Almost exactly five years ago a friend and a younger, happier and more idealistic version of myself visited Japan, spending 10 days in Kyoto. I have since come back twice to the archipelago, but never to Kyoto. These are my memories, five years on.
We arrived in Kyoto after about a week in Tokyo and, by that time, we nearly had enough of Japan. With hindsight we’d spent too much time in a city that, albeit remarkably liveable for its size, we found being too impersonal and, at the end of they day, quite repetitive. Everywhere you went you were bound to find a train station, an assembly of skyscrapers, a shopping arcade, some clubs and little eateries and izakayas where salarymen drank ’til they dropped.
We wanted Kyoto to be different, we really wanted, and the city didn’t disappoint. It was magnificient, it was brilliant. It was sophisticated and charmy, rich of history and also had that small town feel that struck you when you were walking along a suburban road at sunset, dads washing their cars and kids returning home from school in a scenery that, you’d be excused to think, would seem taken from one of those few moments of Holly & Benji when they’re not busy winning the World Cup.
Kyoto is surprisingly easy to navigate once you have the right bearings in sight. The city centre lies in a valley, with two rivers forming a sort of Y. South of the confluence of the two rivers lies downtown, with the train station, the Imperial Palace and several large temples. To the east, between the banks of the river and the hills, is the Gion neighbourhood, the one where – as every guide will tell you – you are more likely to spot a Geisha! (wink wink). The famous Kinkaku-ji Temple, instead, lies to the North-West.
Inbetween lies one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. We hired bicycles for the whole period and went everywhere on two wheels: it was probably the best decision of the entire trip. Public transportation is not as capillar as in Tokyo and, besides, the majority of the city would’ve floated past you, hidden in the tiny streets where no bus can venture.
Wander through the alleyways of Gion, at the foothills of the Nanzen-ji temple, in Ponto-chō or in the borough immediately to the north of the Nishi Hongan-ji temple, and discover the maze of small wooden houses with bamboo shutters and paper sliding doors.
We marvelled at them, at how clunky and combersome their air conditioning units looked like, aliens from a different time and space, so inelegant. The houses looked so frail and tiny, but only by stepping inside we realised how so well designed and sturdy they were.
We spent most of our time in these neighbourhoods, shying away from the large avenues and modern buildings, of which we had plenty in Tokyo. We tried to imagine a not-too-distant time, when all Japanese towns were made like this; we tried to think at Tokyo before the war, a city of wooden panels, tiled roofs graciously curved upwards and elegant temples.
The Americans realised that and, as soon as their B-29 bombers started pounding Japan from their bases in the Mariana islands, they started dropping incendiary ordnance. In a single operation, codenamed Meethouse, in a single night they incinerated about 16 square miles of city, where 1 million people lived, killing more than 100,000.
We tried to imagine that in a quiet road by an onsen, late one afternoon. We tried to image the cluster bombs releasing their load of incendiary pipes, spreading flames too strong to be washed out. We tried to imagine roofs, walls, tatamis and temples all ablaze in a fire so intense to cause cool air to rush in, effectively sucking survivors in. We tried to image not having anywhere to run for everything around us was equally on fire. We failed.
Kyoto was spared much of this misery, much thanks its lack of war-supporting infrastructure and to the lobbying of Henry L. Stimson. The then Secretary of War under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, successfully played Kyoto’s cultural heritage and status in order to take the town off the list of places candidate for a visit by the A-bomb. Kyoto was off, and Nagasaki went in.
It sucked for Nagasaki, for Japan and for the entire world but, on that day, I was quite happy that Stimson had it his way.