In the consciousness of both Japanese and foreigners, it is what Tokyo isn’t: the hub of Japanese culture, the heart of its tradition, the treasury containing everything precious created by the Japanese civilization for the last twelve centuries, the place were noblemen, artists and aesthetes laid the groundwork for the creation of all that make Japan special, the real capital, the basis and seat of the emperor and the great religious leaders both of Shinto an Buddhism. Kyoto, the actual center of Kansai is the sun whose rays reach from Hokkaido to Okinawa and from the Pacific to the Nihon Kai, the sea separating Japan from Asia, the womb from which the Japanese cultural conscience sprang and the point they always return when they want to refer to the essence of their country.
Because of the above, Kyoto is probably the place where the foreign visitor will take the most powerful debunking blow while in Japan: those expecting a traditional town-counterpoint to the noisy, anarchic melting pot called “Tokyo” will not find it since like most cities in Japan (and with its 1,5 million people being part of the 18,5 million Keihanshin metropolitan area including Osaka and Kobe, it is very much a “city”) Kyoto has all those elements that remind you that it is part of one of the most highly developed countries on the planet. Wide avenues, modern architecture, cars and automatisms and super-luxury stores are mingled with its 2000 temples and the 400 year-old confectioneries share walls with Armani boutiques, BMW dealerships or the ubiquitous pachinko parlors. Yes, the founder of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu did indeed live here but those looking for him will probably not find him anymore.
I am almost certain I am being unfair to Kyoto: If nothing else, I have only visited it twice and I have barely managed to see a handful of its impressive “basics” –the Fushimi Inari, center of the cult of the god of rice and its fox-messenger, the Kiyomizu-dera with its overhanging veranda and the forest below, the golden pavilion Kinkaku-ji in the mirror pond and the alleys of the “entertainment areas” of Gion and Pontocho. However, it gave me a negative sensation right from the start –Tokyo, on the other hand, felt like home from the moment I set foot on it- and I have yet to figure out why. Perhaps I was biased before even going there, the result of an ideological allergy to almost everything institutional that I’ve been carrying with me since I was a child or perhaps because I was always more interested in the culture of the common townspeople than that of the aristocrats; the best way to describe it though, is that it feels less like a city and more like a theme park promoting this city. But I’m probably wrong…
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.