Reflecting on Kyoto

The first time I lived in Kyoto, as a graduate student living on a modest Fulbright stipend, I rented a run-down 300 year-old house nestled in the eastern mountains. By Japanese standards, it was spacious, a two story “5LDK” of five tatami (rice straw floored) rooms, plus living, dining and kitchen areas. When it rained, the gentle aroma of tatami would infuse the whole place. To this day, the smell of tatami in the rain takes me back to the mountains of Kyoto. The house had no indoor plumbing, but it was just behind the local bath house (sentō). After a long day of field work in gritty, grimy small-scale manufacturers, having a long bath was cleansing of body and mind.

I have since lived in Kyoto many times. The sights and sounds in the city remind me of its ancient history and deep spiritual culture. Even today it is common to encounter straw hatted and sandaled black robed mendicant monks, walking single file and chanting on the back streets, on a pilgrimage of the numerous sacred sites scattered throughout Kyoto and nearby Nara. In summertime, which is festival season, young women in brightly colored yukata (cotton kimonos) stroll, the clickety-clack sound of their geta (black lacquered sandals) echoing. Kyoto is the kind of place that enters your soul.

The list of must-see sites is long, but I offer three that the locals enjoy in summer: Arashiyama, Hieizan, and Kamogawa. Arashiyama on the southwestern side is full of bamboo groves and temples. There you can taste the region’s delicious yatsuhashi sweets, still made by hand in most shops. Served with a delicate cup of green tea, for which the region is also known. If you are traveling with children, saru yama or “monkey mountain” is an adventure, a short hike to the top (a tall hill really) brings you to an animal sanctuary where you can feed the monkeys, safely from within a screened building of course. Hieizan, Mount Hiei, on the northeastern side, is a welcome respite from the heat of summer. A cable car ride to the top takes you to a garden museum, which is a fairly accurate replica of Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny. On hot summer days, we would take our young children and let them run around between the flowers, replete with butterflies in early summer and dragonflies later. Kamogawa, “duck river” winds its way north to south through the heart of Kyoto, walking paths on both sides of its banks. In the early morning you will see runners and older couples out for morning exercise. In the afternoon, groups young and old share impromptu picnics. The evening, couples sit to watch the sunset or enjoy hanabi fireworks. Considered the world’s first novel, Genji Monogatari, Tale of Genji was written in Kyoto during its Heian Imperial Court period in the 12th century by a high court lady, Murasaki Shikibu. It tells the story of the romantic exploits of the handsome and charming Genji, the illegitimate son of the emperor. It is more than 1,000 pages, so if you start reading it now, perhaps you might finish before the SASE conference. Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Kyoto’s haute cuisine, kaiseki, or multi-course meal of locally sourced ingredients, which in Kyoto includes artisanal tofu. Make your reservations well in advance and bring an appetite.

Kathryn Ibata-Arens is the author of the book Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Japan, Cambridge University Press, which explores in part the socio-cultural origins of the Kyoto model of high technology entrepreneurship.