Kansai Sites and Insights

<< Prev Next >>

A spirit of place

John Dougill traces Kyoto's special atmosphere to Emperor Kammu

A spirit of place

In terms of climate, Kyoto has one of the worst locations in Japan. Unbearably hot in summer, it also has a piercing cold wind in winter that comes down from Mt. Hiei. In one season you're muttering mushiatsui (humid) all the time; in another, it's useful to know the word sokobie (literally, “cold at the bottom”). River basins have their own micro-climate and that of Kyoto is far from ideal.

The writer Tanizaki Junichiro, who loved everything about the city (especially the food and the women), relocated to Kanto precisely because of this. “The trouble is the climate,”he wrote. “Kyoto is a Pygmalion creature. She grew to her present glory from a vast, ancient marshland in a basin surrounded by mountains far from the sea.”

Tanizaki is not the only one to have complained. When I first came to live here, Japanese friends felt sorry for me having to endure such conditions. If you go even a few meters up the inclines that surround the city, you can feel the freshness of the air. And by comparison, neighbouring cities like Osaka and Kobe are mercifully mild.

So why found a city in such a place? The man responsible was Emperor Kammu (737-806). According to tradition, he was the 50th ruler in direct succession to the sun-goddess, and some claim him as one of the three great imperial figures, along with Prince Shotoku and Emperor Meiji. His spirit is deified at Heian Jingu, which describes his achievements in this way:

During the 25 years of his reign, Emperor Kammu reformed the legal system, provided help for the needy, encouraged culture and learning, reorganised the provincial administrative system and promoted trade with other countries. He thus contributed immeasurably to the development of the nation.

For reasons unknown, the shrine omits his campaign of conquest against the Emishi in the north. Nor do they mention his 16 consorts and 32 offspring. But his greatest legacy was undoubtedly the establishment of a grand capital that was to last for over a thousand years. It was named Heian-kyo (“City of Peace and Tranquility”), and later to be known as Kyoto.

Reasons for moving

In early times, the Japanese custom called for the periodic moving of the capital. This was to escape defilement following the death of an emperor or any kind of disaster such as a flood or disease. By the eighth century, the practice had become prohibitively expensive, and in 710, Japan's first permanent capital was set up at Nara.

Such was the situation when Kammu came to the throne in 781. He had not expected to come to power, for he had Korean ancestry on his mother's side, supposedly polluting the purity of the imperial line. (In 2001, the present emperor took a brave decision to acknowledge the foreign ancestry, much to the outrage of the country's nationalists.)

Kammu was a convinced Confucian; portraits show him with a small beard, Chinese-style. He was troubled by the activities of Nara's Buddhist priests, for like medieval cardinals in Europe, they were steeped in politics. One named Dokyo (d. 772) even attempted a coup.

To free himself of the Buddhists, Kammu set up a new capital at Nagaoka (in the southwest of modern Kyoto). A series of misfortunes, however, suggested the site was cursed. So after just ten years, he determined to find a place that would be secure once and for all.

Royal diviners were set to work, and under the guise of hunting expeditions, Kammu set off to scour the surroundings. In the northern reaches of the river basin, he found just what he wanted. “The mountains and rivers are the collar and belt of this area and make it a natural fortress,” he declared contentedly.

The new capital embodied the Confucian belief in a rational and hierarchical society. Parallel streets provided an orderly framework containing 1,200 blocks in all. They were intended as a support system for the imperial compound, which occupied a full 15 percent of the total. If you climb one of the hills that surround Kyoto, you can still see something of the original layout in the grid-like streets. Of Heian-kyo, sadly, not a single building remains.

Genus loci

The existence of a spirit of place has been recognised since classical times, and one of those most attuned to it was the much-travelled D.H. Lawrence. “Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality,” he wrote.

So what can we say of Kyoto's spirit of place? Undoubtedly, it has a feminine and sensitive nature, as has been often been commented on. Historically, the crafts and arts it has fostered contrast with the masculine nature of Edo, dominated by the samurai and the sword. Even today, Tokyo with its army of salarymen has a more assertive, outward-looking feel than Kyoto's more refined and insular tastes.

For a landlocked city, Kyoto is notable for its abundance of water. In addition to the main rivers, there are canalised streams and a vast underground reservoir equal in volume to Lake Biwa. It has enabled the city's famous products, sake and tofu, which require a flow of water. And drawing fresh water from the city's wells remains popular with the citizenry, particularly the tea masters for whom purity is essential.

Kyoto's mountains have played no less a crucial role. The enfolding hills, which ring three-quarters of the city, leave only the southern plain exposed. They provide shelter and a spiritual dimension, for the foothills are dotted with temples, shrines, and cemeteries. To the humans in the valley below, they serve as a constant reminder of nature's splendour, and in their colouring, they reflect the changing seasons in hues that vary from verdant green to dark and menacing when storm clouds appear.

In days gone by, the hills were ever-visible to the populace, their eyes drawn upwards by the slopes away from the mire of the city. The solace of nature provided comfort even in the harshest of times. But now increasingly, the uplifting view is blocked by mediocre high-rises that deaden the human soul. The temples that so vigorously opposed the building of Kyoto Hotel in 1994 because its height obscured the eastern hills had a good point.

Once too, the “Flowering Capital” was immersed in nature. Considering its position, the city is wonderfully green. Rome and San Francisco lie close to the same latitude, yet despite the similarity of temperature, there is a striking difference in rainfall. It accounts for the lush vegetation and helps explain why this is the city that gave birth to ikebana. Even today, the tourist office keeps a rolling schedule of what is in bloom and where to see it.

All kinds of theories have been put forward about the effect of the setting on Kyoto's creative impulse, for it was in this single river basin that Japan's aesthetics were fostered. The encircling hills may account for the inward-looking nature, and the gentle contours are reflected in the delicate patterns of the art. The seasonal round has inspired many a volume of poetry as well as a famous passage in Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book. Perhaps, then, it is not too much to say that the distinctive quality of Japanese culture was inspired by Kyoto's spirit of place.

Ancestral deity

In 1895, in celebration of the city's 1,100th anniversary, Emperor Kammu was deified at the specially-built Heian Shrine. The city founder now acts as guardian spirit, not just of the ancient capital but by extension of the country as a whole. “Home for the Ancestral Deity of Kyoto and Japanese Heritage,” proclaims the shrine proudly. From its palatial confines, the city's patriarch continues to keep watch over the lush river basin. In a very real sense, he now personifies the spirit of place.

The main building of the shrine is a five-eighths-scale replica of the original Great Hall of State which dominated his capital. It has a stately splendour and is popular with tourists, yet doesn't really inspire a sense of spirituality. Perhaps it's the newness, perhaps it's the crowds, perhaps it's the atmosphere of buildings originally meant for formal ceremonies.

For a sense of the past, it is better to visit the small garden of Shinsen-en, sole remainder from the original Heian-kyo. Here, despite the tawdry intrusions of the modern world, one can be transported imaginatively to the aristocratic milieu of Kammu's time. The garden is but a fraction of the large pleasure park in which court nobles once spent their leisure hours; this is where they composed poems, listened to insects, and attended rain-making ceremonies. Close your eyes and you can see them dotted round the margin of the pond.

Kammu's burial mound is another place to treasure. There are few visitors and many people -- even Kyoto natives -- are completely unaware of it. Yet for those with the inclination, it's well worth a visit, particularly as it lies close to the far grander and well-known burial place of Emperor Meiji. For some, this is hallowed ground indeed -- within a kilometer of each other lie the graves of the first emperor to die in Kyoto and the last to be born here.

Set apart from the city bustle, Kammu's grave retains an air of serenity and is surrounded by woods. Something about the place must have appealed to the Confucian; perhaps it has good feng shui. A simple torii indicates its symbolic dimension, and surrounded by ancient woodland, there is a sense of that arboreal setting in which Heian-kyo was first located. No one knows what the mound contains, for excavation of imperial graves remains strictly taboo, yet one can't help feeling that this is as close to Kammu as it is possible to get. Here, for those who will, it is possible to commune with the true spirit of place.

Adapted from the author's Kyoto: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal/OUP, 2006). Shinsen-en lies just to the south of Nijo Castle. Kammu's burial mound is a 15-minute walk up the slope from Tambabashi Station (Keihan or Kintetsu) or Tambaguchi (JR).

<< Prev Next >>