Written by

Andrew Millar


January 18, 2008

It rained the day we left Tokyo.

Not a heavy, ‘rearrange your plans to get to where you want to’ rain. Just a gentle soft drizzle that hardly wet the ground.

A pessimist might think it was a bit of a wet slap parting gesture from a city you’ve enjoyed for eight ‘full to the brim’ days. However, I’ve been changed by this Japanese experience.

To me, the rain seemed more like the cleansing ritual you act out each time you visit a temple. You wash your hands, rinse you mouth out and generally spruce yourself up to be presentable before God.

Tokyo’s rain was just preparing us for Kyoto -– with its refined food, lilting way of speaking and its sensitivity and style.

The trouble was that our first experience of Kyoto was a bit ordinary.

We left the train station by the back door and unfortunately had inadvertently picked the wrong hotel.

The entrance a city presents is very important. It sets the tone and manner the city wants to be judged by. It chooses the height of the bar. Now I can’t remember who said it but in New York, when the rebuilt Madison Square Garden Station meant moving all the train lines from a polished marble cathedral to underground warrens, someone wrote… “’You used to enter New York like a King, now you enter like a rat’.”

(I hope someone from the South Australian Government reads this, as our train station at Keswick is a fucking disgrace. All it says to our national visitors is ‘stay on the train’. Quite literally you arrive in a rubble-strewn dump with no physical connection to the city. It sits in garbage and is garbage.)

But Kyoto station, at least the front half, is a monument to modern progress. It is a magnificent, grand, ultra cathedral designed to remind you that this is a location you’ll need to expand your mind to understand. It tells you that Kyoto commands respect. The locals hated it to start with, but now love it and see it as a symbol of progress and future thinking.

In Adelaide, we need to get our act together. (Or at least have an act…)

Once we’d changed our hotel to one more central, Kyoto opened up like the Plum blossoms that are beginning to bloom all around. Kyoto is a sacred city surrounded by temples that nest in the pine and ceder forests. These forests hang off the mountains that cradle Kyoto on three sides. The temples are some of the finest in Japan and are stunning, often paired with gardens so carefully designed as to be near perfect in proportion and presentation.

Kyoto is the traditional home of cha-do, the iconic tea ceremony, ikebana, the art of flower arranging and the most alluring and misunderstood of all things Japanese, the kimono-clad Geisha.

Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is orderly and serene. And I think, more spiritual. Though perhaps this is the low toned gongs I hear at 5 in the morning from the Buddhist temple across the road from our hotel. All I can see of it is the golden flame on the roof of the temple itself and a small glimpse of a pond inhabited by 5 white swans. This glimpse is just a sliver of light between two high-rise buildings with green mountains in the background.

But to me this temple typifies Kyoto – modern head, but heart firmly with the gods.