Feeling Alien in Kyoto

I have never felt as alien as I did in Kyoto.

Tokyo was wonderful. It was exciting and interesting and frenetic. It had an underlying tone of organisation, of things working the way they should that really appealed to me. Tokyo was the home of anime that I always dreamed of seeing. It was as strange to my western sensibilities as I had hoped it would be. The idea of Japan as a whole, of a country that rivals if not outstrips Western society and yet evolved completely separate from the western world, has always intrigued the history geek part of me. And the fact that you can see this separate past, the unique thinking and way of life, is the true impetus for travelling. To see another world… A beautiful world, with an aesthetic principle that comes out in everything. Tokyo is busy and crowded, but even the apartment buildings are designed to be attractive. In a world where there is so much ugly, Tokyo is a balm.

But Kyoto.

If Tokyo is the busy, beautiful heart than Kyoto is the soul. It is old. It is old in that accepting way that makes no apologies and feels no shame and is completely settled in its own identity. When I went to Kyoto it was autumn. The wide streets were lined with gnarled trees that dropped gold and red leaves onto the roads and dark wood old buildings pressed up to Starbucks and modern convenience stores. I stayed in a woman’s house, clambering up nearly vertical stairs and along creaky floors to find my bed on the ground, feeling too big and too clumsy for everything I touched and sat on. The wooden floor and walls smelled of age and smoke, time and sighing weariness and my first night there I wanted to go home.

I wanted to run.

From that first moment I sensed the strangeness of this landscape, the age and the new to me feel and I wanted to flee. As someone who was born in Australia, the weight of Kyoto was alarming. It was strange to me, as someone who had been living in China and who had lived in Vietnam that I would be frightened by this gracious, clean, safe and beautiful city. But I was afraid.

I was terrified, but it was late and I was also hungry and so I wandered down the graceful streets and ended up in the garden of an old stone house eating pizza in the cold. I ate pizza and I listened to the impossible silence of this big city and I wondered how a place like this could still exist, what impossibly determined force could have held on to so much of a unique culture with the world so connected and driven towards homogeneity. I wondered if the land itself were so saturated with its own identity that it simply refused change.

Because that was what it felt like. I stayed in Kyoto for four days and never rid myself of that lost feeling. I did, however, lose some of my fear and as I wandered the wide, meandering streets and strolled paved paths towards sacred places, I came to appreciate, if not understand the heart and soul of Kyoto. Because that is what is different about Kyoto. In a world where tourist destinations are just that, designed to be flashy and fun, Kyoto recoils from the idea. Kyoto’s soul recoils. In a world of surfaces, where everything is to be perfect and pretty on the outside and empty inside, Kyoto has kept its lines and wrinkles and there are depths enough to drown the world.

Kyoto has a soul. And in this world of people and places that seem nothing more than surface paint, that feels like something to fight for.

I really want to go back.

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