Kyoto has ancient temples and cutting-edge architecture. Matthew Wilcox bows to the Venice of the east
When Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon premiered in 1950, the studio chief stood up halfway through and walked out in disgust. Not only was the film totally incomprehensible, but to add insult to injury, it seemed to contain only a single set: Kurosawa had blown his entire budget on a half-wrecked reconstruction of Kyoto's ancient city gate, the Rashomon.
Standing in the chilly late autumn rain, on the side of the expressway, my guide for the afternoon, Michiko, must have been experiencing equally dark thoughts. I had dragged her across town, away from her usual rounds on the Gion geisha circuit, in search of the real Rashomon. Eventually, in a tatty children's playground between two anonymous ferro-concrete apartment blocks, we found the stone marking its original emplacement – the gate was nowhere to be seen.
The Rashomon, along with much of Emperor Kammu's monumental 8th-century city, was destroyed during the interminable civil wars of the 12th century, when Kyoto's sinophile aristocrats fought and lost their battle for supremacy against the semi-barbarous samurai from the east of the country – now modern Tokyo. Over the centuries, fire, earthquake and development have all left their mark on the city. Nevertheless, traces of its former beauty remain.
The Toji temple, whose pagoda stands defiant above the sprawl as you speed into Kyoto on the bullet train, remains a defining image of the city. Situated east of the Rashomon, Toji was sited to prevent malevolent spirits entering the old capital. It has survived countless disasters to be reconstructed time after time in its exact original form – one of only three temples permitted in the city at the time of Kyoto's founding.
These days, Kyoto has more than 2,000 temples, as well as 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites. The most impressive, Kiyomizu and Kodaiji, both in Higashiyama, are worth visiting at night for their beautiful illuminations and picturesque surroundings. Meanwhile the elegant new Ryukoku Museum, designed by Nikken Sekkei, is devoted to the history of Buddhism and a visit gives context to the city's sacred art.
It seems counter-intuitive, but Kyoto's religious tradition, with its emphasis on transience and renewal, may have helped shape an ambiguous attitude towards heritage. Japan's national epic, an account of the 12th-century Genpei Wars, is suffused with this sentiment. It begins with a famous pronouncement: "The sound of the bell of the Gion temple echoes the impermanence of all things. The proud will not last, but vanish like a spring night's dream. And the mighty, too, will perish like dust before the wind."
Indeed, the densely-packed wooden neighbourhoods, that earned the city the sobriquet 'the Venice of the east', are now a thing of memory, and even the Golden Pavilion, one of Kyoto's most revered landmarks, was burnt to the ground by a particularly zealous monk just 60 years ago. But then iconoclasm too can be a tradition. The revered Abbot, poet and calligrapher, Ikkyu Sojun (1394–1481), gives a demonstration of Zen's uncompromising attitude in his poem:
"That stone Buddha deserves all the – birdshit it gets –
I wave my skinny arms like a tall -–flower in the wind".
Examples of his calligraphy, as well as first-rate gardens and screen paintings are on view at his temple Daitokuji, one of the most beautiful Zen complexes in Japan. Its warren of sub temples, teahouses and gardens could take weeks to explore, although Ikkyu quit after just nine days in charge – instructing his followers to seek him in the brothel instead.
Kyoto's religious tradition has enshrined it as a place of learning – the city is packed with universities, and the influx of students has made the old capital, a young city. The Kyoto Art Centre is a haven for cutting-edge video and performance art, while Gallery Gallery takes an innovative approach to the textile tradition. Meanwhile, the city's massive department stores also provide unexpectedly serious shows. Some of the smartest modern galleries, such as Seikado, are housed in machiya, the traditional long, narrow, wooden merchant houses that are being saved from redevelopment.
If permanence has eluded the city's architecture, it has perhaps found refuge in its artisans. An eighth generation potter, at Unsen-gama, explained to me how one could determine from which specific village in Japan the antecedents of each potter had migrated (usually in the 1600s). This is apparent in the manner in which they turn the wheel, and the idiosyncrasies of the tools they use. Meanwhile Kyoto's weavers such as Hosoo, makers of the traditional belts for kimono since 1688, have begun to supply lacquered fabric for Dior and fashion designer Mihara Yasuhiro – ensuring the continuity of their tradition.
For many, Kyoto, selectively experienced, is a heritage Disneyland, the yin to Tokyo's yang in the hackneyed modernity/heritage dichotomy. Others, romantics mostly, choose to see the city's embrace of modernity as a betrayal of its past. For me, apartment blocks and children's playgrounds are the price of relevance – the city has rejected the dead hand of conservationism, and stuck to its own longstanding traditions of change, of rebirth and renewal. As with Rashomon, you can pick your truth.
Matthew Wilcox is the Assistant Editor of Bonhams Magazine