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Kyoto - Take your time.

Take your time.

Kyoto is famous for its temples and shrines. A group of artists have taken up this theme, giving the traditional a new twist.

Text: Sonja Blaschke | Photos: Enno Kapitza

The infamous mountain basin location.

The glass teahouse glistens in the hot midday sun. But the glass benches in front of it feel cool despite the heat. This modern art installation stands on the wooden observation deck of a little known Buddhist temple in the mountains east of Kyoto. The deck provides an ideal vantage point from which to observe the checkerboard layout of the city, famed above all for its countless shrines and temples. Not to mention because it’s also a great place to spot passers-by clad in traditional kimonos. 1,200 years ago, the emperor at the time decided to relocate his palace to the plateau here, surrounded on three sides by mountains, for protection. Kyoto’s location in a mountain basin is infamous: it makes the summers hotter and the winters colder. The Kamogawa River bisects the city from north to south, and in spring when the cherry trees blossom, it transforms into one long pink ribbon.

Kyoto - Take your time.
Kyoto - Take your time.

The natives love their city’s beauty.

But they are even prouder of Kyoto’s status as the cultural capital of Japan. Despite all the modernisation going on, traditions are upheld here more than anywhere else in Japan. That sense of elevated esteem inspires artists and creative spirits to ensure that in Kyoto, “old” is never equated with “old-fashioned”. A few of them have kindly provided an insight into their lives and work.

In the expansive park of the Imperial Palace, home to the emperor for 1,000 years before the imperial residence was moved to Tokyo 150 years ago, joggers do their rounds these days. Just a few steps away, Fumie Okumura resides in a gorgeous Machiya townhouse. Sunlight passing through carvings paints flowery patterns on the walls. “Before I moved from Tokyo to Kyoto two years ago, I thought of it as being very provincial,” remarks the 45-year-old about this city of 1.5 million inhabitants. “But then I began to understand that what’s visible is only a tiny part of this city.”

Kyoto - Take your time.

In search of an identity.

A former stage actress, Okumura reinvented herself as a food director. Constantly on the lookout for Japan’s future tastes, she develops new food concepts and marketing strategies, encouraging farmers to produce apple wine rather than apples, or to grow organic vegetables. Distances are shorter in Kyoto, making it easier for her to implement many of her ideas.

The impulse for change came in 2012 when she married a German gallery owner who had commuted between Kyoto and Tokyo for 30 years.

What Okumura loves most about Kyoto is its close connection to nature, reflected in its cuisine. And the Kyo-yasai vegetables, ancient heirloom varieties cultivated by farmers in the surrounding countryside. “Kyoto vegetables define the identity of the local cuisine,” says Okumura. Her own personal identity, a place where she truly belongs, is something she’s been searching for her whole life, explains Okumura. Judging from the twinkle in her eye, she may have finally found it.

The gentle passage of time.

The artist who goes by the name of Shoshu never really left town. Born in Kyoto, the internationally recognised calligraphy artist cannot imagine living somewhere else. “In Kyoto, time passes tick-tock, tick-tock – very slowly and gently.” In Tokyo, where he often travels on business, everyone is in a hurry. Bald and small in stature, the 58-year-old bears a passing resemblance to a Zen monk. He sits on tatami flooring in a small, inconspicuous house in one of Kyoto’s many narrow side streets. Spatters of black cover the walls. “Kyoto essentially consists of one big historic old town. At the same time, new things are constantly being born here. So it just makes sense for me to work here,” says the artist, known for his unorthodox style. What calligraphy character would he use to describe Kyoto? “Shinkyu – new and old.” In Kyoto, he asserts, everything comes together.

Kyoto - Take your time.
Kyoto - Take your time.

The same is true of his art.

While others base their work on the old masters, Shoshu prefers channelling the guitar riffs of his idol Eric Clapton into energetic brushstrokes using homemade ink. With a brush nearly as wide as a broom, he applies the ink to soft washi paper. His unique approach has earned him 200 students from across the country and prestigious commissions, including Mercedes-Benz advertisements.

“I love tradition,” emphasises Shoshu, “but we live in 2016. So we experience certain events, in politics and life. I want to create artworks that reflect this. That’s the only way tradition can be carried on.” His aim is to completely revolutionise calligraphy.

The same is true of his art.

While others base their work on the old masters, Shoshu prefers channelling the guitar riffs of his idol Eric Clapton into energetic brushstrokes using homemade ink. With a brush nearly as wide as a broom, he applies the ink to soft washi paper. His unique approach has earned him 200 students from across the country and prestigious commissions, including Mercedes-Benz advertisements.

“I love tradition,” emphasises Shoshu, “but we live in 2016. So we experience certain events, in politics and life. I want to create artworks that reflect this. That’s the only way tradition can be carried on.” His aim is to completely revolutionise calligraphy.

Kyoto - Take your time.

Innovation against all odds.

Innovation comes from three groups of people – outsiders, young people, and idiots, says a Japanese proverb. Eriko Horiki smiles and nods in response to this. The 54-year-old paper and lighting artist belonged to the second category. In her early twenties she resolved to save the art of washi from extinction – the manufacture of paper from the bark of the mulberry tree. There was only one small hitch: the former bank customer service representative knew nothing at all about the 1,500-year-old handicraft. For years, local craftsmen said, “You didn’t go to university, you never studied design or management: it’s impossible.” Undaunted, Horiki tried out new methods, began thinking in larger, more practical terms. And succeeded, with innovative, large-scale sheets of paper over ten meters (33 ft.) long. Fashioned into wall coverings or folding screens, her paper is used today by museums, luxury stores, hotels, and company offices to supply that unmistakable Japanese touch.

Kyoto - Take your time.
Kyoto - Take your time.

“Kyoto’s inhabitants are in no rush.”

Nature is Keisuke Kanto’s teacher. He loves the mountains around Kyoto. He stands tall and proud beside a maple on natural stones in Okumura’s courtyard garden. Kanto creates gardens so that nature can take care of itself – and look beautiful without any human interference. He, too, values the close ties that exist among Kyoto’s creatives – “not just for work, but also over sake in the evenings,” the 40-year-old adds with a smile. Kanto, who studied in Tokyo for several years, also appreciates the unhurried lifestyle: “Kyoto’s inhabitants are in no rush, not even the staff at McDonald’s.” The chain’s logo is brown in Kyoto, since red is reserved for the gods.

A feast less ordinary.

Takao Fujiyama magnetically draws diners’ attention to his side of the counter. Brandishing a sword-like knife, the 44-year-old head chef at Wakuden Muromachi cuts a roll of frozen pike conger into paper-thin slices, then drapes them over crispy green vegetables. Founded nearly 150 years ago in Tango, north of Kyoto, Wakuden is the proud holder of a Michelin star, and shook up the local restaurant scene when it moved to the city in 1982. In accordance with Tango’s cooking traditions, dishes are prepared in a very straightforward manner. “We combine the best of the countryside with the best of Kyoto,” explains Fujiyama. And they use rare ingredients such as grilled sea cucumber ovaries. Freshness is paramount: vegetables are organically grown, the restaurant catches its own fish, and staff all lend a hand during the rice harvest. On theme nights, diners get to take Fujiyama’s place behind the counter, knife in hand.

wakuden.jp/ryotei/en/kyoto

Kyoto - Take your time.
Kyoto - Take your time.

Pike conger (Hamo).

When head chef Fujiyama presses his knife down, there is an audible crack. The pike conger – a type of eel up to two meters (almost two yards) long – has around 3,500 bones, explains the chef. When it has been cut into wafer-thin slices by experts like himself, however, diners don’t notice any sign of these when eating it. Hamo is considered a harbinger of autumn and enjoys elevated status in Kyoto cuisine due to its long shelf life. Whereas in days gone by, other types of fish had to be preserved with salt to withstand the 100-kilometre (62-mile) journey inland to Kyoto, the pike conger stayed fresh much longer.

Pike conger (Hamo).

When head chef Fujiyama presses his knife down, there is an audible crack. The pike conger – a type of eel up to two meters (almost two yards) long – has around 3,500 bones, explains the chef. When it has been cut into wafer-thin slices by experts like himself, however, diners don’t notice any sign of these when eating it. Hamo is considered a harbinger of autumn and enjoys elevated status in Kyoto cuisine due to its long shelf life. Whereas in days gone by, other types of fish had to be preserved with salt to withstand the 100-kilometre (62-mile) journey inland to Kyoto, the pike conger stayed fresh much longer.

Kyoto - Take your time.

Savour like an epicure.

If you don’t look carefully whilst strolling through the back alleys of Gion, Kyoto’s traditional entertainment district, you could easily overlook the entrance. Zenya Imanishi maintains that he purposely avoided putting up a big sign. “The Zen Café is intended to be a quiet place for rest and relaxation, a secret.” The 43-year-old head of Kagizen, whose family has been producing Kyogashi – traditional Kyoto confections – for 300 years, serves up things like warm Kuzuyaki (toasted arrowroot) with caramelized wasanbon sugar in the café. When selecting the colour range of his confections, Imanishi is inspired by the refined taste that Kyoto displays in so many areas: not too overpowering, sometimes more symbolic than realistic. Up to the end of the Edo period in the mid-19th century, sweets were reserved exclusively for the upper crust of society, and were used in the tea ceremony, for example. These days Kyogashi are prized as souvenirs or small gifts.

kagizen.co.jp/en

Kyoto - Take your time.
Kyoto - Take your time.

Drink like a local.

“What a fantastic name,” exclaims Masami Onishi about Ki No Bi, the first gin made in Kyoto. It means “beauty of the seasons”. “I love the fall colours in Kyoto,” says the 72-year-old, who for decades was responsible for crafting the flavour of Suntory’s famed Yamazaki whiskey. With the aid of a binational team around head distiller Alex Davies, Onishi is working on the perfect flavour. To a base of rice spirit and water from Fushimi, Kyoto’s sake district, local ingredients such as yuzu citrus fruit, hinoki cypress wood or green tea are added to conjure up the unique Kyoto flavour. The new spirit is nothing less than a declaration of love for centuries-old traditions and the beauty of nature. 27-year-old U.K. native Davies, who has lived in Kyoto since the beginning of the year, agrees: “My favourite time of day is half past six in the morning, when I cycle along the Kamogawa River to the distillery.” In the evenings he prefers to sample the city’s excellent bar scene.

kyotodistillery.jp

Ups and downs.

Starting at the famed Kiyomizu-dera temple (1), a short way down the main shopping precinct, a side street (Sannenzaka, 2) branches off to the right, then heads abruptly downwards past attractive (if not authentic) shops and eateries. The route turns right again at the Ninenzaka steps, heading northwards. The Kodai-ji Temple (3) is well worth a detour. Several times a year the temple is open and illuminated in the evening. For shoppers, the route veers left at Maruyama Park (4), heading past the Yasaka Shrine (5) towards Gion (6). Devoted hikers should turn right here. From the park and Shorenin Temple (7), a fairly steep trail leads upwards to Shogunzuka Seiryuden, 220 meters (721 ft) above (30–45 min.). The observation platform (8), open some evenings in early summer and fall, offers a view over Kyoto. You can also get there by taxi.

Kyoto - Take your time.
Kyoto - Take your time.

Living on the river.

In Kibune, a small river valley north of Kyoto, the summers are noticeably cooler than in the city. Those prepared to venture onto the Kawadoko platforms suspended directly over the river and order traditional light Kaiseki cuisine, are rewarded by dining temperatures that are far more pleasant than those elsewhere. The majority of visitors arrive during the day, but overnight accommodations in traditional inns – known as Ryokan – are also available. 200-year-old Ryokan Ugenta offers small, very tastefully designed rooms in Japanese or Western style, with two floors. In good weather, breakfast is served on the Kawadoko platforms, otherwise in the rooms.

ugenta.co.jp

Living on the river.

In Kibune, a small river valley north of Kyoto, the summers are noticeably cooler than in the city. Those prepared to venture onto the Kawadoko platforms suspended directly over the river and order traditional light Kaiseki cuisine, are rewarded by dining temperatures that are far more pleasant than those elsewhere. The majority of visitors arrive during the day, but overnight accommodations in traditional inns – known as Ryokan – are also available. 200-year-old Ryokan Ugenta offers small, very tastefully designed rooms in Japanese or Western style, with two floors. In good weather, breakfast is served on the Kawadoko platforms, otherwise in the rooms.

ugenta.co.jp

Kyoto - Take your time.

Image Gallery.

Good to know.

Driving

If you want to drive in Japan, an international drivers’ license won’t get you very far. Some drivers need a notarised Japanese translation; rules vary depending on your country of origin. Navigating the narrow passageways of Kyoto’s old town is easier on a bicycle anyway; it’s the ideal method of unlocking the secrets of the ancient imperial capital.

Dousing

Red buckets filled with water sit in front of many houses on Kyoto’s narrow streets. Fear of fires, such as those that occur after an earthquake, for example, is especially prevalent in areas with old wooden Machiya townhouses, like Nishijin, the old silk weavers’ district in northern Kyoto. Many people even head to the local shrine to buy tablets offering protection against fire.

Drawing

The human-animal scrolls in Kozan-ji Temple are considered the earliest manga. The stories run from right to left, which remains the standard today. The Japanese comics have been co-opted by academia: the Kyoto International Manga Museum has 50,000 titles displayed on 200 meters (656 ft) of shelf space, while Seika University in Kyoto offers PhDs in Manga Studies.

Making Sacrifices

The emblem representing the huge Gion Matsuri festival in the Yasaka Shrine resembles the cross-section of a cucumber, and eating the vegetables in July is frowned upon in Kyoto. Instead cucumbers are sacrificed on the fire altar during the Kyuri-Fuji ritual at Renge-ji Temple. Since the cucumber resembles the human body, the July ritual supposedly wards off illness in the summer.

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