When we lived overseas, people would ask me what I missed most about my home. Without hesitation I would say, autumn. Nowhere in our world travels have I found more magnificent foliage, brighter blue skies, and crisper fresh air than our own New England. That is, until we visited Kyoto, Japan, about three hours southwest of Tokyo by high-speed bullet train.
Our introduction to life in Tokyo was a few months of stifling summer swelter. Once monsoon season arrived, the temperatures only cooled a bit before I saw a scattering of leaves changing color around the parks in the largely modern city. As we traveled out into the countryside, the landscape morphed dramatically and when we entered the ancient city of Kyoto, I realized that this was the Japan that I was expecting to see when I first arrived.
The trees are simply spectacular with such vibrant colors that they take your breath away. Unlike Tokyo, which has been completely destroyed several times due to fires, earthquakes and the ravages of World War II, Kyoto was spared most of this damage and now boasts the highest number of pre-war buildings in the country. Here are the temples and shrines with their sensuous, curving rooflines and delicately carved details. The narrow streets are lined with low, wooden buildings. This is where the famous geisha live today though it is rare to get a glimpse of one.
We stayed at a traditional lodging called a ryoken. This is about as far away as you can get from the American bed and breakfast experience. Upon entering the building, you must remove your shoes and put on the slippers waiting for you. Luckily for me, Japanese folks have smaller feet; my husband and daughter managed to get only half of each foot into the slippers. Next you are given a yukata, a unisex, cotton bathrobe, and shown to your room. The room is sparsely furnished but very clean and elegant. The traditional rice paper screen doors are prominent and on the floor is your bed, a futon. This mattress with no box spring or base, is rolled out on the floor and covered with a cozy duvet and small pillow filled with rice or something like it. You literally sleep on the floor. Again, this works great for me, but my travel companions’ legs stretched well beyond the edge of the futon.
You are expected to wear the yukata while relaxing in your room. You must also wear it when you go out to enjoy an onsen bath. This is a hot-spring fed, shallow pool, centrally located in the garden or a small shelter. Usually separated by sex, one must scrub vigorously with the brushes and soaps provided before entering the onsen. Also, no swimsuit or clothing of any kind is allowed. It took me nearly a year to try this out and only at 4 a.m. when I was sure nobody was around. While my sense of modesty was uneasily put aside, the glorious hot water and silky minerals made the risk worthwhile.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the entire city was a feast for our eyes. We saw many Japanese women strolling along, decked out in their finest, traditional kimonos (flowing, robe-like gown) with unique obis (large belt). The fabrics of these garments are extravagant with ornate designs, rich colors and delicate needlework. The ladies wear platform, thong-type shoes with socks allowing the big toe to be separated from the rest of the foot. They walk in small, clopping steps. Their hair is elaborately styled in a modified chignon and studded with all manner of decorations from delicate chopsticks to small birds and flowers and sparkling stars. Their faces are made up with bright white foundation, very red lipstick and carefully penciled brows. They are all absolutely gorgeous and will smile shyly when a gai-jin (foreigner) can’t stop admiring their parade.
Kyoto is home to many World Heritage sites. One of my favorites is the Nii-jo Castle, home to the Tokugawa shogun. It has many rooms designed for specific waiting, preparing to visit, then finally getting an audience with the shogun (high-ranking lord.) This building boasts a unique flooring system known as the nightingale floors. These boards are nailed in a unique way so as to squeak slightly when they are walked upon. This served as a warning system to those inside in the case of a ninja attack. They really did wear all-black and moved with deadly stealth.
Then there is the breathtaking, must-see Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji Temple. Decorated with real-gold paint, the temple served as the private residence of another retiring shogun from 1358 to 1409. Afterwards, it was converted to a Zen temple and adapted the traditional gardens and contemplative landscaping that makes this place so beautiful to behold in any season.
Known for its dramatic five-story pagoda and massive main gate, the Ninna-ji Temple also features magnificent gardens with bridges, ponds, teahouses and small halls for prayer and residence. It is a lovely example of the Japanese Buddhist temple’s harmony with nature. This building was originally the summer home for the imperial family and became a temple in 886. The miniature Japanese maple trees on the grounds glowed fiery red and orange in the reflection of the shiny building and serene pond surfaces.
Among many, many temples in Japan, some of my favorites follow Shinto beliefs. Very simply, Shintoists see all things as “kami” or gods. There is a special god for all sorts of specific circumstances. In keeping with this, the gates (stylized entries to the grounds of the temples) are usually dedicated to specific causes or groups. For example, we happened upon a group of young local, ladies dressed in jeans and sweatshirts coming toward us en masse waving their cameras. It was not unusual for people all over Asia to want a photo with us because of our blonde hair and well, different look. They were participating in a scavenger hunt and needed our image to complete their list. There were no young men with the group as we came to understand this particular gate is dedicated to young women in search of boyfriends for marriage. Of course I snapped a shot of my 16-year old daughter to show her children some day. She was not smiling, but the hundreds of young Japanese girls behind her were.
Kyoto was Japan’s capital from 794 until 1869, and as such, attracted many artists to the court of the emperor. The beautiful artwork special to Kyoto includes rustic pottery, all manner of textiles, and paintings. The vintage fabrics, woodcut prints and fine drawings particularly prove that the unforgettable fall foliage here has been spectacular through the ages and appreciated by many. As a souvenir, I bought a vintage obi made of black silk shot through with bright orange and gold metallic threads depicting the important temples of Kyoto. I like to think of a geisha, perhaps, wearing this proudly as she stepped among the red leaves fallen to the street, a parasol shading her from the bright fall sun.