memories of a long-imagined place (3) kyoto

steve in kyoto – september 2016

It’s all been a bit quiet on the blog of late, hasn’t it? In fact, it’s been a lot quiet (not sure that is grammatically correct, but I’m going with it as it seems to work) and I place the blame for that firmly at the feet of a certain Mr Jansen. Since he bowed to public pressure, and finally released his beautiful wee tome of photography last year, the thrill of seeing new photos and discovering treasured snippets of background information about certain shots, has pretty much gone out of the (quiet) window. Now, don’t get me wrong; I was one of the people calling for the book to see the light of day, and I am completely thrilled that it has finally been published; but its appearance has somewhat robbed me of my momentum for this blog.

However, all is not lost and over the last few days, Steve has posted some beautifully intriguing shots from his recent trip to Japan – where he appeared alongside his old mucker, Yukihiro Takahashi, at the World Happiness concert in Tokyo, before heading on to Kyoto to perform a brace of concerts at the Okazaki Loops orchestral event – ‘Music For A Dying Star’.  Held over 2 consecutive days, the concerts featured Steve playing his own composition ‘the blossoms close at sunset’, as well as accompanying a range of musicians (but NOT Masakatsu Takagi, as it turns out – oops!) on their own pieces from the ALMA Music Box project.

steve onstage in kyoto – photo by keiko kurata

Steve’s return to form on his ‘sleepyard’ blog this week has given me the much-needed impetus to crack on and breath some life back into this old girl; and so it seems as if now is as good a time as any to continue where I last left off, and complete the travelogue  about my own trip to Japan, earlier this year.  For, our next stop, was indeed, the magnificent city of Kyoto.

We left Osaka still on a high from our meeting with Keiko (and her gloriously grumpy dog, TT) and boarded yet another Shinkansen for the short trip to the “heart of Japan’s ancient culture”™, as every guide book on the planet seems to refer to it. We had booked a ‘traditional’ house for 3 days, and were a bit giddy at the prospect of having our own space to relax and unwind. Finding it though, was akin to Indiana Jones’ search for the Ark of the Covenant, as our ridiculous attempts at Japanese, coupled with our taxi driver’s inability to understand the detailed map and instructions written in his mother-tongue, (which had been provided by the Japanese owners) meant we drove around the maze of tiny backstreets, for ages. However, we finally arrived and once we had got our bearings, realised that we were within walking distance of some of the most amazing sites we have ever seen.

Tenryu-ji – one of the major temples of the Rinzai school of zen

Kyoto is an astonishing city. After spending 3 days there, I am now pretty certain that it is possible to expire from ‘temple fatigue’; every street seems to have a least one, if not more, hidden Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, practically one on every corner. We had been advised to visit one of the famous ‘blood temples’, so-called because the wooden beams in their ceilings are stained with the blood of the garrisoned troops of Fushimi castle, who committed sepukku some 400 years ago. The floor-boards were removed from the destroyed castle and preserved, later being incorporated into the ceilings of 7 temples across Kyoto. We visited one of the temples, only to find that the main hall was closed, for renovation work. We did try to glimpse inside and take a couple of cheeky shots of the roof beams but we to no avail. Bugger.

However, the temples we did manage to visit were so mind-staggeringly beautiful, that all was not lost. We walked up the 4km pathway to the summit of Inari-yama, which was lined with hundreds of red torii gates, passing by umpteen graveyards and miniature shrines, along the way. We relaxed in the zen gardens of Tenryu-ji, before heading into the cool shade of the bamboo forest. A night-time walk into Gion lead us to the beautiful oasis of calm of Yasaka Shrine, its floodlit gateway dominating the horizon as we walked up Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue).

torii gates on the path to the summit of Inari-yama


graveyards & shrines on the pathway to the summit

Kyoto, and Gion in particular, comes alive at night. We walked along the river, glimpsing into the vast array of restaurants and bars, desperately hoping for a sneeky-peek into the seductive and secretive world of the city’s famous Geiko culture. We had been told that we were unlikely to see geisha simply walking around in the streets, but just wandering around the small backstreets and knowing that we were passing through the historical geiko-district, was thrill enough.

the geisha who disappeared
a very sneeky-peek….. photo by steve jansen
kyoto cocktail bar – those hipsters get everywhere, don’t they? photo by steve jansen
cars whizz by the floodlit Yasaka Shrine in Gion

On our last full day in Kyoto, we headed north on the train out of the city, to Arashiyama; home to the famous bamboo forest and some of the tamest monkeys on the planet. More temples and shrines, more noodles and beer, and another day being slightly mind-blown by the absolute beauty of the area.  The bamboo forest proved to be a cool and welcome break from the fierce heat; it was 29 degrees and 90% humidity. I must confess, whilst I was walking beneath the towering canes (more like trunks, such was their size) I had one of those moments of pure and absolute bliss. Here I finally was, after some 34 years of longing, walking through scenery which had always felt so familiar, yet so very distant. Snippets of music buzzed around in my mind; ‘forbidden colours’ and ‘a foreign place’, tinkling and shimmering in the green haze; the perfect aural accompaniment  to the amazing landscape.

Arashiyama bamboo grove

I am still a bit peeved at having missed seeing Steve perform in Kyoto, by a matter of weeks, but nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for the experience I had whilst visiting this most beautifully cultured of cities. It feels as if I merely scratched the surface and I hope that I will the chance to dig a bit deeper into the history & culture, on another visit in the not too distant future.

Many thanks to Keiko Kurata for the photo of Steve at the Okazaki Loops concert.

Steve publishes his photos and answers questions here:

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