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art and travel journal from a round-the-world art adventure


AUSTRALIA | Saturday, 17 September 2011 | Views [441]

Kyoto, that 'glorious city of temples and palaces', is in the rain. This is welcome relief. For the last two weeks Tokyo has sweated under a blanket of heat, humidity, and still air.

Instead today locals extend umbrellas when crossing the street and the hills surrounding the city are covered in fog. There is a typhoon passing through. Up the road in Nagoya they have evacuated one million people. Here they walk more quickly from covered arcade to shop, that is all.

Kyoto is a gem. Unlike Tokyo which was bombed and burned to the ground with phosphorous and those two other cities destroyed by substances even more exotic [and well known] Kyoto was spared.

Stimson's diaries tell us it was because of the temples and shrines, and fears their destruction might push the Japanese into the arms of the waiting Soviets. As if the war against Russia in 1905 could so easily have been forgotten.

In any case religion and culture have never been impediments to aerial bombardment. Coventry and Dresden are proof enough of that.

So maybe the city was lucky. If so it is our luck too. Between the new buildings of the downtown there remain the wood and paper houses and temples that once filled the old capital. Pagodas in gilded or painted cedar, gardens of raked gravel and pine.

At Sanjūsangen-dō the central hall is filled with a thousand Buddhas. This temple was built in the 11th Century but destroyed by fire in 1249. All but 124 of the statues were saved. The rest were carved again, sometimes by the sons and grandsons of those who had carved them the first time.

It is possible to see, in the serried rows of otherwise identical faces, the differences that mark the many hands that carved them over the years.

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