When I think about Kyoto the first thing that comes to mind is its quiet elegance. If Japan’s old capital was to be a person, Kyoto would have been a sophisticated, yet unassuming, Japanese woman, dressed in simple, stylish clothes in base colours. Her house would be minimalist, yet dotted here and there with the historical artefacts reminding her of the beauty of the rich culture she grew up in. Her moves would be deliberate, voice delicate with a hint of wisdom that only experience can provide. She would be a little bit introverted, enjoying space and silence, yet having all the warmth and kindness to anyone she comes into contact with. She would be exactly my kind of person just like Kyoto was exactly my kind of place.
From the first moment we met, Kyoto and I seemed to hit it off. I was surprised to see how at ease I felt in a place so far away from home. Everything was new and exciting, and yet the novelty was intertwined with a sense of belonging. Almost like I’ve been there before and was coming back to a familiar place that changed over the years.
Just like the opposite syllables in their names, Kyoto and Tokyo were each other’s opposites. While Tokyo was in a constant rush, focused on the future and worried about progress and profits, Kyoto was mindfully living in the moment, stepping out of today only to look back at its history, interested in the traditions of yesterday that gave people their dignity and purpose. Tokyo was leading the race that Kyoto refused to participate in.
Comparing these two cities was like looking at two different people and I couldn’t help but wonder what shaped them to make the trajectories of their lives so different.
Tokyo surely hasn’t had an easy start. After the initial years of prosperity following the Emperor’s move to the new capital in 1868, the city was devastated in 1923 by the Great Kanto Earthquake. With the opening of the underground lines and the international airport, the city was quickly growing. By the middle of the 1930s it was similar in size to New York and London. But then the war came. From one of the aggressors, Japan had soon begun to suffer from the consequences of the conflict. In the last years of the WWII, Tokyo was bombed 102 times, witnessing a loss of many lives. By the end of the war in 1945, the population of this metropolis had decreased by half. If the 1950s saw Japan slowly lifting itself from the destruction, by the 1960s it was back in full speed. The combination of technology focus and bubble economy paid off, not only restoring Tokyo to its pre-war glory, but helping to turn it into what it is today – a vibrant metropolis that is now home to over 13 million people attracted to the opportunities and comfort of life it offers.
Before the emperor’s move to Tokyo (known previously as Edo), it was Kyoto that held the title of the capital of this island nation. Despite its destruction in the 15th century during the Onin war, Kyoto managed to escape the bombings during the Second World War. It was by pure chance that the city did not follow in the tragic footsteps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. America’s original plan featured Kyoto and Hiroshima as the targets for the atomic bombs. Luckily for Kyoto, Henry L. Stimson, US Secretary of War, had spent his honeymoon there and decided to spare the city he had such fond memories of and replace it with Nagasaki instead.
Thanks to its good fortune, the intellectual centre of Japan managed to retain its original feel with the wooden machiyas, or townhouses, and geisha’s entertaining clients during tea ceremonies. With over 20% of Japan’s national treasures, Kyoto today is the country’s cultural and education centre.
Was it their different histories that made Tokyo and Kyoto so different? Was Tokyo running away from its recent gloomy past by turning its eyes onto the future? Was the growth and the pace of life a way of saying to the world “you can’t defeat me, no matter how hard you try I will come back stronger”? Was Kyoto mindfully walking at a slower pace aware of its life being saved by a close call? I wished both cities were people, so I could ask them to tell me their stories.
As I was pondering the differences in Tokyo and Kyoto’s character, I couldn’t help but feel like I was living like Tokyo, where my heart knew that the Kyoto way of life was the only right for me. As I was enjoying a slow breakfast in a local cafe where food was served by an elderly Japanese couple as you were sitting shoeless on the tatami mats, I was savouring this unhurried start to my day. Perhaps it was possible to be prosperous without the rush? Perhaps I didn’t have to keep on running in life, only to prove to everyone how strong I was? Perhaps instead I could just appreciate how lucky I’ve been and reflect back on my past, noticing the lessons it taught me and deciding which elements of my journey were worth celebrating? Maybe the race was not for me, and just like Kyoto, I could decide to say “no thank you, I choose to walk a different path”.