Ian Ropke writes:
The idea of a city conjures up a thousand images. There are enormous cities of power and wealth. There are dying cities. There are living cities. And yet behind all these adjectives shimmers the idea of the city, the ideal city, the dream of humankind, the showcase for all our best achievements. The city can and should be a symbiotic balance between our wild, unbound nature and the many ways human beings shape the world around us. One might say that a good city is a celebration of the sentient spirit, a place that symbolizes and actualizes to its best ability all there is to love about life. A great city is a great place to live. And living in a great city must, by definition, be somehow akin to living in a dream, or inhabiting a fairy tale like landscape of existence. Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is such a city: a dream, an endless moment of fantastic magic. Kyoto is a place that remains host to nearly 1200 years of civilization. It is timeless. It is modern. It is sophisticated. It is serene. It is green. It is still a living rendition of heaven on earth.
Kyoto was envisioned as a work of art, and, today, some 1200 years later, the inspiration of those early grand design artists lives on within nearly every quarter of the city’s earliest boundaries. According to fenshui, or Chinese geomantic principles (the correct spatial and directional relation between heaven and earth, interior design, etc.), the north-south valley of Kyoto, surrounded on three sides by an unbroken ridge of mountain-like green hills, represents the ideal site for a city. It is bisected by two large rivers, which provide a flow of constant energy through the city, keeping it fresh and somehow pulsating with vitality and spiritual power. To the northeast, at the point known as the Devil’s or Tiger’s gate, from which evil or negative energy is most likely to enter, stands a high mountain, which serves to guard the city from any untoward invasion from other realms. For the Chinese, Kyoto was the perfect place to found a capital city. You can still feel the power today with a little meditative mindlessness.
Some people maintain that the world, like the body, has seven spiritual chakras or places that seem especially charged with a unique kind of energy and synchronicity. Kyoto has been widely agreed upon to be one of those planetary chakras. In living here for so many years, I too can confirm that there is something magical contained in the physical environment that serves as the host to the cities’ physical and spiritual needs.
I have been to many great world cities and the only other ones I have experienced that compare in some way are Benares and Jerusalem. It can not be a coincidence that all three are major religious centres. Kyoto is soaked in spiritual energy and it is no wonder that so many artists, seekers, and mystics have journeyed here and lived here over the centuries. In Kyoto one cannot help but think of the meaning of life, or wonder about the existence of god or the spirit world.
For many, who call Kyoto home, the city is a metaphysical experience, a highly poetic reality. Here we live in a sea of antiquity and ancient wisdom that lives on in the trees, the gardens, the innumerable temple and shrine sanctuaries, and countless living traditions. And yet in a sense Kyoto belongs to herself and not to those who live there. It is a living thing and few cities can claim this distinction. It is at once a matrix of living creations and long forgotten life forms. One feels a sense of gratitude just to be here, where we are indeed here at all.
In Kyoto one can not help but be aware that human existence is a dream, a sublime illusion, a gift of God. At four pm and ten pm we often hear the distant ring of the temple bells and we are reminded that life is short and that death is certain. Kyoto is a city where introspection and anonymity can be perfectly lived out. The people of this city leave others alone, do not show their curiosity, do not enquire about mundane things. This leaves us with much space. In Kyoto, one lives at home and is left alone should one choose it that way. Kyoto makes for an ideal place to enjoy the pleasures of life — food, good company, cultural expression, etc. But most of all Kyoto feeds the soul.
All words and images in this article are by Ian Ropke, the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. He will post again on February 17th.
Introducing Ian Ropke