This morning, I was up early and decided to take a stroll down toward the Silver Pavilion, which resides at the top of a steep bank which runs alongside the entrance to a beautifully scenic walk leading up to many shrines and temples known as “The Philosopher’s Path”. I have quite a lot of Japanese Yen left, so I thought I’d visit the market stalls and shops which are set up along either side of this bank that sell some wonderful Japanese souvenirs, sweets and trinkets for tourists (and good luck charms, drinks and fans for the locals too).
The whole area is quite peaceful and quaint and for a brief moment, you can forget about the hustle and bustle of the huge city of Kyoto, not that Kitashirakawa is particularly commercial or busy, as it’s a sub-prefecture of the main city, and like all the sub-prefectures, it is overflowing with quiet local business, historically preserved landmarks and beautifully clean kept parks and gardens.
The shops here don’t open until 9:00am, and I reached the bottom of the bank by about 8:30, so I decided to take the turn onto the Philosopher’s path and gather my thoughts in the extreme heat of Kyoto’s hottest August heat season. There I witnessed a change in pace from the usual bike travellers on their way to school or work and I found two other types of people. There were some locals who had the same idea as me and were enjoying the beautiful scenery as they awaited Japan’s communities and businesses to slowly awake to another beautiful but humid day in this historical city of traditional culture and religion.
Some were jogging as part of their daily exercise, others were laying beside the stream enjoying the light from the sun, whilst others took a casual stroll along the stream. I heard the chirp of the lively crickets, watched birds flutter from one side of the stream to the other, and saw a few dogs being taken on their daily walk by their Japanese masters. There was also a gang of Japanese school girls walking very closely together laughing and chatting, it’s as if most of the class had already gathered before making their journey to school on foot, and the surprising thing is here, most of the schools are still divided into boys and girls separate schools.
Most people who pass me give me a smile or a nod, or even say “Ohio Gosaimasu” which means good morning. I smile back and I feel very welcome in their very private, elegant uncorrupted community. There is no litter, no graffiti or adverts. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen a single billboard in Kyoto, there are lots on the way to Osaka on the highways, but none in any part of the city whatsoever – which is great, because you can really enjoy the beautiful Japanese architecture.
The thing about this city and its buildings, is every one is unique. I haven’t seen two identical buildings or even two buildings of the same style next to each other yet. It almost looks like a kid has been building a huge city of Lego and refuses to repeat the same building style once he’s completed the next house or shop. Somehow, it all looks like it fits too, nothing looks out of place even though every place has a different height, width, roof style, colour and even building material.
This, along with the grid system makes the city very easy to find your way around, everywhere looks unique and every street runs parallel to the next, most of the land here is flat too, making it perfect for commuting by bicycle, although how the Japanese do this in such heat wearing their school uniforms, business suits and jeans is a bit of a puzzle to me.
I make my way back to the bottom of the bank and sit near the first shop as it prepares itself for business, and I see something incredible. Every business here is very familiar and friendly with each other. Each shop owner visits the shops neighbouring theirs and they have a friendly morning chat and even help each other set up their neighbour’s stalls as they do so.
So despite being in direct competition with each other, there’s a real community of people here who actually care for each other, and treat each other almost as a second family. I’ve seen this amongst my teachers at school, in restaurants and at social events such as festivals and ceremonies. But to see some of these shop owners leave their own shop unattended and open to passers-by to have a friendly chat with the lady over the road and help her set out her merchandise is truly a unique uplifting experience to me.
Both I and some of my western friends agree that it would be so easy to steal something or take advantage of their trust and openness here, because everyone just expects a complete total level of respect and honesty from everyone else here. It’s not necessary to lock bikes up or keep an eye on your personal belongings, and it’s a wonderful thing to know you can trust the people around you… but perhaps the more xenophobic Japanese people are right and letting too many foreigners into this country would corrupt and destroy this harmony.
This makes me realise that we should reassess ourselves and situation in the west and ask ourselves – is this how we want to live? – Why do so many look for opportunities to loot, rob and riot?? – Wouldn’t we rather know we can turn to each other in times of need, or just as a common courtesy to help and encourage each other? – I sincerely hope this little corner of the world can stay this pure, safe and beautiful – I fear it may already be too late for us.