The city of Kyoto in the Kansai region of the largest Japanese island of Honshu was the country’s ancient capital between 794 until 1868; more than a thousand years. And it was during this millennium, that the modern idea of Japan was formed.
As a result, Kyoto is today considered Japan’s home of culturally historic arts. The city, which is crammed with ancient shrines, geisha houses, tea sanctuaries, textile workshops and ceramics ateliers, is only one sixth of the size of the modern day capital Tokyo but is arguably more important to the art historical narrative of Japan.
Tokyo certainly bustles with modernity – you only need to look as far as Yayoi Kusama’s new self-built museum dedicated to her spot paintings, or the house-cum-collection of the billionaire art collector Yasuka Maezawa (Who recently announced he was taking 8 artists in to space on the first-ever commercial flight to the moon) to see how contemporary art has shaped that city. But, Japan’s approach to modernity, in all its tenderly crafted perfection, has been moulded in the furnaces of ancient Kyoto.
One of Kyoto’s most famous historic art forms is that of the Zen garden – where quite possibly, the ‘less is more’ aesthetic was born. Nobody quite knows the origin of this ancient practice, whereby stones are raked daily into grids of lines and swirls, and where moss is preciously laid down on carefully positioned rocks to resemble miniature layers of flora covering birds-eye views of landscapes. They’re slightly like ancient model towns but intended for complete and utter serene contemplation.
The city of Kyoto is home to hundreds of such gardens, many of which are well known; such as the Ryoanji Temple, with its fifteen rocks that can never be all seen at once, to the more hidden examples such as Tokai-an, which is nothing but raked, identical grey pebbles and only open once every three of four years.
The Swiss-German 20thcentury Expressionist artist Paul Klee once famously said that the raked lines of traditional Japanese gardens had been ‘Taken for a walk,’ and there is little doubt that these pathways through imagined metaphysical spaces inspired in some part, Kusama’s evocative dream-cations.
But to Japanese people, these gardens contain a deeply seeded code of cultural rules that to Westerners, like you or I, are undecipherable. It is no coincidence that many of these practices like within the mysterious roots of Shintoism – the county’s traditional religion, which by many, is practised alongside Buddhism. Shintoism, which dictates that spirits inhabit everything from the wind to the rocks, never spread from the shores and seems to the west an incomprehensible, quixotic religion. It is perhaps a little like how we can export the physicality of these gardens to the west, but never truly understand them like a native.
One of these concepts – which is fundamental to Japan’s historical aesthetics, is ‘Wabi-Sabi’. While it doesn’t translate directly into an idea easily digestible by western standards, it is something along the lines of ‘the simple beauty found in the transient or incomplete,’ a sort of rustic charm. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for imperfection.
Kyoto is home to the historic tea ceremony, which goes in hand in hand with dry gardening – many of the outdoor spaces were designed to be viewed from inside tea pavilions through wooden window frames. These tea ceremonies, which have roots that go back thousands of years, involve tea masters mixing matcha with a minute wooden whisk over a pot of gently bubbling water in a process that can last up to an hour.
Many of these tea houses in Kyoto are today open to the public – but make no mistake – they come with just as much rigour and rule as the world of gardens. Tea must be drunk with a certain hand, at a certain angle, in a certain motion. Each sip becomes part of a choreography that reflects a Japanese craft perfected over centuries. And it all feels perfected to at (pun intended).
The quest for perfection in all things craft has passed down to a new set of young Japanese anaesthetists too. In the restaurants of Kyoto, which are still housed predominantly in timber-framed buildings that often surround courtyards filled with cherry blossom and bamboo trees; the rule of thumb is that ‘you eat with your eyes.’ Every single slice of a pickle or wedge of local speciality bean curd has been mulled over from a design-angle, and then cut in earnest.
Kyoto is famed for many other traditional crafts too. In the Arayashima district, known for its sprawling Tenryu-ji Temple complex and bamboo forest that both attract city-dwellers in search of quiet contemplation at the weekends, you can still find a handful of artisans working to produce Japanese lacquer work woods and mother of pearl inlays. Passed down through generations, the youngest members of these families, who are doggedly determined to preserve the skills, are persuading their parents the way forward is to collaborate with trendy brands – and it’s working. From their small workshops where they sit on tatami mats, hand caring for hours upon hours each day, these miniature works of art reflect the Japanese sense of meticulous precision in detail.
In textiles too, Kyoto helps bring the crafts of old into the days of now. The house of Hosoo has been making fabrics for generations, but it is the youngest member of the family who has the business naos to help push this Kyoto firm to the forefront of the future of crafts. Aside from collaborating with firms such as Leica and Oliver peoples, the company has installed art projects working with creative like David Lynch, as well as collaborating with Panasonic to make touch-sensitive electronic fabric. It’s as hybrid as it sounds, and looks, particularly Japanese, fusing science, art and craft into one mind-bending application.
Kyoto is a world away from the hyper-modern life of Japan. It’s a city that pays respect to its history. In all the ancient roads, which are faced by crooked wooden buildings that seem equally unassuming and uninviting with their paper windows drawn closed, you can feel that this is a place drooling history. Its also a place of the miniature – perhaps due to the fact that so much of Japan is actually vast, rugged mountain terrain, that Japanese people have got used to doing things in constrained spaces. But everything feels hand made like time has been truly invested, and its designed to last. It’s a city that offers a slower pace in its culture.
It’s also the perfect antidote to Tokyo. Being just 2 and half hours by bullet train, or 40 minutes by flight, Kyoto is the tranquillity required in Japan. The city has an air of welcoming, hospitality, comfort. Hotels such as the trendy Celestine, located in the historic geisha district of Gion, or the super-lux Ritz Carlton which has its own impressive art collection, even seem to give off the same sense of mathematical perfection, which has been taken from Zen gardens, and in Kyoto, applied to tourism.
For more information visit the Kyoto Tourism Office.
Japan Airlines flies London -Tokyo- Osaka Return. Economy Class from £838 and Premium Economy Class from £1,678.