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Notes on the Geography of Japan: Kyoto

Kyoto (originally Heian-kyo, "capital of peace and tranquility") was the capital of Japan for the thousand years before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Tokyo became the capital. Today, Kyoto is a city of a million and a half, but its deep history is evident in its siting and layout, for like an ideal Chinese city Kyoto's streets are laid out in a cardinally oriented grid, protected by mountains on the west, north, and east. The city's pride is its many Buddhist temples, which rose to prominence during the city's long reign as the national capital. During this period, Buddhism subordinated (or swallowed) the indigenous Shinto religion, which regained its vitality only with the Meiji Restoration. Most of the folders here are of these Buddhist temples, as the suffix "-ji" indicates.

Kyoto was spared by World War II, but it suffered no end of conflagrations in earlier centuries, most recently in 1864. Apart from the pattern of gridded streets, with its echo of China, most streetscapes give little indication of the city's antiquity.

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Japan: Kyoto picture 1

Approach to Kiyamizu: a historical district, with characteristic narrow but deep buildings--shop in front, residence behind. The street grid is sensibly not forced onto hilly sections.

Japan: Kyoto picture 2

This lane has less character than the one in the previous picture, but it's more typical of Kyoto, whose street layout was imported from Tang China (specifically from Ch'ang-an, near present-day Xian) and consists of square blocks. Eight (in some cases sixteen) of these squares ("tsubo") are nested in larger squares ("bo"), which themselves are bounded by wide streets ("oji"). That's why this quiet lane, separating two tsubo, is as quiet as it is, despite being only a few blocks from the railway station.

Japan: Kyoto picture 3

Just poking around.

Japan: Kyoto picture 4

One of the wider streets are night: this is the main shopping street, Kawaramachi-dori.

Japan: Kyoto picture 5

Step inside? Japanese supermarkets are endlessly fascinating for oral types, partly for what they sell and partly for their ballistically transcendent prices.

Japan: Kyoto picture 6

Don't bother with your calculator: this picture was taken about 1990. Just rest assured that you'll think twice about whether you really want an apple for lunch.

Japan: Kyoto picture 7

Japanese Railways recently completed a mega-addition to the Kyoto Station. It incorporates a huge department store and a major hotel, grouped around an atrium designed by someone who grew up on Star Wars.

Japan: Kyoto picture 8

The atrium is open to the outside, but if you open a hotel window silent alarms go off.

Japan: Kyoto picture 9

"Welcome to the Omega Intergalactic Transfer Station, sir."

Japan: Kyoto picture 10

Outside the wall of the Nijo Castle: the English words belie the integrity and homogeneity of Japanese culture.


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