Kyoto Waters

Marc P. Keane

[I]magine this. You’re standing barefoot on moss in a warm summer rain that falls so gently it can hardly be felt. You cup your hands together in front of your chest, letting small drops gather lightly within them. The water beads and runs down the crevices between your fingers, through the creases in your palms, flows out at the hollow between your wrists, into the air and gone. That… is Kyoto.

The city of Kyoto lies between low mountains which rise on three sides like cupped palms forming a broad, flat plain open only to the south. When it rains (and rain is a frequent and welcome visitor here) the hills receive what they can and send the rest burbling down to the flatland in countless narrow brooks that flow through dapple-lit forests and acres of grass bamboo, tracing the mossy inner folds of granite mountains, falling in quick, light cascades until they reach level ground. Once on the plain, the waters gather in broad rivers β€” the Katsura and Kamo β€” which join at the south of the city and from there, doubled in strength, flow on to Osaka and out to sea. Today, urban Kyoto fills that wide plain, but long before the city was built, before even the earliest settlers hacked clearings in the brush along rivers far wilder than they are today, the rain was here, bathing and feeding the land; gentling it in spring, thrashing it relentlessly through summer, shrouding it in chill mists as autumn hills flame then mute to winter, awakening it again in spring, washing away winter’s white mantle, clearing from the land the remains of a year.

That then is how it begins; with a hollow in the landscape, receptive, like cupped hands, and with a constant moisture that softens the rock. In the centuries that follow the last Ice Age, the surrounding hills, once scraped clean by glaciers, are urged by warm southerly rains to quicken and stir. Their gentle curves become carpeted anew; dotted white and pink in spring by wild magnolias and mountain cherries, splashed with ochre and vermilion in autumn, and consumed throughout the year in the luxuriant shade of massive evergreens β€” camphors, live oaks, and cedars.

On a forested hillside, just above the plain, an ancient cedar stands near a narrow waterfall that flows through thick stands of ferns from the forest depths into a deep, clear pool. The cedar’s gnarled roots spread widely, its russet-barked trunk, thick and straight, rises a hundred feet above the ground before the first branch appears. There, high amid the intricacy of the cedar’s twigs and leaves, trailing mists condense and cling to the tree like dew in spiderwebs. Drops begin to gather. At the tip of a pendulous leaf, one drop swells and stretches downward in an expanding bell-curve that catches light from the sky. Weighted beyond its limit, it snaps from the leaf, twinkling, and arcs to the pool below. The sound of that drop joining the waiting surface of the pool β€” not a splash but a resonant note, like a bell struck β€” reverberates through the forest, and remains.

In time, people gather to live on the plain, in hamlets by the streams, along the edges of forests redolent with camphor and cedar, and they begin to shape the land; damming rivers, leveling meadows, filling them with water to grow rice. They hunt game in tall-grass meadows, gather wood and fern-heads among the trees of the forest, and in its shadows, at the foot of a thick-trunked cedar by a waterfall, they pray to the forest spirits. They believe in spirit-points, places in nature at which their gods gather: unusual boulders, ancient trees, and waterfalls where life-giving water springs forth from the deep forest. They go to those places to entreat the spirits, to entice from them their blessings, bringing with them gifts of supplication, things they hold to be most precious: salt traded from the ocean-clans, freshly killed game, and sake β€” the nectar of the gods, the elixir that flushes them with new strength. There is no shrine building, not even a crude one, just a flat-topped rock they have dragged into place and use to set their offerings on. Approaching with gifts on a cold day, soon after the year’s sake has been made, an elder of the clan lays an offering of fresh game, a tawny rabbit; a sturdy woman presses a handful of salt tightly into a pile next to it; and their eldest son, tanned and sinewy, sets down a rough earthenware cup filled with sake. As his tattooed arms reach out to put the cup by the other offerings, the sake splashes and a single milky drop, viscous and sweet, falls to the ground and sinks silently into the moss. It too, remains.



Millennia pass; a party of horse-borne men comes riding into the valley from the southwest. Although hunting, they aren’t hunters; they’re nobles and, as such, are trained in the Chinese arts: music, calligraphy, poetry, and, most importantly for that fateful day, the geomantic sciences. They have ridden out of the capital on the western edge of the plain, a vast construction project that has enabled the emperor to escape the clutches of the great Buddhist temples of Heijo-kyo, the previous capital. The new city is only a few years old, yet all is not well there and ill omens shadow the imperial family. The recommended remedy is to build yet another city and by chance, these nobles out hunting happen on the perfect spot; a broad plain clearly governed by Four Guardian Gods. Not the local spirits that the tattooed clan prayed to in the forest by the ancient cedar but, instead, iconic symbols of Chinese origin, geomantic presences perceived in the landscape: a river in the east defining the Blue Dragon; a pond in the south marking the Scarlet Bird, and so on for the four cardinal directions. These fortuitous attributes prompt the removal of the capital to the center of the plain, and so is founded Heian-kyo, the Capital of Peace and Tranquility.

The plan of the new city is based on Chang’an, the capital of the Chinese T’ang dynasty; a perfect rectangle subdivided into a grid of streets of various widths, from broad avenues to narrow alleys. To impose that idealized form on the natural lay of the land means reworking the landscape itself (building a city of 6,000 acres in a year is no small accomplishment) and what cannot be carried over from the old capital is taken anew from the surrounding land. By the time they are done, very little of the natural environment in the entire region is left untouched. Meadows are cleared, copses felled and burned, rivers straightened and guided into stone-lined channels, the whole surveyed and leveled until, in the end, geometric order has been embossed onto the wild, as strange and wonderful as a microchip glinting on a bed of moss.

One day during the construction, a team of men, a handful among a hundred thousand, heads into the remaining forest in search of a tree to use as a column in the Hall of State. A short climb into the hills, by a small waterfall that slips quietly from the shadows, they find a tree of the required girth and settle into their work. The dull impacts of metal on wood reverberate through the dwindling grove. The tree shudders and creaks; encouraged, the men lean deeper into their axes. A bead of sweat is flung from a sun-blackened arm, arcs high and lands on bare earth in the trampled forest, acrid with the scent of crushed ferns. And it, too, remains.


Centuries pass; the aristocratic rulers are replaced by the military class as the dominant force in society. The city of Heian-kyo has become known as Kyoto and has burst its original borders, the classic rectangular plan remaining as a central core even as the city spreads more organically toward the hills. The surrounding forests, having been clear-cut, are lighter than before; regrown with different species β€” pine, elms, and scrub oak β€” that lack the darkness of the forest they replaced. Buddhist temples, initially eschewed from the capital precincts, are first to set up outside the confines of the city, on the flat land along its eastern borders, and they are also among the first to make footholds in the hills.

Whereas the plans of temples built on flat land within the city are formal, rectangular, and symmetrical (in the ancient, Chinese style), the mountain temples ease themselves more comfortably into their surroundings. The main gate of one, for instance, does not lead directly to its main hall, but to a set of stone stairs climbing obliquely to the side. The stairs, in turn, arrive at a small courtyard of irregular shape which fronts a wooden hall that has been built askew to the whole. Each part β€” gate, stairs, and hall β€” is precisely and formally constructed, but the arrangement of the whole developed according to a different animus, more like that of a branch seeking light, or a brook following a path determined not by itself but by the folds of the landscape it traverses.

Behind that mountain temple, a monk cleans the garden; neatly clips bushes that close tightly around a waterfall spilling out of the trees to a languid pond; sweeps fallen leaves from the walled courtyards between the halls; weeds the beds of moss; sprinkles water where needed. To the side of the entry path is a large water basin carved from a single block of granite, in the shape of lotus seed-pods β€” one pod facing up, atop another facing down. Water wells up from within, overflowing in thin lines from eight indentations at even intervals around the upper rim; part of the floral pattern. The water is used by pilgrims to wash their hands before entering the inner precincts. Noticing that it is dripping too close to the laver to be useful, the priest places a camellia leaf in one indentation, tip pointing in, stem out, to guide the flowing water to his waiting hands. As he walks back to the temple, a few drops gather along his palm, slip to the tips of his fingers and down to the stone path. Feeling them he pauses, smiling inwardly at the unity and completion he senses. And that also remains.

Watered by many sources, Kyoto grew in this way; a drop here, a drop there. Softened and greened by warm rains from the south; sanctified by a devotion to mysterial spirits abiding in all aspects of nature, in grasses, trees, stones, and waterfalls; modified by the sweat and toil of those who reshaped the land, embossed it with grids, terraced, drained and watered it simultaneously; cultivated by religions and cultures that found new homes far from their origins, honoring the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, and the Taoists.

Twelve thousand years have passed since the end of the last Ice Age and in that time this land has been shaped by nature and human society as radically as by the glaciers that came before. Each modulation affected the next, adding layers to the whole, like a stack of woodblock prints laid one upon another, freshly pressed and wet, their images dissolving into one another, retaining a semblance of themselves while also taking on the color of what comes before and after. You can ramble Kyoto, pry into her soul, cut cross-sections by foot across the plain and try to vivisect the past, to peel apart the layers β€” but the task of extraction is hopeless. Having lain so long together, the layers are now inseparable, and marked indelibly upon each other β€” a Shinto mystery lays enshrined within a geomantic symbol; aristocratic fashion styles feudal architecture; gardens abstract nature into singular thoughts.

Now, in the 21st century, there is almost nothing left here that could be called wild. The hills that surround the city are either covered with tree plantations or with second-stage forests which filled into the voids left by clear-cuts. The rivers are channelized for the most part and have been for millennia. Even before Emperor Kammu decided to settle his new capital here, the Kamo clan (and others) were sending water where it was needed through an elaborate network of hand-dug channels. Shimogamo-jinja, the famous shrine at the confluence of the Takano and Kamo rivers, where prayers are made to the goddess of the waters, is now one of Kyoto’s Imperial shrines, but it was the Kamo clan’s shrine long before the capital was built, when they were the water-kings, shaping and allotting its usage. In the south, the greatest change to the landscape has been the filling in of Ogura-ike, the large, shallow lake that once spread before the city. Most of Kyoto’s heavy industry, and the houses of the workers who power them, can now be found there. Wherever you go, throughout this place, the changes are ubiquitous.

There is little wild, yet nature abounds, especially on the fringes. It is not wild nature, however, free of human intervention, but rather nature modulated; a tempered thing like a bird’s nest or a coral reef, things we think of as being natural despite their having been built. There is little left that is wild but the beauty of Kyoto is not the beauty of wilderness; of bright Himalayan majesty or the mystery of dark Amazonian forests. Neither, though, is Kyoto’s beauty entirely that of human creation. The beauty of Kyoto does not originate exclusively from strict control or from wilderness but rather exists in those places where the two meld gracefully; where works of the human hand overlay and interpenetrate the natural world but do not replace it. The heart of modern Kyoto, unlike its fringes, has largely lost its beauty because this has been forgotten and it now stands divorced from nature; an unbroken expanse of concrete boxes and tangled powerlines.

But on the edges, nature washes into Kyoto like a spring tide filling gaps between boulders on a shore; forested hills flow like those waters around temple halls; into shrine precincts where they pool and thrive. And at times (though less and less common these days) fragments of nature even find their way into the city center in the form of tiny courtyard gardens within urban townhouses, existing there not whole, but suggestively, like an anecdote from an epic tale.

Kyoto exists in layers of wildness and control; something built juxtaposed with something natural: one against the other, layered, intertwined, spiraled infinitely around the plain, a kind of DNA of place. Overhanging trees enshroud a straight stone path that leads pilgrims to a shrine; gnarly pines silhouette against the patterned tiles of a temple roof; crisp bamboo fencing defines soft organic planting beds; rough rice straw is bound into sacred knots and ropes; a forest appears wild within a gate.

As nature fills in Kyoto’s gaps, or rather as it is brought in (because where it is, nature has usually been actively introduced), it is affected by the process, imprinted with human culture as it is introduced into its new urban context. In doing so, the vast potentials of wild nature are refined through a process of selection and in that way intensified. The scales run the gamut from macro to micro: tended forest mingling on temple grounds; stone and moss gardens held close within old earthen walls; a single flower placed in a bamboo vase; all abridged editions of wild nature, distillations which heighten, in one way or another, an expression: aesthetic, poetic, or religious.

Conversely (and complementarity), even as human society tempers nature, nature ameliorates the built environment by weathering it, a process that occurs everywhere in the world, but one which is revered as an aesthetic in Kyoto. It has been said that “God is in the details” but for Kyoto, surely “God is in the patina.” Earthen walls erode and reveal their inner layers; wood grain on weathered boards stands so high and clear it looks, on close inspection, like river currents; stone carvings glow dully, their corners softly rounded, mellowed by a hundred winters. And each of these is seen not as tarnished or neglected, but as beautiful. Interestingly, the patina may only be partly due to natural weathering. In part it is also the result of human usage β€” wooden floorboards gleam, polished by the passage of countless feet; the grateful touches of the devout does the same for sculptures in temples and shrines, gardens endlessly tended acquire the peacefulness that only constant care can grant. The circle never ends; culture modulates nature, nature weathers culture, giving and taking, ad infinitum. The result is that in Kyoto what is honored is not a mossy forest but a mossed lantern, not the mountain but the garden rock which symbolizes it. It is the fusion of wildness and control, the melding of nature and culture, which express the finest sentiments of this city.

All of this, the softening rain, the tempering hand, does its work incrementally, a touch at a time β€” no more, no less. We overlook that because it happens subliminally. What we perceive is the gathered mass, the rain but not the drop. And, more than anything, what we sense in Kyoto is the depth of those actions; the movement and the stillness. Culture and nature swirling in circles around each other, touching in places here and there, resisting and submitting in turns, acting out an ancient dance of graceful lovers.

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Marc P. Keane

Author's Bio

Marc P. Keane is the author of Japanese Garden Design (Tuttle). At the time of writing this essay, hs latest book, co-authored with Jiro Takei, was a translation of the ancient gardening classic, the Sakuteiki, published in the summer of 2001. This essay will appear in a book of photographs of Kyoto by John Einarsen, The Forest Within the Gate, now in progress.


Photos by John Einarsen