Serene and contemplative, Kyoto is the heart of Japanese Buddhism, the site of hundreds of Shinto shrines, and an irrepressible fountainhead of art and artisanship. In fact, it's Japan's Athens of old. For more than a thousand years, from A.D. 794 to 1868, Kyoto was the imperial seat of government. It was called Heian-kyo, the ``capital of peace and tranquility.'' Living up to its name centuries later, it came through World War II unscathed.
Though no longer the capital, Kyoto still reflects the peculiar aura that surrounded the throne from time immemorial.
Exploring the city's noble buildings and forested slopes can keep a visitor busy for a week.
A good place to start a pilgrimage of the numerous historical monuments is the Old Imperial Palace, which dates from 1855. Though the imperial family has not been at home here for more than a hundred years, visitors must apply for a pass at the Kyoto office of the Imperial Household Agency, half an hour before the start of the twice-daily tours. Even so, formalities demand less today of the tourist than they did only 50 years ago, when men were required to be ``suitably attired'' in morning coats before entering.
The Katsura Villa, built by a prince in the 17th century on the river of the same name, and the Shugaku-in Villa, created for the former Emperor Gomizuno-o in 1629, may be visited only with permission from the same agency. The Japanese themselves often wait for as long as three months for passes.
Nijo Castle, built in 1603 was used by the first Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu during his sojourns in Kyoto. Guarded by moats and turreted walls, the castle's Ninomaru Palace is really five edifices linked by corridors.
The great hall in the first building, where the Shogun sat in Olympian detachment during formal audiences, high above the feudal noblemen, as well as the muted elegance of the Shogun's personal suite in the fifth building say much about the warrior-aristocrats who held the powers of state in their hands from the late 12th to the 19th centuries.
Confronted by Kyoto's 1,500 Buddhist temples, more than 200 Shinto shrines, and some 60 gardens, travelers with less than a week to spend exploring the city will have to be selective.
A visit to the Sanjusangen-do Temple, the ``Hall of Thirty-Three Spaces,'' exposes one to almost as many Buddhist images of Kannon as might otherwise be seen in a lifetime. The single large wooden carving of the Thousand-Handed Kannon is the central feature of the temple, accompanied by a thousand lesser figures representing the Buddhist incarnation of Pity.
This writer first stepped ashore in Japan as a child, long ago when enchantment for him was as simple a thing as the music of a flute heard through falling snow in a quiet village street.
Nostalgically, I headed back in search of that Japan and found it again here in Kyoto -- first on Higashiyama Street or ``Teapot Lane,'' leading to the Kiyomizu Temple, and then later as I followed groups of ebullient students and pilgrims clad in the sober-hued kimonos to the temples. Their structures, especially that of the Main Hall, seemed to rise out of forest, rock, water, and earth. They are the elemental stuff of Japan's primordial religion that is older than Buddhism, older even than Shinto.
Nothing could be more Japanese than the yearly Festival of the Ages, the Jidai Matsuri, held on Oct. 22 at the Heian Shrine. More than 2,000 people in historical dress take part, evoking some of the splendor and high drama of Kyoto's past, as they move in magnificent procession from the Old Imperial Palace to the Heian Shrine.
At least 11 other festivals brighten the days and nights of Kyoto during the year. Besides the Jidai Matsuri, the most important are the Aoi Matsuri, the Hollyhock Festival (May 15) at the Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines, and the Gion Matsuri of the Yasaka Shrine (July 16-17), begun in the 9th century as an appeal to the gods to save Kyoto from a pestilence and celebrated with a march of palanquin-borne images and towering shrine-cars.
On the night of Aug. 16, an enormous dai, the character for ``big'' or ``great,'' [see ideograms at left] blazes from the heights of Mount Nyoigadake. The people of Kyoto watch the bonfire from their roofs or the banks of the Kamo River. It is the Daimonji-Okuribi or Daimonji Bonfire, Kyoto's grand climax to the Bon Festival, the festival of souls, or of lanterns.