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August 15, 2009

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China's past becomes Kyoto present

A TRIP to Japan takes Xie Tian back in time as he realizes how influential Chinese culture had been in the development of one of its major cities.

For most people, Tokyo is the first city they want to visit in Japan. The metropolis shares the same reputation as New York and London as a paradise for shopaholics.

But my favorite is Kyoto, a historic and cultural city in the Kansai area, a city full of the influences of ancient Chinese culture.

It's hard to imagine a city with so much history and culture: solemn temples and mysterious shrines, gorgeous ceremonies and traditional crafts.

Dating back to around 1,200 years, Kyoto was then the capital city of Japan.

After years of development and change, it still retains its cultural heritage.

In front of me is a map of Kyoto City which looks quite similar with the Tang Dynasty's (AD 618-907) capital city, Chang'an (today's Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province).

The streets are all horizontal or vertical and the whole urban pattern is like a chessboard. Actually, the Ukyo-ku, the western half of the city, just copied the city pattern of Chang'an; while Sakyo-ku, the other half, imitated Luoyang, another historic city in China.

From this imitation I saw the outstanding status of ancient China in Japanese eyes at the time.

That was only the beginning.

I had the feeling when I was walking on Kyoto's streets that it was just like walking in a historic city in China.

With its 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, as well as palaces, gardens and architecture intact, Kyoto is one of the best-preserved cities in Japan. The most famous is Kiyomizu Temple, which is also a typical sightseeing attraction for visitors.

In Japan, people also pray for fortune through coming to temples as Chinese people do. However, the way of praying changes greatly from China to Japan. In Kiyomizu Temple, I didn't see people burning incense, instead they pray for luck and fortune through collecting and drinking water.

Beneath the main hall is the Otowa Waterfall, where three channels of water fall into a pond. Visitors to the temple collect water, which is believed to have therapeutic properties, from the waterfall.

It is said that drinking the water of the three streams confers wisdom, health and longevity.

Nevertheless, some Japanese believe that you must choose only two -- if you are greedy and drink from all three, you invite misfortune.

The great power of blessing is also deeply believed by Japanese. The main hall has a veranda, supported by tall pillars, that juts out over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. Many people choose the 13-meter jump from it to attempt suicide. Of those, 85.4 percent survived.

People consider the power of blessing as the main cause of the high survival rate.

Vivid imitation

Besides the Kiyomizu Temple, there are hundreds of other temples and shrines. I passed more than 10 temples in just a 10-minute ride: Kinkaku Temple, Ryoan Temple, Nishi Hongan Temple and so many others I couldn't remember their names.

My next destination was Nijo Castle. The 3,300-square-meter Ninomaru Palace inside Nijo Castle consists of five connected buildings and was built almost entirely of Hinoki cypress.

The front door of the Ninomaru Palace is called "Tang Gate" for which I can nearly use the word "totemism" to describe the imitation of China's ancient Tang Dynasty.

The decoration includes lavish quantities of gold leaf and elaborate wood carvings, intending to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the shoguns. The sliding doors and walls of each room are decorated with Ukiyoe (a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings), a traditional Japanese painting similar to China's feudal society's "belle painting," which focuses on the lives of women of high social standing.

Just by coincidence, I was there for the Gion Ceremony which takes place annually in Kyoto and is one of the most famous festivals in Japan. I experienced the peak of the festival on July 16 as it spans the entire month of July and is crowned by a parade on July 17.

Like many ceremonies held by ancient emperors in China, there are offerings of all kinds of traditional foods such as barbecued chicken skewers and sweets. Kyoto's downtown area is reserved for pedestrian traffic on the three nights leading up to the massive parade.

The ostentation is no less than any ancient ceremonies held by emperors of ancient China.

While those ceremonies in China mostly commemorated emperors or ancestors, Japan's Gion Ceremony focuses on the present people's lives. Dating back to 869 BC in Japan, there was a severe outbreak of plague and many people died. The survivors held ceremonies to pray for luck and eliminate disaster and these gradually grew to become the Gion Ceremony I witnessed.

Kimono merchant

During the evenings leading up to the parade, some private houses in the old kimono merchant district open their entry ways to the public, exhibiting valuable family heirlooms and Nishijin Textile Industrial Association screens, in a custom known as the Folding Screen Festival.

This was a precious opportunity for me to visit and observe the traditional Japanese residences of Kyoto.

It also showed me the colorful handicrafts culture which had a close relationship with maiko culture (maiko is a Japanese word for dancing girl), according to my guide.

To make me believe her words, she took me to Nishijin Textile Industrial Association, which is the leading handcrafts company in Kyoto.

Just like China, Kyoto's crafts development can date back to the 15th century. As a saying goes: "Eat in Osaka but wear in Kyoto." Crafts here were gorgeous and noble to meet the needs of royal families and the aristocracy. Royals in Japan also had servants to perform frequently for their pleasure. A kimono show was among the most popular.

Beautiful handmade kimonos of all kinds and styles together with the elegant dance of maiko build up an aesthetic picture of royal lives. The development of crafts technology greatly accelerated the culture of maiko.

When I was in the Kiyomizu Temple, one monk told me: "Japan learned a lot from China 1,000 years ago. Not only language, but also living styles and culture."

It's really true. In Kyoto, I did feel the strong influence of Chinese culture.


You can buy a card such as the Kansai Thru Pass card at most railway stations and even on some buses and in department stores in Kyoto. Most sightseeing spots in Kyoto are near subway stations:

Kiyomizu-dera: 10 minutes' walk from Gojo Station on Keihan Line.

Nijo Castle: Just beside Nijojomae Station on Tozai Line.

Nishijin Textile Industrial Association: five minutes' walk from Jmadegawa Station on Karasuma Line.

You should book if you want to watch the kimomo maiko show in the Nishijin-ori Crafts House. Kimonos are available for rent at 3,000 yen (US$31) a day.


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