While the Japanese city of Kyoto was unaffected by the recent earthquake and tsunami, I can't help wondering if the ancient capital hasn't changed just a little since those terrible events.
I'd visited the city of 1.5 million (two million more if you factor in adjacent Osaka) a few months earlier. And while Kyoto is widely known for its Zen Buddhist temples and gardens, traditional wooden houses, fine arts and crafts, and opportunity to glimpse a geisha, at a wider glance Kyoto is just as modern and frantic as any place else.
That said, one encounters an old and persistent Japanese spirit of hospitality that combines attention to detail with graciousness, termed omotenashi.
For example, the taxi that picked me up at the Osaka-Itami airport provided the epitome of comfort and cleanliness, and the driver, wearing jacket, tie and crisp white cloves, was the model chauffeur. Taxis everywhere are the same. It's an example of omotenashi.
And in the lobby of the Kyoto Hotel Okura stood a massive bouquet of long-stemmed pink lilies, out of which rose shoots of bright orange gladiolus, like a spray of fireworks. So very omotenashi. So very Japanese.
On the other hand, the 2,000 or so remaining Buddhist temples and shrines built when Kyoto served as the imperial capital are now sequestered in the surrounding hills and back streets-even sandwiched among eateries and stores in downtown shopping malls-and out of the way.
Among the best known is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, spectacularly sited on a forested slope. Another is Rokuon-ji, featuring the famous Golden Pavilion-a three-tier affair rising on the far shore of a vast pond, and appearing the epitome of aesthetic perfection.
But both these sites were crowded with phalanxes of school kids and tourists like me.
I found more tranquility at the Byodo-in Temple in the southern district of Uji. This massive complex, set beside a pond encircled with perfectly pruned trees and gardens, is said to resemble a vast winged phoenix. But what really impressed me about the Byodo-in Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was its contemporary museum housing exceptional rosewood sculptures of spirited deities, dating to the 11th century.
Back downtown, beyond a modern office tower bearing the name "Nintendo," we slipped into the Kyoto International Manga Museum, a complex of school, library and theatre devoted to the distinctly Japanese style and cult of hand-drawn cartoons and comics.
In this beautifully creaking wood-frame elementary school transformed into a centre for all matters manga, a legion of children and teens (even adults) were sitting on couches, whatever, immersed in some of the museum's 300,000 publications-from action-adventure comics to the books featuring the wildly popular children's character Anpanman.
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