New Year’s in Kyoto: 10,000 torii and a box of hot sake

Three snapshots of a millenary city which is at the crossroads of Japanese history, culture, politics and society. A decade isn’t enough to rove through every backstreet, mountain trail and temple garden Kyoto has to offer, but New Year’s is as good a time as any to let 12 centuries wash over you in waves of miso soup and green tea. 

Text and photos: Miles Harvey, Literature exchange student 

The greatest surprise (and short-lived disappointment) I felt when I first arrived in Kyoto was the fact that New Year’s Eve, merely days away, was going to be firework-less. No fireworks in Japan? It seemed like a given that the sky would light up with high-tech pyrotechnics depicting Hello Kitty to welcome 2020, but alas, I was in for a letdown. The city was the imperial seat and capital of the Japanese Empire for over a millennium until Tokyo took its place. It lies in a valley surrounded by verdant low mountains, a mere 14 minutes away from bustling, neon-lit Osaka on the space-shuttle-like Shinkansen train via the Tokaido Line, which in turn leaves you at Kyoto Station, a gargantuan feat of modern architecture which is an attraction in its own right. The city is crisscrossed by subways, trainlines, light rails, which for a person who never grew out of his childhood obsession for everything that runs on rails and watched Thomas the Tank Engine during every meal as a kid, meant paradise. In any case, for someone who is travelling and wants to see a city with sparsely located highlights and attractions, it reads “accessible”.  

Japan was not high up on my list of places to visit, but the insistence of my mother, who had been there previously, and my sister being on board with it, tipped the scales away from my getting to choose our destination. As soon as we started to plan the trip, it became evident that the country had much more to offer than first meets the eye. When I got off the second plane in Kansai International Airport, after having travelled for 24 hours and crossed 12 time zones from Buenos Aires, Argentina, I realised yet again that the old-as-time-itself expression “mother knows best” had gained yet another point. As we’re on the topic of clichéd idioms, one which has lost a point is “he who laughs last laughs best”. Risking being stoned in some dark alley on campus by Japan connoisseurs; Kyoto, being the first city I visited in Japan (and Tokyo being the last), still is in my humble opinion the city that best condenses many of Japan’s fortes in one place. If it were possible to thank the perpetrator of atomic genocide, US President Harry Truman’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson, for something, it would be to have spared Kyoto from near total destruction. He removed it from Operation Manhattan’s target list of possible victims of the weapon of mass destruction named “Little Boy ” in 1945, just because he’d enjoyed the city’s beauty during his honeymoon. 

The ascent to Kiyomizu-dera 

Japanese women wearing a traditional kimono on the street is an image that seems stereotypical. In times of political correctness clouding our use of reason and intuition, one would reverse-psychologically assume we should not expect this picturesque apparition to become a reality once in the Land of the Rising Sun. However, at least the days leading up to and following the 31st of December see the streets of Japanese cities, towns and villages full of men and women in full traditional attire heading to their local temple to bid the year they are leaving behind farewell and to give the new and burgeoning year a warm welcome, with joint-handed prayers and millions of incense sticks. The ascent to Kiyomizu-dera temple in Eastern Kyoto is via Matsubara-dori street, full of teahouses, restaurants, and shops featuring larger-than-life Totoro’s. Couples and families donned with silk or cotton kimonos and yukatas, some rather simple and monochrome, others bursting with prints of flowers, Japanese cultural icons and other motifs, crowd the street which holds the majestic red temple at its summit, visible through a spiderweb of cables and the hazy winter fog. The temple complex enjoys a commanding view over the city, with the mountains on the other side of the valley rising up behind Kyoto’s low buildings and the 131m tall Kyoto Tower, whose view seems quite unnecessary after having gazed over the traditional curved rooftops as far as the eye can see from Kiyomizu-dera. Removing your shoes (a given to enter any shrine in Japan) is well worth it to see the altars, Buddhas, lavish lamps and woodwork within, but it may be a good idea to pack your slip on shoes if you don’t want to feel as frustrated as the author when he had to untie and retie his shoelaces for a solid month in order to enter every temple he visited.  

Arashiyama bamboo grove and the Fushimi Inari torii gates 

Perspective was first used by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Japanese in art and was then intentionally forgotten by Medieval artists in tens of thousands of depictions of “Madonna and Child”. It was later studied in depth and revived by Filippo Brunelleschi, architect of the Florence Cathedral, during the Quattrocento, dawn of the Italian Renaissance. The vanishing point used in linear perspective is what brings two sites on diametrically opposed corners of Kyoto together in my mind. Two places where one can experience tunnel vision without having to endure 4g-force acceleration in a space rocket simulator, contract a pituitary tumor or consume LSD. At the terminus of the Arashiyama Line in the Northwest of the city lies the homonymous Bamboo Grove. It is extremely touristy for a reason: the whisper of thousands of 10m tall bamboo trees brushing against each other in the wind, a green tunnel made by nature, which intermittently shows slivers of the sky above, make it worth tolerating the mass of people there. Go early if you want to avoid the crowds of tourists who need their beauty sleep, you’ll only have to share this ancestral spot with the early-birds, Don’t forget to close your eyes and take in the atmospheric soundscape which envelops the forest.  

Venture Southeast on the Nara or the Keihan Main Lines to Fushimi Inari-taisha, a tunnel of a very different, much more man-made, kind. Over 10,000 red torii gates, the epitome of Japanese architecture, frame the path throughout the different places of worship spread across the slopes of sacred Mount Inari. The author had to go twice, as the first time he made the mistake of going in the afternoon, and unlike the other tunnel previously discussed, crowds mean feeling like you are slowly being pushed along by a human conveyor belt along the paths. The second time he got it right and went at daybreak (which occurs late in the winter thankfully), and encountered very few people, which allows one to fully appreciate the singularity of this place. The irregular height and width of the gates, some freshly painted in brilliant vermillion, others with the pigment cracked and discolored by the elements and the passing of time, makes you feel like you are being digested by some huge dragon from Japanese mythology. The names of the torii’s donors, which range from local banks to widows, are inscribed on them. Walking up the steep steps to the summit of the mountain feels like stepping into Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke ( a director whose filmography is a must see before going to Japan), the shafts of sunlight piercing the tunnel at intervals and lighting up the gates, surrounded by the evergreen forest, is an image that will become seared into the inside of your brain forever. 

New Years as a gaijin  

My extraordinary travel companions (i.e. my mother and sister) were too exhausted from a day of heavy walking and sightseeing to wander out of our Airbnb on New Year’s Eve, close to Sanjo station on the Eastern bank of the Kamogawa river. So I ate with them and made plans to spend New Year’s with a fellow gaijin (foreigner in Japanese), who I had gone on a date with a few days before and who was doing his Master’s in Kyoto. We had a few drinks and went temple hopping before the clock struck twelve. While most tourists headed to the big temples to hear the bells ringing at midnight, we rushed, got lost and rushed again when we found our way, to a small neighbourhood temple where we were supposed to meet his colleagues. When we arrived, minutes before the New Year came to existence, his acquaintances were nowhere to be found. The people there, Japanese, non-English speaking, absolute strangers in their entirety, were enormously kind and hospitable, thrusting wooden box-shaped cups into our hands filled to the brim with hot sake they were warming in hollow bamboo canes on the open fire, and offered us traditional food to go with it. They included us in the circle around the flames and we tried to communicate in our poor but passable Japanese and their likewise English. We all wished akemashite omedetou gozaimasu to each other when the temple bells rang midnight and we were invited to join them in prayer at the  shrine, lining up and taking turns to walk up the steps and pour water over the statue of Buddha. I’m not a religious person, quite the opposite, but that night I felt motivated to give thanks for something, I guess it was for the kindness of strangers. After 12 we continued drinking, eating and talking with the neighbours. Finally, my friend’s colleagues arrived, and we went to their professor’s house to have a late night snack (which actually was a full-on stir fry with noodles in a stone cauldron on an open fire). It is an experience in itself to be invited into a Japanese household, which is absolutely different to a Western one, with rooms, beds, kitchens and bathrooms taking a different form.  

I know these scenes sounds like some idyllic fabrication extracted from the travel blog of an Instagram influencer or scenes from Julia Roberts’ Eat, Pray, Love that didn’t make the final cut, but I swear by those friendly and welcoming people in that suburban Kyoto shrine that I’m accurately depicting the events as they happened. I had to pay dearly for the amount of hot sake I drank (you pass it like water after a while), the next day as I had an 8am Shinkansen to Hiroshima and was still quite inebriated after a two-hour sleep, which transitioned towards a heavy hangover as the first day of 2019 progressed. This is just a fraction of what the city has to offer, the rest you can find in the travel guides, or even better, in the words of a Japanese 10 year old girl sitting around a fire on a cold New Year’s Eve. 

Bite-sized culinary experiences that must be had: 
  • Experience kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi with an ice-cold Asahi at the authentic, affordable and central Musashi Sushi (is it even worth putting addresses anymore now that Google Maps reads our minds and gives us directions?) 
  • Try street food in one of the hundreds of stalls which are set up on streets and around temples, they are worth it! 
  • Go to the more upmarket but beautiful Rakusho tea house where you can have your green tea ice cream surrounded by a pond full of multicolored koi carp fish.  

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