Alone in Kyoto: Pico Iyer on a winter without tourists

Earlier this winter, I went on a warm evening to Chion-in, the extremely closed and forbidden temple along the eastern hills of Kyoto. One of the most famous Buddhist sites in all of Japan, it’s where crowds gather to hear a giant bronze bell struck 108 times on New Year’s Eve, purging the illusions of the coming year. ended.

That evening, like other temples around the ancient city, its gates had been opened for an annual “Light-Up”, or after-dark illumination of its halls and gardens. Remarkably, there was no one in sight when my wife and I arrived; two years before, there had been a rowdy queue that stretched to nearby Maruyama Park. Even more remarkable, this year we were allowed to climb the steep steps of its 70-foot high gate and see a golden Buddha, with 16 disciples, gazing from an almost dark hall through all the dazzling lights of what is now a building constructed. -up, constantly bustling modern city.

Japan tends to be brilliantly blue throughout the winter, and in the over 30 years that I’ve been coming to stay here, I’ve come to see the quiet months as the hidden gem among the seasons. Everyone knows about cherry blossoms in April and maple leaves in November, and the summer is so hot and muggy that many of us try to escape at that time. But the winter is clear, dry and invigorating; although there have been a few timid snow showers where I live this year, they are more fuwari-fuwarias they say around here, or floating around, that shin-shinsilent and relentless.

And as 2019’s nearly 32 million international visitors have been reduced to virtually none – Japan has kept its borders very tightly closed for nearly two years now – suddenly the old sights are feeling new and fresh again. A city that I associate with reserve and contemplation feels like it has been freed from a torrent of social obligations and allowed to be private and itself again.

Landscaped ponds and gardens of Eikan-do Temple © Bridgeman Images

So my wife (a longtime Kyoto-ite) and I wandered around like never before to enjoy the unusual calm. We went to the temple called Eikan-do to sip thick green tea under red umbrellas as blazing maple leaves lined the walkways. A country bus took us around twisty bends, deep in car-free calm, to the small farming village of Ohara, 30 minutes north. As the sun set over the rusty leaves and azaleas, Sanzen-in Temple’s Pure Pleasure Garden touched me like never before, if only because I feel like I’m getting old as it never does.

Map of Kyoto, Japan f

In the even older 8th century capital of Nara, 20 miles south of Kyoto, the central temple known as Kofukuji has opened its doors so that we can enter the country’s second tallest wooden pagoda and see secular statues. A few weeks later, its rulers opened its new Golden Hall for a rare chance to see other seldom-seen deities. Only a handful of residents were in evidence.

Part of Kyoto’s special charm is that it has always found new ways to show off its age-old elegance and understatement. Like other seasoned beauties around the world – I’m thinking of Venice and Shanghai – he seems to know how to change with the seasons to stay freshly seductive. On Christmas Day, we went to lunch at the trendy Ace Hotel, one of dozens of new establishments set up to accommodate the pre-pandemic tourist boom. A collection of trendy, high-end shops have sprung up around it, offering everything from books to designer chocolates.

Newly planted rice seedlings in a flooded paddy field in Ohara © Alamy Stock Photo

Very often in Kyoto it becomes difficult to tell whether you are succumbing to an ancient spell or a very contemporary one. The Japanese night has long been made magical by the use of dark, spare lanterns quiet enough to deepen a sense of mystery while illuminating a faint path through the heart of darkness.

In December, postmodern lanterns were elegantly arranged along a riverbank in Arashiyama, western Kyoto, and the famous bamboo grove was transformed by sapphire and indigo lights. In the heart of the city (home to Nintendo and the International Manga Museum), even the huge Central Station has been transformed into a paradise of lantern-lit corridors and video screens projecting autumn leaves and temple halls. above its frantic lifts. Every night, LED lights create new patterns on a giant staircase.

Arashiyama bamboo grove in western Kyoto illuminated at night during the Hanatouro festival © Shutterstock/Nishitap

The heart of Japanese aesthetics is based on the feeling that nothing lasts long and that is why we must cherish it. The very heart of beauty is its evanescence (hence the reverence for fleeting cherry blossoms). We know this disruption – with relatively empty sites – will not last forever, just as the wisest of my neighbors know that pandemic (like wars, typhoons and tsunamis) will not last forever. When is it best, then, to savor the new venues – the elegant Park Hyatt, for example, set among the most scenic and narrow sloping pilgrimage paths in the entire city – as they bring the old?

On my last day before sadly flying off to California, I urged my wife to come with me to Chishaku-in, an often overlooked temple along the eastern hills. Now, as golden late afternoon light, especially bright in the dead of winter, lit up its walkways, we were told we had a rare chance to see a dragon rumble on the roof of a side temple, a small Buddha in another. In the main garden, long considered one of Kyoto’s hidden treasures, the trees shone, electric in the dying light, alongside a pristine landscape replicating a mountain in China, the silence deepened and softened by the sound of the falling water.

Sanzen-in Buddhist temple in Ohara, 30 minutes by bus from Kyoto © Alamy

Crows caw as the day draws to a close. We could hear – like never before – monks chanting before a Buddha lit by four candles in one of the meditation halls. There was no one else in the radiant calm but ourselves.

The first time I visited Kyoto, as a tourist, I had stayed at a small guesthouse just down the road, and walked to the spacious compound each morning, convinced, in my innocence, that it must have been one of the landmarks of the ancient capital. In truth, it features on few itineraries in an area that contains 1,600 temples and 17 World Heritage Sites. But now it was truly a kind of wonder and I realized that even after 34 years of living close, I could be powerfully affected by a simple sense of immaculate calm. The best lesson of the pandemic for me has been to take nothing for granted; the fact that nothing lasts is the reason to boast about it while it lasts.

To follow @ftweekend on Twitter to hear our latest stories first