure, not as intimately as Sherlock does, but I could feel its pulse a bit through observation) by going on foot than by bus.

Along our route, we passed the Imperial Palace Park, peering up the slanted stonewalls to the foliage and into entrances to see winding pathways and people relaxing in the sunshine.

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We crossed the river, I think the Kamo River.

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I don’t think that the Handicraft Center was quite what either of us had imagined. It was a sort of enclosed, high-end marketplace for specialty craftsmen with staff members more than craftsmen to talk to. But we enjoyed looking at all of the pretty finery and the clever creations. It all being for sale, I took very few pictures (I often feel a twinge about taking pictures instead of purchasing things—especially when the items come from independent sellers).

Apart from selling items, the Center also offers the chance to make your own crafts. We opted for one of the more expensive but more unique and uniquely Kyōto of the crafts: damascening, the craft of (in this case) overlaying bits of gold and silver to another metal.  (Perhaps it sounds a silly thing to learn, but I wear necklaces all the time so it’s a keepsake that I can carry with me easily, and I have several fictional blacksmiths clamoring to give damascening a try already.)

Kari and I were taken into the next-door building where there were worktables for both the professionals and amateurs. We didn’t get to talk to any of the professionals (I’m not sure that I’d have wanted to interrupt them besides), but we were matched with Hiroshi, a young man, maybe a few years our elder, who spoke very good English so that even I was able to communicate with him easily (which I have to admit was a breath of fresh air after a week of smiling and bowing and letting Kari interpret). We watched a video in English first to give us a little background in the craft then were set loose with the tools and pieces provided. We were each given a circular pendant of shakudō, an alloy of copper and gold, on a block. Our pieces of shakudō had already been inscribed with the appropriate crosshatching to make the bits of gold and silver stick. It was invisible except through a magnifying glass. We used a tool a bit like a stylus, wet the tip to make the flakes of gold and silver stick to it to be moved to the pendant, and then hammered the pieces into place on our crosshatched shakudō. The flakes that we used were precut into figures and symbols, making art easier.

We left the steel pieces in Kyoto to be finished. The gold and silver overlay should shine out on a black patina, the gold and silver flush with the pendant.

While we played at craftswomen, we talked with Hiroshi about Kyoto, Japan, America, and American, teaching one another and enjoying the opportunity to learn from one another, I think, quite a bit.

Leaving the Handicraft Center, and saying goodbye to Hiroshi, we went just around the corner to the Heian Shrine. I promise we weren’t playing favorite eras.

Through the gate was a wide, pebbled area with the buildings of the shrine fencing.

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Perhaps because this was my first formal visit to a shrine complex, and also because the entries were guarded by docents or maybe by religious adherents, and because photography was prohibited, we didn’t climb any of the steps. Now, looking back through the photos that I took, I can see how much more impressive is the Heian Shrine than the Heian reconstructions at Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park, how much more detailed. Most of our time at the Shrine was spent not with the architecture, however, but in the garden paths behind.

The irises were in bloom here and water lilies and rhododendrons too. The path wound us through a forest of ornamental trees and then past ponds, back into a more wild woods, and over some skipping stones on another pond, before coming to a great pond over which a great bridge stretched. While we crossed this, I saw a water snake in the still water, but I couldn’t get its picture; it was gone too quickly.

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Leaving the shrine, we decided to try to find Gion, a neighborhood of Kyoto known for its old-style architecture and as a haunt for geishas. We passed a hole-in-the-wall crepe stand and relaxed by a smaller river—maybe even a moat more than a river—to eat our dessert.

As twilight was falling, we came upon the Yasaka Shrine complex. This complex was magical—perhaps mostly because of the time that we arrived. The lanterns were all lit and a good number of the tourists had cleared and were crowding the well-lit sidewalks and shops of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue) instead.

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The shrines at Yasaka were mostly small, wooden, whitewash, black latticework, and that red-orange paint. It was quiet enough that I approached several to peer through the glass at the glittering gold. The main shrine was lit by probably near a hundred lit lanterns and was a wondrous site to see at the rise of a flight of steps.  Neither of these pictures captures it well.  I don’t think that sort of glow can be captured by a camera.

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Beyond that shrine, the crowds thinned still further till we could hear the fall of water from fountains, till we were alone in whole avenues of shrines with no one to fault us for wonderingly approaching, for snapping a picture where pictures might otherwise be less welcome. (I always feel a bit awkward taking pictures of shrines or altars, recognizing these as places of high holiness that others might recognize as more than some beautiful art piece.)

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Leaving the shrine complex, we joined the crowds on Shijō-dōri, wandering the brightly lit sidewalks, past shop windows, the enticing smells of restaurants, the lure of tourist shops, the music of street performers, and artists selling their wares. We ducked down several darker side roads, coming ultimately to the river again (the same river, I think, that we’d seen that morning). All through Kyoto, there are lots of women dressed in geisha costumes. It’s one of things that tourists do, rent kimonos and wander the city. I think, though, that we did see one true geisha on Shijō-dōri. I only suspect so because the Japanese men in their business suits were excitedly sneaking photographs of her. I wish I taken a far away picture just to have those men’s reactions. It was as if they were children again.

We bought ourselves warm drinks before climbing back aboard the crowded train towards the hostel.

We never found the old-style streets of Gion, but I didn’t mind much. We’d seen a lot and traveled far. In all, we covered nearly 5 miles on our feet that day just walking between the various sites (not counting wandering the sites or backtracking). Certainly makes you proud of your feet, looking at the figures.

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All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

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