Japan Tour 1:
Nara and Kyoto

I toured these three areas in December, 1990. Unfortunately, I toured during December, so every picture came out overcast and cloudy. Let me give a brief introduction to each place.


Most of Japan consists of mountains. Only three plains of any size support a large population: the Kyushu, the Kansai, and Kanto. This sequence proceeds north, but, in fact, the Kanto, which includes Tokyo, offers the most land and Kyushu the least. However, roughly speaking the capital moved from south the north because then, as now, the impetus to progess came from outsiders, the Chinese, the Koreans, and now, the Americans.

After an influx of Chinese influence, the 7th Century emperors consolidated their rule at the site of Nara, the first known capital. They embraced Buddhism, newly arrived from China, in contrast to their subjects who still worshipped "the old gods" of Shinto. The emperors, however, still claimed their divinity according to the old legends. If the emperors embraced Buddhism, they sound found themselves too tightly bound as the most prominent local sects became political powers in their right. In order to get "control of their own house," they decided to move away from Nara. Though some sects never left Nara, it became a relatively unimportant city and effectively a suburb of the new capital, Heian.

Heian (Kyoto)

The move to Heian, along with new ideas from China, ushered in Japan's Golden Age. The Heian court attempted to recreate the sophistication of Chinese Chan-An and did so. Courtiers lived luxurious lives of leisure writing poetry for the emperors. This court lived off the surplus created by relatives of the emperor who came to form a nobility and worked the peasantry in the country.

These distaff relatives gradually became a power in their own right. Even as various courtiers managed to place weak children on throne (whom they could control) and more and more imperial time became involved with ceremony, so the ambitions of the warrors grew. Finally, it came to a head in the Heike-Genji War explained in Tour 2: Kamakura and Yokohama.

After that war, which wiped out a good part of the nobility, Heian never regained its political importance. The emperors remained present in a kind of captive court , and the city declined through various civil wars, one ("The Onin War") actually fought in the city streets. Eventually, even the emperors left with the Meji Restoration.

This left the city to become, as the name "Kyoto" suggests, the "Old Capital," a medium importance city and a cultural gem. It tells something about Kyoto that during World War II the Allies never bothered to bomb it as, in their opinion, it had little industrial significance.


This is the biggest Nara temple.

This picture doesn't show the sheer sizeof
this particular Buddhist temple.

This has a Buddha inside, but my pictures didn't come out.

A foggy morning doesn't help this picture.

The Nara Five Story Pagodas shows little ornamentation.

This park holds tame deer. You can see a better picture of this phenomena on Tour 5: Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, and Shikoku.

KYOTO ("Heian")

This famous rock garden holds 14 stones. The Japanese monks excel at making these gardens which utilize a very small space to give a feeling of openness and oneness with nature. Commonly masters assigned acolytes to rake the gardens (and their minds...) into shape.

Stone lanterns re-appear through the
whole of Japanese cultural history.

You could walk around for a day and
not see every temple of this size.

This view comes from the top of one of the temples.

Note how this pathway to this Shinto shrine leads out of the city. Shrines typically appear on the sides of mountains, close to nature, almost a continuation.

The Golden Temple looks a bit tired. They were re-doing the "golden" exterior when I visited. Actually, an emperor retired, and the Temple formed his retirement house and later place of worship. Emperors did this so that they could rule through their sons (who became "emperor") and not have their time tied up in ceremonial chores. It held off the decline of their power but only for a while.

In the Fifties, a fanatic burned the temple, the basis for a play by Mushima, the Japanese Hemingway. You can see this recreated in the movie "Mushima."

This famous rock garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple appears to have more rocks than in fact it has.

Buddha says, in this pose, "I come to teach."

This garden appears very enormous but could
actually fit in nearly anyone's back yard.

This garden dates from the Mejii Restoration (the 1870s).

This big canal separates East Kyoto from West.

During the rule of the Tokugawas, explained in Tour 4: Tokyo and Nikko, the shoguns built this fort to make sure the emperors stayed out of politics and stuck to administering Shinto ceremonies.

Note the massiveness of the walls. However, since the Tokugawas banned all firearms (including cannon) these walls served more to cow the emperor than repel invaders.

Forts, even Tokugawa forts, seem out of place in Kyoto.

I stayed in a small, cheap inn across from this temple that belongs to one half of a split Buddhist sect.

I broke a cardinal rule here and
neglected to remove my shoes.

Logically, these temples would all rot, especially with cheap Japanese wood, but the Japanese have a belief, stemming from Shinto, that all temples need repurification, hence rebuilding, every seventy years or so. You see this temple under restoration. The Japanese will regard it, when complete, as the same temple, not as a "recreation."

This shows the front porch where
you (should!) remove your shoes.

Train travel always beats car travel in Japan. I took the Shinkansen ("Bullet Train") to Kyoto and then back. Kyoto's Main station boasts a half-dozen lines and a subway and forms the real center of the city.

Even Kyoto now boasts a tower. This garish bit of modern Japanese tradition leads forward, quite logically to later eras and following tours.

Related Japanese Tours:
Back to Tour 6: Okinawa
On to Tour 2: Kamakura and Yokohama

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