June 28, 2009
Some pleasant discoveries were made, not by getting there, but by getting lost. The irony was that my Japanese host’s rusty sense of direction got me exactly where I had envisioned myself to be in Kyoto.
We had just left Kiyomizu Temple, our last UNESCO World Heritage Site visit for the day (there are 17 such sites in Kyoto, by the way). It was quite late; my Japanese companions were in a huddle, presumably planning where to go next. I was hoping it involved dinner and a jigger or two of sake. I just left them to their own devices, language barrier to blame. Then, they started down Chawan-zaka. I trailed behind.
Chawan-zaka, literally Teapot Lane, was an uphill road leading to Kiyomizu Temple. Hardly a pilgrim’s path, it was a bustling commercial street that cut through an old-world area of wooden traditional restaurants and inns – and pottery and porcelain shops that gave it its name.
We walked down the lane, past the obligatory Hello Kitty shop and a rickshaw terminal. I had no clue where we were headed, but I didn’t mind as I was too busy clicking away. The street was a throwback to old Kyoto that you conjured up in your mind. The unsightly electric posts and cables, plus the ubiquitous vending machines that the Japanese could not seem to live without, may ruin the effect, but the ambiance was still decidedly nostalgic.
The group eventually took a right at a corner to a narrow pedestrian alley. Dusk was almost upon us; street lamps had been lit up and on these side streets the crowds at Chawan-zaka were conspicuously absent. We found ourselves the only ones pounding the stone pavement. Soft light, light breeze, and stillness – these subtle elements heightened my senses.
Quaint wooden houses were packed together in dense blocks. The area reminded me of the hutong village in Beijing and Crisologo Street in Vigan, Philippines. I imagined the dwellers here to be merchants, artisans, and innkeepers whose livelihood was sustained by the nearby Kodaiji and Kiyomizu temples. Although there were hardly any people at the time, there were telltale signs that the houses were lived in: A lady suddenly emerged from a house, a door left ajar, a bicycle abandoned by the curb.
There were no street signs and there was no one to ask. But I reckoned these streets were Ishibei-zaka and Sannen-zaka, regarded as two of the most beautiful streets in Kyoto. These stone-paved alleys were lined with Kyoto-style houses, known as machiya (literally, “town house”), made of unpainted wood and hardened clay. They were mostly two-story affairs with a shop selling anything from kimono fabric and ceramic crafts to tea and sweets. Their facade and front doors were usually designed with unpainted wooden latticework. Others, though, were varnished with an ocher hue. Upper floors may be residential as evidenced by pet cats purring contentedly atop earthen eaves. Slightly open doors revealed courtyards and gardens. Smaller alleys formed right-of-way capillaries within the dense blocks. Indeed, this part of town looked like any Asian hamlet, except for undeniably Japanese delicate touches, such as paper umbrellas and sliding doors.
I could envision this residential area to be a bustling community with a strong collectivist spirit. The parallel lines of door and window bars, as well as shingles on eaves, formed a harmonious linear whole, manifesting the value of harmony in this culture.
Alas, the streets were largely empty and the shops closed when I was there. I felt as if I were in a film set than an actual neighborhood. This unexpected solitude conveyed how much of an anachronism such communities had become in this day and age. Modern living did not lend itself to streetside socializing at the end of a beautiful summer day. These machiya dwellers were probably online by then. Actually, many of these machiya had been converted into ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn where guests could experience old Kyoto living. I supposed the end of June, officially rainy season in Japan, was a dead season for innkeepers.
Memories of the old charm of Kyoto could still be relived on Chawan-zaka, Sannen-zaka, and Ishibei-zaka. Just walking on these sloping lanes was a time-capsule cultural experience, no matter how brief. I never bothered to ask my hosts where they intended to go, but I didn’t mind getting lost and even my grumbling tummy. More than any Japanese dinner I craved for, this promenade to the past had sustained my soul. All I missed was seeing a geisha.