Kyoto – Young Minds in an old City.
UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.
No other Japanese city embodies the country’s traditions quite like Kyoto. With its rich past and impressive array of World Cultural Heritage sites, it clearly clashes with Tokyo’s glittering neon and mega city appeal. While the latter metropolis exposes its citizens to an onslaught of flashy impressions, Kyoto gives people space to think and create, prompting a steady stream of young creatives to flock to the city and incorporate its impressive heritage into their own visions of what a promising present and future might hold.
Between islands and skylines.
With this in mind, we head out west from Tokyo to meet some of these Kyoto visionaries. After passing the iconic silhouette of Mount Fuji and ploughing through the rich red glow of the main island Honshu’s autumnal landscapes, we join the stunning Izu Skyline.
An archetypal coastal road, it weaves its way from the Izu peninsula through dense patches of forests before joining the Kansai highway.
A Japanese speciality.
Our first stop after arriving in Kyoto turns out to be Japan’s oldest soba noodle restaurant, Honke Owariya, where we join Ariko Inaoka and Sean Lotman for a tasty feast. Ariko, who took over the restaurant from her mother and now heads it in the 16th generation, is a photographer by trade; her husband Sean works as a writer and photographer.
After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the couple decided to leave Tokyo and return to Ariko’s hometown of Kyoto. For Ariko, this not only meant delving into more than 500 years of family tradition, but also discovering new inspiration for her artistic practice.
From cake to pasta.
While we enjoy our eight-layer hourai soba, a veritable tower of noodle bowls with different side dishes, Sean and Ariko tell us more about the Honke Owariya’s history. Here, the slippery Japanese specialty has been spun from buckwheat flower for centuries, yet like many traditional soba outlets the business started out as a cake shop. Back then, with Zen Buddhism gaining traction, demand for the traditional monastery dish – soba – soon outstripped the monks’ production abilities and they asked local bakeries for help.
Soba is simple food, made from nothing but flour and water: two ingredients in ample supply at the local bakeries.
A team of photographers.
Right next door to the eminent restaurant, Ariko and Sean have set up their studio, replete with a custom-built darkroom. Here, Sean – who recently started venturing further and further into photography – offers a glimpse of his current project on Japan while Ariko shares her latest shots of the twins she has been documenting once a year since 2008.
A gap in the market photography.
“Although Japan is well-known for its cameras, there is a distinct lack of recognition for photography as an artistic medium. Japan has few platforms for photography and this is something we wanted to change“, states Yusuke.
Across the borders of perception.
Inspired by the sheer diversity and openness on display at the renowned Arles Photography Festival, Kyotographie aims to make photography accessible to the greater public while also developing a sharp and clear-cut profile. “The festival’s themes are always a reaction to what surrounds and happens around us”, adds Yusuke and says that this also means being regularly exposed to misguided resentment and having to work on expanding the limits of our thinking.
“A city like Kyoto proudly looks back on its own history. In order to make it in Kyoto, you need to create something of quality – that’s the only way to persuade people”, explains Lucille. Nevertheless, neither founder could imagine a better location for their festival and they deliberately embed it into the city’s historical structure. According to Lucille, they aim to “bring photography into people’s lives and use tradition to create something new and contemporary.”
The galleries: teahouses and temples.
Instead of a standard white cube, temples, tea houses or historical gardens like the Murin-an serve as exhibition venues, facilitating access not only to contemporary photography, but also the hidden magic of Kyoto.
Our last stop before returning to Tokyo brings us to Asuka and Tomoka who run a vegan restaurant, Tosca, just a stone’s throw away from Kyoto University. The two sisters, who grew up in a family that firmly believed in the positive effects of healthy eating on both individuals and society, place emphasis on the food’s provenance and preparation.
Conscientious dealing with food.
“Not every vegetable is healthy per se. We want people to become conscious of what they eat instead of simply sticking to arbitrary rules and prohibitions.” Incidentally, Asuka, who studied art, and long-term actress and fashion student Tomoka ended up in the restaurant business more or less by chance.
After the 2011 earthquake, their Fukushima-based family decided to relocate to Kyoto. And when a friend told Asuka that she was looking for someone to take over her restaurant, the enterprising foodie thought to herself, “Let’s give it a go!”
A chance to create new opportunities.
As creative pieces of this culture-infused puzzle, the stories of Ariko and Sean, Lucille and Yusuke or Asuka and Tomoko reveal an equally diverse image of Kyoto – a city that does not simply conserve its traditions, but considers them an opportunity for new perspectives that inspire further development and a slew of brand new approaches. “Let’s give it a go!” is something we are likely to hear more and more often around Kyoto, paving the way for a promising future.