Posts Tagged ‘kyoto’

For the final week of my crazy jaunt around Japan this past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of taking part in a “graduate summer school” run by Kyoto University. It was a great program, introducing us to the university’s great collections, and presenting just a tiny glimpse into how archaeological research is done, how medieval documents are read, and so forth. I was certainly blown away by the items in the collection, the opportunity to see such things up close is always such a pleasure.

Still, I feel bad to say so, but while I think it would have been a fantastic program for students earlier in their programs, I’m at a stage right now where anything not directly related to helping me improve and finish the dissertation just doesn’t grab me right now. I must admit, I spent much of the week thinking about how “I could/should be working on my dissertation right now.” Especially after two weeks of just travel, even though that travel included archives and libraries, I was feeling guilty for not just buckling down and getting back to work. But, still, I’m very glad for this program as it (1) gave me an opportunity and excuse to spend a whole week in Kyoto, easily one of my most favorite cities in the world, and (2) allowed me to meet a whole lot of new people, make new friends/acquaintances/colleagues.

Yasaka no tô (Yasaka Pagoda), as seen from a small street near Ninenzaka.

At the end of it, I am sad to leave Kyoto. I had a really fantastic time. Even after all the rest of the traveling, I can tell that Kyoto, more so than Fukuoka or Kagoshima or Tokyo, is a place I could really enjoy being for a real length of time. I wish I had another week, or a year, to sit in cafes and just write, interspersed with going out to dinner with friends, going to theatre, visiting historical sites… I suppose that having friends around makes a whole lot of the difference, that that’s a part of what made this week in Kyoto so great. Without friends it wouldn’t be the same. But even so, it would still be such a wonderful city. I love exploring Kyoto, the shrines and temples and historical sites and cafes and restaurants and everything. I love the particular aesthetic and charm of so many Kyoto cafes. And I love how just historical and cultural everything is.. You can feel it, it’s in the air.

On my first trip to Kyoto, I remember writing in my LiveJournal (haha) that it was a small city with just enough of the modern city amenities. I remember that I was thinking in particular of Harajuku, and how you can in fact get cool fashion and other “modern” city experiences in Kyoto, but that it’s much smaller. That if you want the ultra-modern X, Y, and Z of Tokyo, you have to be in Tokyo. (Or Osaka, I suppose, but I still have never spent any time in Osaka). But, I’m not sure I feel the same way about Kyoto anymore. I know it’s because my interests have changed – I don’t need the anime stores of Ikebukuro anymore. And because Harajuku itself has changed, too. What once was, is no longer, even in Tokyo. Now, I’m more interested in history and culture and theatre and cute cafes and so on than I ever was before.

A view along the Kamo River.

I think I would really love to live in Kyoto for a year or so. Or even just for a few months. It’s not a city with too much direct relation to my research, unfortunately. So much talk all week about the Heian court and such… very far from my studies. But who cares, right? … And there are plenty of universities in Kyoto, hopefully one of them might be looking for a postdoc or something.

After this trip, I really do feel I could stay in Japan long-term. Maybe not indefinitely, make my whole life and career here. But certainly for a few years. It’s just such a good place to be, and with so much great stuff to see and do. Life is clean and good. It’s not dirty and falling apart like NY. It’s not a society pulling itself apart at the seams over politics like our own. Japan has its problems, to be sure, and in certain respects all the moreso as a foreigner. But sometimes I just really want, need, an escape from the insular, local, problems and politics of home. I feel like Kyoto is such a city of possibility. Not that one can’t say the same thing of any other big city, but there’s somehow something that just grabs me about Kyoto, that makes me feel like there is such a wealth of experiences to be had. That if you met the right people, made the right contacts, heard about the right opportunities, you could get into just so many incredible spaces and experiences. From Noh to Butoh, from tea to Zen, from shamisen to Nihon buyô. From dozens of cool or cute cafes to amazing temples, archives, seminars. I would love to live such a life.

Apologies for the disjointedness; for the rest of this post, I’m just going to share my thoughts-at-the-time on a couple of sites I visited in Kyoto.

The Ninomaru Palace at Nijô castle.


Nijô castle was built in 1603 to serve as the base of Tokugawa presence in the imperial city. Though as it turned out no shogun visited Kyoto for over 200 years from 1634 to 1863, representatives and officials continuously occupied the castle, overseeing goings-on in the city, handling various administrative matters, and so forth. Today, Nijô is of particular interest (at least to people like myself) because it’s the chief surviving site that might offer some sense of what the shogun’s main castle in Edo was once like. (The main residence and administrative buildings of Edo castle having never been rebuilt after an 1863 fire) Here are some thoughts I had at the time while visiting there for the first time in 15 years:

When you really think about it, it’s so weird, to walk around these rooms, these very rooms where these events really took place, and not be able to enter them to experience the space more directly. On one level, sure, it makes perfect sense, and I don’t need to enter the rooms at Independence Hall, for example, and to sit at those desks, to get a sense of what happened there and its gravity. But, somehow here it’s different. Walking through the honjin at Futagawa, and actually sitting in the room, you really get a sense of the space that you don’t by walking around only in the corridors. There’s just this incredible disconnect I feel here. The whole building becomes such a completely different space when the chief areas become unused, and the corridors become the main areas in which any human activity takes place.

The Ôhiroma, or Grand Audience Hall, of Nijô castle, arranged with mannequins to show how lords would have sat or bowed before the shogun. Sadly, obnoxiously, no photos allowed inside the building. This photo from Hananomichi blog.

I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels weird to me that a building of such great importance should become so empty, so dead, just put on display like this. I know that’s the very essence of the historical house as museum and I’m glad it’s preserved and open to visitors – neither destroyed nor kept limited to official business. I’m glad I get to see it. But somehow, more so than all the other castles and historic homes I’ve seen, this one struck me somehow. I somehow really wish we could engage with it more directly, or more extensively somehow.

Of course, there are simple practical reasons why you can’t let people walk on the tatami – it would get ruined so quickly. But, I wonder if some replica experience could be produced somehow. So people could experience these rooms not only from the outside, but from within the space, surrounded and immersed in the effect intended by the designers, and experienced by the people of the time.


Somehow, in my previous visits to Kyoto, I had never actually been to Tô-ji, one of the oldest temples in the city, and home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. I guess part of the reason I’d never gone was because Buddhist sculpture has never really done much for me. But somehow this time was different. To see them all arranged together, in 3D space, in context, and especially the grand size of these works, I think one really can sense the impact, the feeling of peace and spirituality that’s being evinced.

You can really feel / sense the deities looking down upon you. You can really imagine them being not sculptures buy actual deities manifesting before you. And the smell of the statues, of the wood, and of the incense also makes a big difference.

I think, at least in my own personal experience, that for a lot of Japanese arts, one just needs to be in the right mood, or catch it from the right frame of mind. I’ve been so moved by Buddhist sculpture two or three times, even when dozens and dozens of other times it didn’t really do much for me, and there have been a handful of times that I became truly taken in, entranced, moved, by Noh, though so many previous viewings I never managed to cross that mental or emotional divide. And the same for paintings – seeing paintings in person, with no glass or anything, is almost always a breathtaking experience, but seeing them on display, it’s really not so often that a piece takes me in. So, maybe it is just the timing, or just catching me in the right frame of mind.

Photo of the interior of Sanjûsangendô from the Nikkei newspaper, because god forbid they should allow regular people to take photos of some of the most famous examples of beautiful, masterful, Kamakura period artworks in all of Japan.

We also visited Sanjûsangendô, a very long hall containing 1001 medieval (c. 12th c.) sculptures of the bodhisattva Kannon. I had been there before, but this time we happened to arrive on a (slightly) historic day. These sculptures were long designated “Important Cultural Properties,” but were very recently upgraded to “National Treasures.” In connection with this (I think?), they moved many of the sculptures back to an earlier Edo period configuration just today (August 1), rearranging the exact arrangement of the auxiliary figures surrounding the central larger Kannon, as well as switching the Raijin and Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind) sculptures at the very ends of the arrangement.

Today’s Keihan [train line], feels good.

Finally, I guess I’ll end this post with just a few thoughts on Kyoto as a tourist city.

Are some parts of Kyoto getting Disneyfied? Absolutely. And it’s a shame to see. But I would be curious to know the numbers, the statistics, regarding tourism – is this gentrification, this “touristification,” this Disneyfication, primarily in connection with appealing to great numbers of domestic (Japanese) tourists, or foreign tourists? But, then again, does it matter? Does it make a difference in how we think about it, does it make a difference in whether we are critical of it or not?

I’m frankly not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I can absolutely sense, feel, that Disneyfication, and it’s worrying. It’s problematic. No one should have to feel like their own home is no longer their own – that their own neighborhood is designed around tourists and not around residents. It’s something I’ve seen in Hawaii and Okinawa as well, and it’s no good. But, if there’s a silver lining at all it’s that a great deal of the city doesn’t look/feel like Ninenzaka or Hanamikoji, and it’s still vibrantly authentic, for lack of a better word. I know some people who say Kyoto’s too far gone already – they won’t come here, they won’t bother anymore, because it’s already gone to the dogs, so to speak. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long for me since my time in Kyoto, and since my time this time around was so constrained; maybe it’s just because I still entertain fantasies of what it’s like rather than knowing how it truly is, but for me, it’s still very much worth visiting. I had a marvelous time this time, and an all the more astounding time the previous time around, and I think I would again, if I ever got the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period again. I don’t think it’s time yet to write the city off.

Kyoto is still full of wonderful cafes, temples, universities, museums, theatre, and all sorts of other arts and cultural goings-on. And all of these, I am sure, sway with the winds that are blowing, feeling the impacts of increasing tourism and increasing touristification. But for now at least I think we can still honestly say that a great deal does continue to go on in this city in a relatively authentic fashion, disconnected from catering to what the tourists want.

I wonder if there is anything meaningful or worthwhile to say about the touristification of Kyoto regarding that it may date all the way back to the Edo or Meiji periods. That this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. After all, tourism in Japan really boomed towards the middle and late Edo period (18th-19th centuries), and during our workshop we saw some tourist maps of the city, pointing out Buddhist temples and other sites of interest. In the Meiji period, after some considerable debate and waffling and so forth, the government decided to keep Kyoto as a traditional, historical, imperial city, in contrast to the very modern city they were going to turn Tokyo into. Not that any of this is necessarily perfectly pertinent to the current phenomenon of what’s happening to Kyoto, but even so, context.

I wish I had anything more to say, more insightfully, regarding this interesting and important issue. But I guess I have to just leave that to those who are actually in tourism studies, unlike myself. I’ll just end this already very lengthy blog post by saying that “Let’s Make a Bus Route” (バスルートをつくろう) is a wonderful little board game in which you compete with other players to build the best bus route around Kyoto. No Japanese language ability required. (h/t to my friend Evan for introducing me to the game!)

All photos my own, except where indicated otherwise.

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I was planning on continuing on with my response posts on Pacific Island history, but writing about “Deep Kyoto Walks” made me want to skip ahead to Eiko Ikegami’s “Bonds of Civility.” Her socio-cultural analysis is really deep and interesting, but in the process Ikegami provides a wonderful image of culturally vibrant early modern Japanese cities, full of active intermixing of culturally engaged social circles. The sort of thing that still goes on, in its own way, in Kyoto (and Tokyo, and elsewhere) today, and I felt so lucky to get a brief glimpse of it, a toe in the water so to speak, during my brief weeks in Kyoto. And this is what Deep Kyoto reminds me of…

For the TL;DR crowd, in summary Ikegami’s book is a fascinating read on:
(1) the role of cultural/artistic social circles in forming a “public sphere” in early modern Japan
(2) discussion of the popularization and commercialization of the arts – no longer just for elites, poetry, ikebana, Noh chanting, etc. were now enjoyed as hobbies by common townsfolk, and were enjoyed in social circles and in paid-for lessons.
(2a) discussion of popular publications on the arts, incl. early modern versions of fashion magazines and teach-yourself guides to music, painting, and poetry.

Throughout much of the thirteen chapters of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami examines various aspects or facets of the impact or implications of a single argument: namely, that social circles in Tokugawa Japan organized around artistic or aesthetic activities constituted “publics” or a “public sphere,” contributing to the construction of a shared public consciousness that spanned much of the archipelago and crossed status categories. Ikegami defines civil society as “a domain of private citizens that has a certain degree of autonomy from the state” (19), and argues that while the feudal structure of Tokugawa Japan, including strong shogunate & daimyō controls on political expression, and enforcement of status boundaries, prevented the development of a “civil society” such as might resemble that which first emerged in Europe, aesthetic gatherings such as poetry circles, within which people shed their status identities and engaged with one another through artistic/cultural identities in a relatively egalitarian manner, served this purpose for Tokugawa Japan, providing a space of social/cultural interactions largely autonomous, in certain important ways, from the state’s controls.

This was able to take place because of Tokugawa attitudes and practices regarding the realms of the “private” (私, watakushi). While the samurai authorities were quite wary of political associations, following after the ikki of the Sengoku period, and anticipating the destructive power of shishi groups such as emerged in the Bakumatsu, aesthetic groups such as poetry circles and ikebana clubs fell for the most part under the radar, so to speak, of the authorities. And so it was that some form of “civic associations” or “civil society” was able to take place within these aesthetic circles. If we think of these circles not individually but in aggregate, as prominent in individual’s lives, and as tightly and complexly linked through the interpersonal social networks of all their members, we can begin to see how such seemingly innocuous things as shamisen lessons can, in aggregate, constitute an entire “society” of amateur cultural actors unto itself, within or on the flipside of the “public” society – composed of merchants, artisans, farmers, fishermen, samurai – acknowledged, regulated, and taxed by the authorities.

“Karasuma Street,” a woodblock print by Clifton Karhu, depicting a row of machiya along one of Kyoto’s major streets, which, it is easy to imagine that 100, 200, 300 years ago, as well as today, may have been the site of any number of cultural social gatherings, a private space for the discussion of alternate “public” discourses.

This brings us to Ikegami’s interesting and important discussion of Japanese notions of “public.” Connecting in some interesting ways with Roberts’ twin concepts of uchi (the inside, private realms) and omote (official, outward-facing), Ikegami discusses how the Japanese concept of ōyake or (公, “public”) came, as in English, to conflate the meanings of both (1) open and accessible to all the people, and (2) controlled or owned by the government. The public thus became conflated with the authorities, as seen in terms such as kōgi (公儀, “public order”) and kubō (公方, “the person of the public,” i.e. the shogun as the embodiment of the public order), to which the shogunate appealed, in commanding everyone’s service to public order, and public interest. But, as the samurai authorities in the Tokugawa period left considerable autonomy to private matters (watakushi, related to uchi), these artistic networks were able to enjoy considerable autonomy, and to constitute between them an alternate “public” – a collection of “enclave publics” in Ikegami’s terms – within which the popular people’s attitudes, ideas, could be exchanged, and a “popular voice” could emerge.

These aesthetic social circles were further able to be seen as separated out “private” spaces because of the history of certain arts as being associated with spaces on the margins or outside of normal society, or even with connecting into the otherworldly. The spiritual ritual origins of Noh (for example), and its associations with the otherworldly, with liminal space and the transportation of the audience into a spiritual or dream realm or state, and the identification of performers/entertainers as being outside of the normal status hierarchies, is thus tied into this idea of performing arts as being outside of normal “public” society. Ikegami calls these arts “za arts” both because of an association of these circles with the medieval guilds known as za, and because they were practiced in zashiki meeting rooms. Later on, in the Tokugawa period, the commercial marketplace is added to these artistic spaces, as another major space belonging to the popular “public,” and existing somewhat outside of the discursive control of the authorities (the official/governmental “public” – or ōyake).

Detail from the 17th century “Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine” screen, held at LACMA. This takes place in Nagoya, and I suppose we could assume that most of these figures are preparing for the festival, or are on their way to the festival. But, this might stand in, if you’ll allow, for any number of other fûzokuga (genre paintings), in which we see the chaotic, vibrant, life of a city. Even regardless of the festival, how many of these people coming and going are members of poetry circles or ikebana groups, or are amateur hobbyist students of Noh chanting or kabuki dance?

In art history, as well as in early modern cultural history more broadly, we often touch upon the existence of artistic networks as we discuss the lives and activities of individual “great” artists; we know that the literati artist Ike no Taiga, for example, or the scholar Hiraga Gennai, were actively involved in many such circles and networks, through which they interacted with other artists and scholars. However, through Ikegami’s descriptions, we begin to get a sense of these circles and networks being much more widespread, much more pervasive, than we might have ever imagined otherwise. Not just poetry circles and kabuki fan clubs, but amateur Noh chanting, shamisen lessons, and ikebana groups, among many others, featured prominently, it would seem, in the cultural life of Japan’s major cities. One begins to get an impression of a lively, vibrant cultural scene, in which on any given night dozens (upon dozens?) of rooms spanning many of Kyoto’s city blocks were occupied with cultural activity – and through this cultural activity, socialization and interaction across status boundaries, building personal social networks through which political knowledge and consciousness spread.

Ikegami identifies the commercialization and popularization of the arts in the Edo period – that is, the shift of many arts from being chiefly elite pursuits to being more widely and popularly practiced – as playing a key role in the development of a widespread popular political consciousness, popular political discourse, and a collective notion of (proto-)national identity; this in turn set the stage, she argues, for a stronger, better prepared populace for the modernity which Meiji was to bring. This commercialization and popularization took place through in-person gatherings, meetings, and lessons, but also through a myriad of popular publications we normally do not hear about in either art history or intellectual history discussions of the period, including guides to Noh chanting, shamisen playing, and poetry composition, which made these arts more widely available.

Further, Ikegami argues, popular publications in general, in all of their myriad forms and contents, contributed to linking the disparate parts of the archipelago into a singular, unified cultural consciousness. Whereas Mary Elizabeth Berry, in her Japan in Print, focuses more narrowly on the popular imagination of “Japan” as constituted through encyclopedias, guides to famous places, guides to samurai houses, and the like – a Japan formed of the aggregation of the things described in these books – it is less so in Japan in Print and more so in Bonds of Civility that we see a strong, clear argument for books and prints (any and all books and prints) connecting people into a shared cultural discourse, and into a collective shared identity simply through having read the same books, being familiar with the same authors, artists, cultural referents and cultural practices (8-9).

Right: A woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765-1770, in the Freer-Sackler collection. Three girls examine what appears to be a banzuke, a listing of either sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, or courtesans. Perhaps this lists the upcoming season of kabuki performances or sumo bouts, or lists the “greatest” wrestlers, actors, or courtesans of the year. In any case, these girls share in cultural knowledge of, and fannish interest in, these things, just as we today share in celebrity gossip, scheduled concerts or events we’re excited about, or whathaveyou. And countless other people, across the city and across the realm, are reading this very same banzuke, and are connected to these girls in being familiar with the same cultural goings-on. Whether as “fans” or not, they are still in one sense or another members of a shared community.

Art is all too often dismissed as superficial or extraneous. But, whether for Japan in particular, or with potential applicability for other societies as well, Ikegami makes a powerful argument here for the importance of aesthetics, art, fashion, and popular culture in constituting spaces of popular consciousness and political discourse, contributing in an important way to the emergence in Tokugawa Japan of commoner discursive / cultural / societal prominence. As she points out, the segregation of the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara to their own walled-off districts, though meant to separate them away from normal public society, resulted in each of these areas – to a certain extent, enclaves protected from direct shogunal interference – becoming pressure cookers or Petri dishes of popular culture. Fandom, publications, popular referents, and perhaps most significantly fashion, emerged out of these areas, functioning as a significant way in which commoners could construct and declare their identities. Fashion inspired by the worlds of Yoshiwara and kabuki quickly became quite influential among elites, reversing for perhaps the very first time the cultural flow (where previously it was elites who developed new cultural expressions, and commoners who adopted them in efforts to elevate their own cultural status); this may seem superfluous, but it is in fact profoundly significant, representing the cultural power of the commoner class, and of popular commercial culture. Even while commoners were still denied explicit voice in political process, we can now see how artistic circles, popular publishing, fashion, and the social rituals of the commoner districts combined to create a real sea change in commoner voice, influence, power, prominence, in certain other key cultural/social respects.

I wrote the above as a response paper, for my advisor, in December 2014, and have not altered it much in adapting it to the blog. I add the following, new, now, in June 2015:

In sum, this book is fascinating both for its overarching argument about “publics,” and for its content, at times, on certain subjects I have never happened to read up on elsewhere – e.g. kimono pattern books and the development of Edo fashion. In addition to this, though, I truly love this book for (a) the way it brings the cities of early modern Japan alive, inspiring images of cultural/social life of a city, constituted in the aggregate of countless poetry circles, shamisen lessons, and so forth. Who knows what goes on in back rooms across Kyoto, Tokyo, Naha, Honolulu, New York, and San Francisco today? Such liveliness, such vibrancy! And I also love this book for (b) the way it argues for the importance, the significance of the arts in social and political history. This is an art history which focuses not on individual works, or artists, or schools, movements, or styles, but goes beyond that to talk about the cultural life of the city more broadly, incorporating countless common dabblers and hobbyists, and paying little attention to the quality or meaning, or even content, of their artistic production. And yet it is still a cultural history, if not strictly speaking an “art history,” which argues boldly and oh-so compellingly for the vital relevance and significance of artistic and cultural activity to the history of the development and activity of social and political “publics” or “public spheres” – which might otherwise be dismissed by most historians as frivolous or peripheral.

Left: The upstairs room at Fukushima Shamisen, a shamisen workshop in the Higashi Chayagai of Kanazawa. Who meets and practices shamisen together here? What do they discuss? How did rooms like this one, and the “space” of the shamisen lesson, or group practice, serve as the site of political discussions outside of what might be said, and overheard, “in public”? How did rooms like this one, and the meetings and activities that took place there, constitute the social and cultural life of the city?

All photos are my own (with the exception of the book cover).

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Machiya storefronts at Ogawa-Kami-goryô-mae, one of countless sights I would not have experienced/enjoyed if not for simply taking a walk (or bike ride) with no particular destination in mind. Immediately nearby you can find Fushin’an, a temple with some connection to tea master Sen no Rikyû, and the remaining foundation stones of Dôdôbashi, a bridge famous as the site of clashes between Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sôzen.

I have been following Michael Lambe’s Deep Kyoto for several years now, at least, both the blog and on Facebook, and have thoroughly enjoyed the posts, which come not from the perspective of a tourist, writing to a (potential) tourist, but rather from the perspective of someone deeply situated within the life of the city. I was fortunate myself to spend six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (and unfortunate that it wasn’t longer), six weeks which felt like (and continue, in my memory to feel like) several months at least – a real experience. During those six weeks, I of course visited tons of historical sites, and in fact spent a few hours nearly every day riding my bike off in search of one, and seeing what else I came across along the way. But, in those six weeks I also got a taste – just a taste – of what it might be like to live there more long-term. I was generously invited by a friend to attend his Noh recital, and to go to dinner afterwards, a private reception on the second story of a Mukade-chô shop. I went to a local public bath several times, and got to know a handful of wonderful cafés. The couple from whom I was renting a room invited me to go see their aunt’s paintings at the city museum.

Hanging out along the riverbanks at Sanjô, as people have been doing for centuries.

Through Deep Kyoto, I get a sense of this kind of life on a regular basis. If you’re visiting for just a few days, you’re going to go to all the big-name tourist sites, or at least as many as you can fit in. And for that, you’re going to want a typical sort of guidebook. But, if you’re going to be in Kyoto for longer, or if you’re like me and you’re not sure when you’ll be in Kyoto again any time soon, but you (want to) feel some sort of connection to the regular ongoing cultural events and life of the city, you’re going to be interested in art openings, performances, all sorts of out-of-the-way cafés, restaurants, shops, and sights. And that’s what Deep Kyoto provides. If I were living in Kyoto more long-term, this would be among my chief sources of information on all the exciting things going on, from wine festivals and record & CD sales to the International School’s annual bazaar, album release parties, and gallery openings. And that’s all just within the last month or two (May-June 2015).

So, I guess it should have come as no surprise that Deep Kyoto’s first book, Deep Kyoto Walks, is not your typical guidebook. Available only on Kindle, for the nice low price of US$7.99 or 811 yen, it contains 18 travelogues, stories, accounts, musings, by a handful of different authors, writing about different walks through the city.

I loved riding my bike around, and got a very different feel for the city as a whole, or for individual neighborhoods, than I would have gotten focusing only on the destinations. Indeed, whenever my father and I visit a city together, we do a lot more walking around, just generally getting a sense of the place, than frantically crossing off a list of must-sees. And I think this approach – whether on bike, or walking – works especially well for Kyoto. There is so much to see, it’s like almost every single city block contains at least one “destination” of note; and beyond that, Kyoto is such a historical, cultural, romantic, city, and that really comes out in “Deep Kyoto Walks.”

The Rokkakudô, seen through a Starbucks.

These, then, are not your typical “walks” that you’d find in a guidebook. They don’t say “look to your left, and you’ll see such-and-such. Such-and-such has a long history, and is famous for this-and-that. Be sure to notice the X and Y.” These are not pre-programmed tourist walks for you to emulate, per se. They are accounts of personal experiences, which bring the city to life, fleshing it out with the lives of people who have lived there and experienced the city for themselves, in a deep way, and I suppose setting a model or an inspiration for you to go and experience it for yourself. Still, these stories are deeply rooted (I used “deeply” at first in this post by accident, by coincidence, no pun intended; but now I’m just embracing it) in specific places in the city, and so one could certainly take them as guides to places to visit, as well.

In a chapter entitled “Old School Gaijin Kyoto,” Chris Rowthorn writes about his experiences in Kyoto in the early ’90s as a young man his mid-twenties. He touches on big-name sites like the Gosho – the Kyoto Imperial Palace – though only as a public park he happened upon in his wanderings one day, and stopped to scarf down an orange on one of the park benches. He talks about the English school he worked at, and the Japanese language school he took lessons at, not that either do anything for the aspiring tourist, but I suppose that’s not the point. Most of the chapter is dedicated to talking about cafés, bars, and restaurants he enjoyed during his time in Kyoto – these, too, are written from his own experience, a first-person autobiographical anecdote, and not necessarily as a “guide” to the reader, though one could certainly take him up on his recommendations and search out some of these places.

Some chapters take a somewhat more standard form. In “In Praise of Uro Uro,” Joel Stewart walks us through an actual walk through the city, from Daitoku-ji, past Imamiya Shrine, through some neighborhoods and other sights not explicitly named, to Shôden-ji, a small temple I have certainly never heard of, but which from Stewart’s story sounds like a precious hidden gem. A number of the other chapters follow this similar form, providing an actual walk one could recreate, from one place to another, commenting on history and things to note seeing, though still from the point of view of personal experience, of a traveler’s anecdotal story, not through the voice of a tour guide embedded in the oh-so-artificial tourism industry.

The Takase Canal, which runs alongside Kiyamachi-dôri.

A chapter by Michael Lambe entitled “Up and Down the Ki'” takes the reader on a bar crawl in Kiyamachi and Pontocho – probably Kyoto’s most famous or stereotypical nightlife district – with a particular focus not only on the bars, and drinks, but also on music.

The book ends with an Epilogue by Judith Clancy, author of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital and Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide: Affordable Dining in Traditional Townhouse Spaces, two books which I own but must admit I have yet to get around to reading at all, but which I imagine are quite useful. Having lived in Kyoto for 40 years, Clancy writes in general about the experience of walking around in Kyoto – the experiencing of the city itself – and what one gains by looking around, and especially looking down. I find this amusing, and intriguing, pointing to just how special and different Kyoto is, as so many writings will advise you to look up in New York, for example. In New York, or Tokyo, you look up, and you see the architecture, the impressive height of the buildings, the impressive totality of the urban environment. In Judith Clancy’s Kyoto, you look down, and notice potted plants outside of rows of houses along a quiet side street. I quite appreciate her closing words,

Nihon ni Kyoto ga atte yokatta. Thank goodness Japan has Kyoto. … I agree.”

And I agree as well.

The book’s appendices contain bios of each of the authors, representing a fair diversity of Kyoto experiences, and a set of nice maps to help guide you through your own exploration of the city. If you’re reading it on a device with proper capabilities, each clean and easy-to-read map is also accompanied by a link to view the same area on Google Maps. I don’t personally own a Kindle (read this on my clunky laptop), and am not well accustomed to such devices, but for one who is, I can easily imagine this working well, to have just the map open, full-screen, as one walks around the city, possibly taking breaks at a temple or a café to read through the chapter. Just remember to look around, and experience Kyoto for yourself – don’t get lost in your screen.

As for me, I cannot wait to go back to Kyoto again.

All photos my own.

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Now that I’ve rambled randomly on the subject of digital replacement of Kyoto’s artistic treasures, let me return to trying to summarize what was actually discussed at the roundtable discussion held at this year’s AAS meeting.

Fusuma (sliding screen) paintings at Ninna-ji, just as they should be seen, in place in a historically/culturally contingent location.1

Yamada Shôji of Nichibunken (International Research Center for Japanese Studies) started off, explaining briefly that many (some?) prominent Buddhist temples in Kyoto have begun replacing their artistic treasures with digital reproductions, re-moving the originals to museums where they might be better conserved. Digital reproductions meaning, extremely high-resolution high-quality physical reproductions of the objects, on physical folding screen backings, etc. Many museums and other institutions are creating digital archives, databases, and the like, to make their collections available online – this is a separate thing. This is physical objects, made to resemble the originals, and physically placed on display within the temples. The process is described in a bit more detail in a NY Times article from a few years ago. This creation of digital replacements helps free the temples of the responsibility to care for the objects, and the museums clearly benefit, as it adds great treasures to their collections, adding to their prestige, to the quality or appeal of their exhibitions, and attracting visitors.

Yamada named only a few examples, though I’m sure there are others. In 2009, Daigô-ji replaced a set of screen paintings by Maruyama Ôkyo with digital reproductions, while Nanzen-ji, two years later, replaced a set of screen paintings of tigers by Kanô Tan’yû. In addition to being shown at the temples (in place of the originals), digital reproductions have been used in museum education outreach programs (e.g. visits to schools) and in exhibitions, e.g. at New York City’s Jacob Javitz Center (though not, as far as I know, at any museums). But, there are problems. The Ôkyo paintings, Yamada explained, failed to properly copy the colors and tones, and fine details of color variation within the original. Furthermore, I believe that none of the digital reproductions produced yet truly fully escape the problems of pixelization. Even the most high-resolution photos & high-quality printing also cannot reproduce the reflective effect of gold and silver foil, nor the textures of paint, ink, and traditional paper (or silk). If you’ve ever looked at a painting up close, without glass, you know that it’s completely different from looking at a digital image of it; texture sounds like a really minor thing, but it has a profound impact on the viewing experience – it changes the artwork from an image, into an object.

Another set of fusuma paintings, also at Ninna-ji.

For this reason, among others, Nijô Castle has had works reproduced not digitally, but in the traditional manner, hiring artists expert in the traditional techniques to recreate older works. Since copying the old masters and doing things in an extremely careful, perfect, controlled manner – performing each brushstroke precisely as one means to, in a perfectly expert manner – are essential elements of the traditional training process, I can imagine that the reproductions have the potential to be amazingly faithful to the originals. Though, I’d be curious if that was indeed the result.

Meanwhile, the digitally reproduced Nanzenji paintings exhibited a different problem: they were too beautiful. They raise the question of the goal of digital reproduction – is the aim to reproduce works as they are, or as they once were? The aged, faded, sometimes discolored version of something is the version that is famous today – as with Roman sculptures in perfect white marble, though they were originally likely quite brightly painted – so, how should the reproduction look? Can we even know, correctly, accurately, what the painting originally looked like, or are we just presuming/guessing?

Yamada finished up by suggesting Five Principles that he would like to see the digital reproduction project abide by, going forward.

*Actual state reproduction – not imagining what the original state might have been like

*Open to the public – the originals, now in a museum, should be accessible

*Local conservation – originals should be kept nearby; objects from Kyoto temples should remain in Kyoto museums.

*Reproduction monitoring and preservation – the digital reproductions will degrade just like any other object will, and indeed, perhaps faster than the originals (modern materials are, ironically, just not as long-lasting in many cases).

*Honesty in labeling – when a reproduction is being displayed, it must be very clearly marked or labeled as a reproduction. Visitors must not be encouraged to mistake it for being the real one.

One from a set of swirling dragon paintings, on folding screens at Ryôan-ji, also in Kyoto.

Prof. Hyung-il Pai, from UC Santa Barbara, raised a different set of questions, chief among them, Who has the authority, and authenticity, to protect and present a nation’s heritage?

She discussed the early origins of “cultural heritage” and related movements in Japan, in the Meiji period, and through this discussion, helped us recognize the artificiality of the ranking criteria, assumptions, and motives underlying appreciation and conservation of cultural heritage. In other words, “tradition” is invented. The particular ways that we seek to appreciate and protect cultural heritage, the types of things we appreciate & protect, and those we don’t, are not objective, but are shaped by the discourses of our current time; these discourses are very much products of this current contemporary cultural/political moment, and also of the Victorian/Meiji period invention, or emergence, of the museum, of tourism, etc. in their “modern” forms. The ranking criteria for Important Cultural Properties, for example, Pai tells us, are essentially frozen in their Meiji period forms. So, the particular cultural/political properties of that time, more than 100 years ago, continue to govern much of the Japanese government’s policies on cultural heritage preservation today.

Pai also asked us to consider the corporate agenda inherent in all of these digital reproduction efforts. Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, and others are closely involved in these efforts, and as Pai reminds us, they are for-profit companies; we must always look to see who is profiting, and must ask, should it not be the public, the temples, and scholarship? Though a bit of a tangent, Prof. Pai also raised the point that the DNP Corporation (Dai Nippon Printing) owns and sells access to digital images for the Tokyo National Museum (and other museums?), meaning it is a corporation, a for-profit corporation, and not necessarily the museum, that is profiting every time a scholar needs to pay the not-very-reasonable fees for either high-quality digital images to study (for research), or for permissions to publish those images in a scholarly publication.

Finally, she poked at another very important aspect of this entire digital reproduction question, namely, the problem of whether or not we need to see “the real thing.” This post is already quite long, so perhaps I’ll skip discussing this point at too much length, though I think it profoundly important, and in some respects the most interesting aspect of the entire question. But, suffice it to say, there is a romantic, nostalgic, feeling about seeing the real thing that must be considered; the age of the object, the history of the object, the idea that the artist himself painted this very object, these very brushstrokes, and that this object, this very same one in front of you has been seen or handled by great historical figures (or even just anonymous figures, of bygone eras) – these are powerful and very important and valid feelings. A reproduction, even if done perfectly, down to the texture and everything, may reproduce the image, the composition, the colors, but that’s all it reproduces.

There is, of course, more to this roundtable discussion. My notes are quite sparse, so I thought I could squeeze it all into one blog post, but I realize now that I don’t want to go on and on any longer, and that it would probably be best to put the rest off until a later post. I just hope that I do manage to get around to writing that post… If I don’t, please feel free to give me a poke, a nudge, to remind me to do it.

1) In truth, we can’t in most cases say that screen paintings or wall paintings at temples are being kept in their original locations; over the course of history, they have often be re-moved to different temples. But that’s a culturally rich part of the provenance and history of the object, and of the temple, whereas moving pieces to museums feels more sterile…

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Finishing one’s schoolwork for the quarter is a wonderful feeling. In about a week from now, I’ll be in Yokohama again, where this blog started, attending an intensive language program. But for now, for a few sweet days, I’m free to relax and deal with some other things – like updating this blog!

Fusuma paintings at Ninna-ji, in Kyoto.

I began back in March posting about the panels I attended at the annual Association for Asian Studies conference this year… apologies for the hiatus, but I knew I’d back to it eventually. And here we are. Following the panel on Japanese castles, I attended a lively roundtable discussion about the replacement of artworks in Kyoto temples with digital reproductions, while the originals are being sent to museums, to be kept and conserved.

I remain unclear on what exactly the relationship is between the government and the temples, as to whether or not the government has the power to take objects out of temples even if the temples are opposed to it; I am also unclear as to what the temples’ positions are on the matter. Of course we can easily imagine temples wishing to keep these objects which have, in many cases, belonged to the temple for hundreds of years. But, to be honest, I can also imagine at least some temples being eager to see the objects better taken care of in governmentally-funded museums equipped with modern conservation equipment (e.g. climate controlled storage spaces); it’s certainly not uncommon for private collectors here in the West to donate, sell, or long-term lend objects to museums, saying that they themselves could not take care of the objects properly.

Fusuma and wall paintings in the Rinshun-kaku at the Sankeien in Yokohama.

I can see people being quite passionate that these objects, owned by the temples, belong to the temples, and shouldn’t be taken away; I can also imagine others being equally passionate that all steps should be taken to protect and conserve these precious objects. Both of these attitudes are, I think, quite valid and justified. But, of course, as with so many things, I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it depends on the type of object, its relationship to the temple, the conditions in which it’s being kept, and the issue of access. In the case of objects integral to the physical design/appearance/decoration of the temple, such as the fusuma (sliding door) paintings (also known as shôhekiga, “screen and wall paintings”) at so many temples, personally, I think they should stay. To take this logic to its slightly absurd extremes, if we’re going to remove wall paintings to conserve them, how is that so different from removing the walls and posts themselves for conservation, and replacing those – indeed replacing the entire building – with modern reproductions?

Similarly, I feel that objects (whether they be scrolls, or something else kept stored away) with a particularly long or strong historical connection to the temple should likewise be kept, and not taken away sent away to museums. While I certainly appreciate and don’t deny the conservation instinct, as a historian, there’s also the strong feeling of allowing an object, and a temple, to continue its history. I’d rather see books say “the painting was painted for the temple in [insert year] and has been there ever since,” or “the object was donated to the temple by [insert famous name here] and has been there ever since,” rather than “the temple held the object for hundreds of years, until in 2009 it was removed to a museum for conservation, and replaced with this modern reproduction.”

A folding screen (byôbu) painting in a Kyoto private collection, on display only for the Gion Festival.

That said, the issue of access was a prominent one in the roundtable discussion, and I think it’s a very important one, not only for scholars, but for the general public as well. Where is the average member of the public, the tourist, or the scholar, going to be more easily, more frequently, more able to see the object? How often does the temple show the work? How often would a museum show the work? I don’t know how large the average temple’s collection is, or how often objects are rotated, but taking a stab in the dark, I imagine it possible that objects of any significance for the temple will be shown relatively often, whereas most museums only show 1-10% of their collection at any given time, and given the much wider range of types of objects (and themes, periods, or styles) to be shown, the likelihood of any given object being shown is pretty slim. But, in terms of scholars or others requesting permission to access works not on display, I gather that generally museums are much easier to get into than temples. So, returning to my point about historical connections or associations, I think that perhaps it’s okay if objects without such a strong historical connection do go to museums. Admittedly, the issue at hand in digital reproduction in Kyoto pertains more exclusively to fusuma, wall, and byôbu (folding screen) paintings, but, for the sake of argument, the famous Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima, for example, has a painting of Okakura Kakuzô as Qu Yuan, painted by Yokoyama Taikan, which I would love to see someday. The object itself is only about 100 years old, and neither Okakura nor Taikan had any dramatically special connection to the shrine; how exactly it got to be there, I don’t know. But I do imagine that the shrine, which consists almost entirely of verandas open to the sea air and possesses no formal gallery space, puts the painting on display extremely infrequently, if ever. Now, I’m not challenging the shrine’s right to own the painting – not by any means – of course they have a right to own it, just as much as anyone has a right to own anything that they own. But, if hypothetically the painting were to come into the possession of a museum instead, not only might it be conserved better (I have no idea what the conservation conditions are at the shrine; they might be quite good), but it would probably be shown more often, and, would probably be more accessible to scholars. I don’t know about Japanese museums, but, so long as one has a decent reason, it’s quite easy, in truth, for scholars to get into the Metropolitan, or the Smithsonian, to look at objects in their collections – I very much doubt the same thing can be said for most temples and shrines, if for no other reason than because they don’t have the same kind of bureaucratic infrastructure in place to allow for it (not to mention the very different religious and cultural attitudes between temples/shrines and museums as to the purpose of access, the purpose of protection, etc.).

I’ve drifted off topic here a bit… but in my next post, I’ll come back to the Kyoto case more specifically, and try to summarize what was actually discussed in the roundtable, possibly with a relative minimum of my own extemporizing.

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Fushimi-Momoyama Castle. One of a great many historical sites, or other sites of interest, that I might never have made it to if I did not have a bike. Or, even if I had taken the train and gotten off at the nearest station and walked, I think it would have taken long enough, or tired me enough, that I would not have seen as many other sites as I did that day – including the Teradaya and the official tomb sites of Emperors Kammu and Meiji – because I had a bike.

This month, Japan Blog Matsuri is focusing on the theme of “Reasons to Visit Japan.” As this month’s hostess, A Modern Girl, writes, “This year has been particularly challenging for Japan due to the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Although much work still needs to be done in terms of reconstruction and policy reform, the country and its people have persevered and provided constant reminders of the things that make Japan such a special place.”

Well, if you’re not already interested in going to Japan, I don’t imagine that talking about how safe it is to bike there is going to be the tipping point to inspire you to hop on a plane and fly halfway around the world. But, let me tell you, as someone already interested in Japanese history and culture, as someone who would visit there anyway, as often and for as long as possible, the ease and safety and comfortableness of bicycling in Japan’s cities is, for me, a major element of what makes living in Japan – the everyday lifestyle – so pleasant. Along with clean streets, excellent customer service, delicious food, and a half dozen other points, bike riding is, for me, a major part of what makes Japan’s cities so sumi yasui (easy to live there).

Many people bike ride long distances, using that as their main mode of transportation to go from city to city, across the country, “exploring Japan by bike.” I have never done this; in fact, I’ve never left a given city on a bike, but always biked within either Yokohama or Kyoto. But I think I’d love to some day. Biking the Tôkaidô from Tokyo to Kyoto, or biking around Okinawa Island, most of which is pretty inaccessible without your own bike or car (or taking a cab, as even the public buses don’t really go everywhere the history-geek tourist wants to go).

The bike I had in Yokohama. I know it’s not the greatest picture, and it doesn’t look like much, but this bike fit me like a glove, so to speak. It was the best bike I’ve ever had, hands down. Flew along so smoothly, so beautifully, and stopped on a dime. Climbed hills with relative ease, and had all kinds of wonderful extras – baskets for schoolbag and groceries, a pedal-powered headlamp, lock mounted directly onto the rear wheel to lock the wheel from turning, a chain guard to protect your legs/pants, and a kickstand that went under the wheel and stood the bike up straight, so it wasn’t leaning or falling over. I still regret not keeping this bike, and shipping it home with me, however much that might have cost. You can’t find bikes like this in the States, I’ll tell you that much.

When I lived in Yokohama for a year in 2007-08, and again when I stayed in Kyoto for the summer in 2010, I biked to school pretty much every day. And, particularly in Kyoto, particularly because I knew I had such a short time and because there was soooo much to see, more often than not I would leave school and bike around in search of historical sites, neat cafés, interesting architecture, or the like for a few hours before returning ‘home’ to do my homework and settle in for the night.

Kyoto is a very walkable city, and I would definitely recommend walking it, rather than just taking the trains (which actually cover relatively little of the city), buses (which can take a long time, stuck in traffic, or on circuitous routes), or cabs (which are expensive). Walking – or, better yet, biking, since it’s faster, and more fun – allows you to experience the city first-hand, to see all the neighborhoods and storefronts and houses as you pass them by, on your way from one place to another, and, to happen upon extra sites, whether they be historical points of interest or quaint cafés, that you would never have found otherwise. I cannot imagine what my time in Kyoto would have been like without a bicycle – how many historical sites I would have missed, and how much less I would have gotten a feel for the city.

Outside Kizakura, a major saké brewery in Fushimi, southern Kyoto. June 2010.

One of countless similar street scene photos I have, of streets in Kyoto and elsewhere, each with their own interesting architecture or ambiance, many with specific historical or cultural significance. Were I limited to walking, i.e. if I did not have a bike, I would never have seen half as much of the city as I did. Take a look through my photos on Flickr and, moving from one to the next, you can see just how much of the city I managed to see. Not just specific sites I targeted, but all kinds of things along the way.

Shortly after arriving in Kyoto, I found a used bicycle shop, and bought myself a bike. It wasn’t the cheapest bike – at about 6000 yen if I remember right – but it was, like every other bike I’ve ridden in Japan, just about perfect. Despite being used, it was in perfect good-as-new working order, and I get the impression that this is truly standard practice in Japan, that even second-hand, used bicycles don’t get sold in anything less than excellent condition. And, it came with all kinds of convenient features that they just don’t come with in the US, including baskets to hold my schoolbag, groceries, whathaveyou, and a pedal-powered headlamp. I had a very similar bike when I lived in Yokohama a few years ago. Buy a used bike here in the US, you get a piece of crap half the time; buy one in Japan, and, in my experience at least, you may end up with one that feels just perfect, like an extension of yourself.

Riding a bike is much much safer in Japan, too. You ride on the sidewalk, so the risk of getting hit by cars is considerably lessened. The sidewalks are nice and wide, so there’s plenty of space for pedestrians and bikes to share the space. Bicycles count as pedestrians (as they should, in my opinion), so you’re safer there too. And, while bike theft is one of the most common crimes in Japan, it’s still on the whole relatively rare. And, perhaps most importantly, pedestrians and drivers both respect bicyclists – they share the road or sidewalk as if it’s a perfectly normal thing, and cars just about always stop for you when you’re crossing the road. I have never felt safer than when I am in Japan.

Schoolgirls ride past, just outside Fukuoka Castle. June 2008. Note the convenient baskets, the wide, very even (very well maintained) sidewalks, and the general fact that everyone bikes, that it’s a normal thing to do, not just for those select few who bike for fun or exercise, but for everyone, for just getting around. How wonderful!

Anyway, returning to the point, I had a fantastic time bicycling around Kyoto and Yokohama, and feel that I not only got around more efficiently (an important thing, whether you’re commuting, or just visiting the city for a day or two or three and are trying to explore as efficiently as possible), but really got a feel for the city in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. I cannot say that I have ever, yet, rented a bike for just a day or so in any other cities, strictly for the purposes of tourism/exploring, but now that I’m writing this post and thinking about it, I think I would definitely like to. There was so much I missed during my one day (just a few hours, really) in Hikone, my one day in Odawara, two days in Kanazawa (though, it was January, and quite cold..), three days in Naha. How much more might I have seen had I had a bike?

In conclusion, if you visit Japan for no other reason, visit Japan because it’s awesome for biking. Extremely safe, and lots of awesome things to see and do. I myself miss Japan for a myriad of reasons, but one of the reasons I miss living in Japan is simply because I miss biking.

All photos are my own.

Bicycle rentals can be found in most major cities in Japan, in my experience. I do not know the prices, however, or how reasonable they may be.

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Left: Hanamikoji in Gion. Cobblestone streets, beautiful traditional architecture. Many of these buildings are geisha houses, high-end restaurants, and the like. Note the telephone pole and electric lines ruining the atmosphere and the view, and at the same time looking terribly outdated. This may have given the street a shiny, forward-looking, modern feel in the 1890s or 1920s, but not today. Those lines should be buried.

I have posted on a number of occasions in the past about concerns others (esp. Alex Kerr) have expressed, and which I share, as to the restoration and preservation of Kyoto and other urban environments around Japan. About how a city can be fully modern and at the same time beautiful, pleasant to live in, and reflective of its history and tradition.

After spending this summer in Kyoto, I feel fairly convinced that the situation in Kyoto is not nearly as bad as Alex Kerr makes it out to be – at least, not yet. There are tons of machiya still around, tons of traditional architecture, shops selling traditional goods, beautiful cafés and such in, if not truly historical machiya structures, still, in environs with wonderful “cultured” decor and design reminiscent of traditional Kyoto (or Paris or…) and not of that cold, hard, utilitarian 1950s-70s New York urban sort of feel. Dark woods…

Anyway. Today I came across a nice website, http://kyoto-preservation.info/ dedicated to documenting restoration/preservation efforts that have been made (such as the removal of above-ground telephone poles & electric lines on the cobblestoned traditional-goods shopping street Sannenzaka), and to describing a vision for what Kyoto might look like in the near future, if such projects are continued.

If you’re interested in beautiful pictures of Kyoto, and beautiful pictures and descriptions of how it can be preserved and improved, check out the site.

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