Japan Stories: Shadows of Kyoto

JAPAN IS A COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS that coexist and create depth. The light and the dark, the past and the future, the austere and wholehearted, I seldom could notice one without identifying its counterpart, a juxtaposition that defines Japan’s cultural identity. Kyoto embodies this harmony; its thousand-year-old shrines and temples are a tangible part of the city’s spirit. I found these monuments best experienced not only when the sun is up, but also at night when the moon gives way to shadows and the world is still.

Kyoto is unlike any other Japanese city. Spared from the destruction that Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki endured during the Second World War, Kyoto still retains its profound cultural and historic roots. It was in fact on the shortlist of cities to be bombed until U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson persuaded President Truman to remove it from the list, believing if the United States totally destroyed Japan’s cultural identity in Kyoto, the Japanese would be more likely to side with Russia once the war was over. It may have held a meaningful place in his heart as well.

It’s believed Stimson visited Kyoto before the war and was gripped by its shrines, temples and meticulous gardens. Where Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated and rebuilt into what they are today after the war, Kyoto remains ancient, its numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines giving a glimpse into the last thousand years of this perennial city.

After beginning our journey through Japan lost in the breadth and modernity of Tokyo, my friends and I traveled to Hakone, the historic onsen town tucked in the hills within the shadow of Mt. Fuji. From there we trained further down the island of Honshu to the imperial capital of Kyoto. We spent our first night drifting around the Gion district with its hollow back alleys and tapestry covered doorways, feeling as though we were alive in feudal Japan. White lanterns illuminate the stone streets and give the quarter a muted incorporeal glow. Where in Tokyo everything is high up and lures your gaze to what’s above, the buildings of Kyoto remain low and traditional, arcane in what they may withhold.

We realized the possibility of night shrining after discovering the Yasaka Shrine our first night, its grounds empty, as if unlocking a secret only we knew. I was reminded of nights when I studied in Florence Italy as an undergrad in college. Stumbling home from a night out, I’d cross through the Piazza Del Duomo on the way back to my apartment.

In the middle of the night, I’d find myself staring up at at the facade of Il Duomo, no sound but the faint clack of my shoes resonating through the surrounding Piazza. Something so grand and detailed seemed unreal, impossible to create by another human being. Where the Florence Cathedral serves as the center of the universe, where every window, nook and spire demands attention, the shrines of Kyoto are subtle in their rustic beauty, a reflection of the world around them.

Kyoto, Japan

At night we would explore these sites alone, able to feel their palpable energy. It was getting late and we were planning on visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha, one of the most iconic shrines in all of Japan. Red torii gates serpentine up the Inari mountain on the periphery of Kyoto for a two and a half mile hike. There was one train running late enough for us to make it.

We hopped on the train from Kyoto Station and headed for the hills, reaching the outpost train station close to midnight. By day shopkeepers and tourists occupy these streets. Now they were eerie, peaceful in a way, the trail beckoning for us to begin our climb. After passing around some sake to provide some added courage we began the trek up the hill past the initial tower gate, into the darkness.

Just as we reached the first torii gates we ran into two others who told us there are wild boar on the trail, to continue at our own risk. We discussed our options but we were already out there, surely we couldn’t turn back now.

We lost half of our troops after this news, although five of us stayed, believing there was nothing we couldn’t face at that point. We rummaged around for some sharp walking sticks and continued on.

Step after step, we passed through the more than a thousand dark red gates, the moon illuminating their shadows before us to create a zigzag of light and darkness for us to follow. The higher we climbed the more alone we felt, the incandescent lights of Kyoto below us, a feeling of camaraderie driving us on. When we accepted it was just us we broke out into a sort of tribal chant, it felt natural to dispel the spirits as well as the boars.

Almost at the top now, we breathed deep and let the clean mountain air move through us. We were a band of brothers high above civilization, summiting this thousand year old shrine in a way that none of us could have expected. At the top we sat on the stone steps surrounded by fox statues, believed to be the messengers of the spirit Inari. There was nothing but silence, that of the dark, natural space around us. We could feel the tranquility of Kyoto below.

My heart beat began to slow and return to normal as the adrenaline wore off, not a sound to be heard besides the rustling of leaves. The brisk air enveloped me and gave my thoughts a deeper clarity. This was worth the climb, as though time lost all meaning and importance and the morning light was in the distant future, when the world would return to normality. When that time came, we would retain the simplicity that we found here. We paid our final respects and traversed back down through the lush hills, the spirit of Kyoto and the energy of the land a part of us.

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