Earlier this winter, I went one warm evening to Chion-in, the hugely gated, forbidding temple along the eastern hills of Kyoto. One of the most celebrated Buddhist sites in all of Japan, it’s the place where crowds famously gather to hear a giant bronze bell struck 108 times on New Year’s Eve, purging the illusions of the year that’s ending.
On this evening, like other temples around the ancient city, its doors had been thrown open for an annual “Light-Up”, or after-dark illumination of its halls and gardens. Remarkably, there was no one in sight when my wife and I arrived; two years previously, there’d been a riotous line stretching all the way to nearby Maruyama Park. More remarkably still, this year we were allowed to ascend the steep steps within its 70-foot high gate and see a golden Buddha, with 16 disciples, gazing out from a near-dark hall across all the dazzling lights of what is now a built -up, constantly bustling modern city.
Japan tends to be brilliantly blue throughout the winter, and over the more than 30 years I’ve been coming to stay here, I’ve come to see the quiet months as the hidden jewel among the seasons. Everyone knows about the cherry-blossoms in April and the maple-leaves in November, and summer is so punishingly hot and sweaty that many of us try to escape then. But winter is clear, dry and invigorating; though there’ve been a few diffident flurries of snow where I live this year, they’re more fuwari-fuwarias they say round here, or floating around, than shin-shinsilent and relentless.
And as the nearly 32mn international visitors of 2019 have dwindled to virtually none – Japan has kept its borders very firmly sealed for almost two years now – suddenly the old sights become new again and fresh. A city I associate with reserve and contemplation feels as if it’s been released from a torrent of social bonds and allowed to be private and itself once more.
My wife (a life-long Kyoto-ite) and I have therefore been roaming around like never before to enjoy the unaccustomed quiet. We went to the temple called Eikan-do to sip thick green tea under red umbrellas as the late-blazing maple-leaves carpeted the walkways. A country bus took us around winding turns, deep into a carless quiet, to the little farming village of Ohara, 30 minutes to the north. As the sun set above the rusting leaves and azaleas, the Pure Pleasure Garden of the Sanzen-in temple affected me as never before, if only because I seem to be getting older while it never does.
In the even older 8th-century capital of Nara, 20 miles to the south of Kyoto, the central temple known as Kofukuji pulled back its doors so we could enter the second tallest wooden pagoda in the land and see centuries-old statues. A few weeks later, its rulers opened its new Golden Hall for a rare chance to see some other seldom-glimpsed deities. Only a handful of locals were in evidence.
Part of Kyoto’s particular charm is that it’s always found new ways of showing off its ancestral elegance and reticence. Like other seasoned beauties of the world – I think of Venice and Shanghai – it seems to know just how to change with the seasons to remain freshly seductive. On Christmas Day we went for lunch at the trendy Ace Hotel, one of dozens of new establishments set up to accommodate the pre-pandemic tourist boom. A set of cool, high-end shops have sprung up around it, offering everything from books to designer chocolates.
Quite often in Kyoto it becomes hard to tell whether you’re succumbing to an ancient spell or a highly contemporary one. The Japanese night has long been rendered magical by the use of dim and spare lanterns quiet enough to deepen a sense of mystery while illuminating a faint path into the heart of the dark.
In December, postmodern lanterns were sleekly arranged along a riverbank in Arashiyama, in western Kyoto, and the famous bamboo forest was transformed by sapphire and indigo lights. In the heart of the city (home to Nintendo and the International Manga Museum), even the huge central train station has been turned into a wonderland of lanterned corridors and video screens projecting autumn leaves and temple halls above its rushing elevators. Every night, LED lights make fresh patterns across a giant flight of steps.
The core of the Japanese aesthetic turns on the sense that nothing lasts for long and that’s why we have to cherish it. The very heart of beauty is its evanescence (hence the veneration of fleeting cherry-blossoms). We know that this hiatus – with the sights relatively empty – is not going to last forever, just as the wiser of my neighbors know that the pandemic (like wars and typhoons and tsunamis) will not go on eternally. When better, then, to savor the new sights – the sleek Park Hyatt, say, set among the most picturesque and narrow sloping pilgrims’ paths in the entire city – as they bring fresh life to the old ones?
On my last day before ruefully flying to California, I urged my wife to come with me to Chishaku-in, an often neglected temple along the eastern hills. Now, as the golden light of late afternoon, uniquely sharp in midwinter, lit up its pathways, we were told that we had a rare chance to see a dragon snarling across the roof of one side-temple, a small Buddha in another. In the main garden, long considered one of Kyoto’s hidden treasures, the trees were shining, electric in the dying light, beside an immaculate landscape reproducing a mountain in China, the stillness deepened and sweetened by the sound of falling water.
Crows were cawing as the day drew towards its end. We could hear – as never before – monks chanting in front of a Buddha lit by four candles in one of the meditation halls. There was no one to be seen in the radiant quiet but ourselves.
The first time I visited Kyoto, as a tourist, I’d stayed in a little guesthouse just down the road, and wandered every morning up to the spacious compound, convinced, in my innocence, that it must be one of the landmarks of the ancient capital. In truth, it features on few itineraries in an area that contains 1,600 temples and 17 World Heritage sites. But now it really was a kind of marvel and I realized that even after 34 years of living nearby, I could be powerfully affected by a simple sense of pristine quiet. The best lesson of the pandemic for me has been not to take anything for granted; the fact that nothing lasts is the reason to glory in it while it does.
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