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Little Letterhole: Kyoto, and the importance of myth

ON 30 MAY 1945, Kyoto was given a reprieve. Three months before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s ancient capital was taken off the list of potential targets thanks to the intervention of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had fallen in love with the city on his honeymoon, decades earlier. The reverence that saved Kyoto speaks to its immense importance, not just to Japanese culture, but also to the popular perception of Japan in the West.

To us gaijin, whose primary understanding of Japan comes from imported technology, Pokémon, dubbed animé, Kurosawa films, and – if you’re unlucky – internet hentai, Kyoto is still the city of temples, gabled houses, wooden arches, and kimono-clad geisha. In truth, the buildings are reconstructions, and the kimono are rented and worn by Chinese tourists going through the motions of their photography rituals.

But tourism has always relied on stereotypes and a mythologised version of history and culture. Even Kyoto’s very real temples rely on this to a certain extent. Two of the most famous (and most exhaustively photographed for Facebook profile pictures) are Fushimi Inari-taisha, with its winding paths of iconic red archways, and Kinkaku-ji, the famous and beautiful golden pavilion. Yet the current iteration of Kinkaku-ji, for all the history that weighs heavily upon it, was only built in 1955, the original having fallen victim to an act of arson at the hands of a novice monk five years earlier. The reason so many tourists flock to marvel at the temple in spite of this, is because the fire did not remove Kinkaku-ji’s inherent sense of ‘historicity’.

It’s this same phenomenon that makes strolling through the Gion district, down ‘preserved’ streets like Shirakawa-minami, Shinbashi, and Hanamikoji streets, the favoured haunts of geisha – or geiko as they are properly known in Kyoto – and their touristic imitators. These places are attractive to us because they appear as Japan is meant to be. It’s a historical facsimile of the country we see across Western media: traditional, beautiful, and preserved. A cynic will decry all this as inauthentic, and in an age in which tourists are increasingly seeking out authentic experiences (see Airbnb), it might even seem fake and exploitative.

I count myself fortunate that my image of Japan is coloured as much by drinking in a Kamata izakaya with my brother’s weird friends as it is by the likes of Kurosawa and samurai legends. Modern Japan is far more complex than the tourist sites of Kyoto. You can get under its skin by visiting a Muji shop or trying to load up as Pasmo travel card as much as you can in any temple or castle. But these heritage sites lacquer Japan with a sense of identity familiar to us in the West; and if that lacquer is a gateway to getting to know this wonderful country, then that myth, that constructed sense of ‘historicity’ is worth preserving, just as Henry L. Stinson decided more than seventy years ago.

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