Friday, January 31, 2014

Backdoor to the Bakumatsu

There's a common misconception that the Meiji Restoration was bloodless. In fact, there was a great deal of blood shed, most of it spilled upon the streets of Kyoto.  There was a walk that I wanted to do that took me through the heart of the city, hitting sites bearing scars 150 years old.  My route would miss the most famous site, Ikedaya, perhaps better visited at night as it is now an izakaya.  A few dozen meters up the street, beams on the south side of Sanjo Bridge still bear scars from the battle.   As it was, I was joined by Joel Stewart and Deep Michael to stroll the back streets of town, on a day so warm and sunny it may as well have been April. 

We set off from Kyoto station, and after a few ill-advised detours turned north on Aburakoji Street, with its weathered lanterns signifying the old shops of oil merchants.  One appears to still be in business.  Along the way, we passed Honkōji, where Itō Kashitarō was assassinated by the Shisengumi for being an Imperial turncoat.  This action proved to be in vain, for Japan's last Shogun was stripped of his power literally weeks later.  The rapid westernization which followed is exemplified a few blocks later in the tall, cathedral-like building made of brick and tiled dome, constructed in 1912 and now utilized by the Jodo Shinshu. 

We'll stay under that sects influence as we head along the north wall of Nishi Honganji,which itself is bordered to the south by Ryukoku University, whose campus still maintains its beautiful Meiji period form. 

We arrive soon at the gate to Shimabara, the old red light district.  It's been said that when the old district was moved from across town to its current location, the uproar was so great that it rivalled the Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu just a few years before.  Only two former tea houses remain, though it is rumored that a few oiran still exist.  At the district's far end, the road suddenly becomes an abrupt right angle, a defensive demarcation of what in feudal times had been Kyoto's western limit. Michael quips that if  this bend in the road didn't slow an invading army,  the services rendered a dozen meters further on certainly would.   

We follow Senbondori for a kilometer or so.  The section that I'd walked a month ago as the Toba Kaidō led directly to the site of the old Rashomon Gate, beyond which the road is immediately disrupted by Umekoji Park.  Here at the park's northern edge, we've picked it up again.  In Heian times, Senbon was known as Suzaku Dori, the broad avenue leading to the site of the old Imperial Palace.  The road's current incarnation got its name from the tall trees that once offered shade to those visiting the palace.  

We follow it to Mibu-dera, the former headquarters of the Shinsengumi.   Now a quiet neighborhood, it's hard to imagine that they had once used these grounds for practicing with the new western import of cannon.   In one corner is a tall pyramid covered with Jizo statues transplanted from elsewhere.   Dozens of pigeons warm themselves on the tiled roof of the main hall beside it.  As the three of us stand between the Benten Hall and  hexagonal Jizo Hall, these birds suddenly fly toward us on masse.  Bizarrely, at that very moment we had been discussing Benten as the muse of artists, and thus the action of the unbeckoned birds creates an impetus for me to write this very line.  

Beside these two halls is a newer structure built of criss-crossed wooden beams.  Beneath lies small museum, the floor of which is an incongruous mishmash of tile.  This is one of the most unorthodox temple buildings I've ever seen, yet not at all unattractive.  Amongst the treasures is a Heian period statue that somehow survived a millennium of fire and warfare. There is also a pair of photos of two Shinsengumi leaders, one in western garb and a strikingly contemporary haircut.   The main statue of this structure is the medicine Buddha, though this one specializes in teeth.  A reminder that it's almost lunchtime.

Out on the street again, Joel is suddenly called away on an errand, but Michael and I continue to zigzag north, on and off Omiya-dori.  Crossing the grounds of Shinsen-en, the sight of a wheelbarrow standing behind the main shrine building launches a long conversation about William Carlos Williams, which stays with us as we wrap ourselves around Nijo-jo and into the arms of La Jolla restaurant.  Burritos and beers help to change the subject.  

This visit to a little slice of California has also created a type of time warp, as we suddenly leave the late Edo Period for the Heian.  We continue sleepily up to the corner of Marutamachi and Senbon where we find the site of the old palace.  In the vicinity are dozens of stones and signs marking where the structures had once stood.   We spend a long time at the Heian Museum, time mostly spent looking down at the 3-D map of a city long gone.  A reminder that the sense of wonder is timeless...

Perhaps due to the fact that Michael and I made that detour to the Heian Period, the Meiji wouldn't leave me alone.  The upper right corner of my map scolded me for my neglect.  So on another sunny afternoon a few days later, I decided to complete the walk with my daughter, hitting those final sites all lying within the confines of the current grounds of the Imperial Palace.  

We entered through the Hamaguri gate, on the palace's west side.  A century and half of rubbing fingers have smoothed the bullet holes in the gate's wooden door, where Tokugawa-backed samurai from the Aizu domain were held off by the men from Choshu who were protecting the Emperor.  In times of fire, his particular gate was the only one open to the citizens of Kyoto who sought shelter from the conflagration.  Otherwise it was close as tight as a calm, hence the name hamaguri.  Just this month I read that in the case of major disaster, the city had designated this place as an evacuation shelter .  Looking around, I wondered if there was enough room here for 1.5 million people to pitch their tents.

Just to the south is Munagata Shrine, serving as an oasis within an oasis.  Towering above it all is a 600 year old camphor tree, on whose leaves the imperials once wrote sutras, mimicking those ancient Indians who once did (and continue to do) the same in sanskrit.  This writing (書) on leaves (葉) is the origin of the word for postcard (葉書).  Looking for history and spirit, I get a lesson in linguistics.

My daughter and I walk back to our bicycle along the Demizu Stream (which was once connected by canal to Lake Biwa).  Along the way, we note that the plum blossoms are already coming into their bloom, despite it being only the first day of the second month.  Each little burst of yellow is another reminder of time continuing to cycle us forward.  

On the turntable:  Steely Dan, "Alive in America"
On the nighttable:  Yoshiro Tamura, "Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History"

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