Uwern Jong considers why a Kyoto temple can be progressive on its stance on same-gender marriage.
As we descended from the charming speakeasy in Gion, a quintessentially filmic, Kyoto scene unfurled. Through the mist and drizzle on the lantern-lit, cobbled streets, a lone, demure geisha in a beautiful kimono tottered home to her Okiya from a gig. I’m told it’s not often that a foreigner sees a geisha on her own – when she’s accompanied by her minder, it’s for the benefit of tourists. She walks off into the night as many have done before her over 400 years. As beautiful a scene as it was, I felt a little forlorn. I wondered how I would feel in her place, living a life full of rules and expectation.
Kyoto conjures up a thousand images – the ancient and imperial Japanese capital until 1868, it was seen by many (and to some degree is still lauded) as a perfect city, a showcase for all of Japan’s best achievements, a dream of humankind – the link that ties together heaven and earth. It has all the ideal hallmarks – over a millennium of civilization – timeless, modern, serene, sophisticated – a city that’s ultimately spiritual, but incredibly human, signifying all there is to love about life. It addresses a symbiotic balance between the wild and the cultured, a great place to live, an endless moment of fantasy, a source of inexplicable magic. Perhaps that ethereal power is why Kyoto has never, in its existence, been invaded – and in more recent, turbulent history, rumour has it that Kyoto was spared from the atom bomb by Harry Truman himself, as he couldn’t bring himself to destroy it, having been warned not to in a dream.
Kyoto’s physicality is a work of art, but also the result of some very strict rules. Built according to Feng Shui (the Chinese geomantic principles that laid out the spatial and directional relationship between heaven and earth) there was really no way that Kyoto could fail, in the minds of its ancient architects. The city is surrounded on three sides by an undulating ridge of hills, bisected by two large rivers and guarded by a high mountain at its ‘Devil’s Gate’ – where negative energy is most likely to enter. The rivers’ water gives a flow of positive energy, providing vitality and spiritual power. Its buildings, temples, shrines and gardens were strategically placed – everything had its position, its reason, according to ancient rules, both mystical and practical.
Up until today, the conformist structures of rule-making and adherence are still apparent. The residents of Kyoto have a very set way of doing things. Despite what must be millions of tourists that old habits die hard. From ensuring my shoes were off and perfectly lined-up outside restaurants, to interacting with what seemed like an incredibly hierarchical and sexist society, where age and gender do matter, to my strict mealtimes and curfews in ryokans (traditional inns), to being told not to dance in a bar – there seems to be an unending list of ‘do-nots’ here.
“It has all the ideal hallmarks – over a millennium of civilisation, timeless, modern, serene, sophisticated, it’s a city that’s ultimately spiritual, but incredibly human.”
I’ve never actually experienced a culture where rules and regulations are so revered. Sure, England may come close, but your average Brit would be in awe of how Kyoto-ites conduct themselves. And this comes from the top down – the municipal tourist board has issued a set of rules (and they’re called rules, not guidelines) on how best to behave as a tourist. It starts with the line “Kyoto-ites are fastidious,” and goes on to explain the word Akimahen, meaning ‘do not’ in the Kyoto dialect – followed by a list of rules and regulations in infographic format. These include refraining from taking selfies and subsequently the use of selfie-sticks, ensuring you say ‘thank you’ as often as possible, not grabbing Maiko by their sleeves, and being quiet in sacred complexes. All basic manners you may think, but clearly there are groups of tourists who don’t comply and the rules require reinforcement – sadly, we all know who they are.