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Seeking Peace on the Philsopopher's Path in Kyoto

The famous path may be the city's last bastion of calm. But can it last?

Temple rooftops, Philosopher’s Path

Temple rooftops seen from the Philosopher’s Path.

There’s a quintessential Japanese-ness to walking the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, that unique intermingling of the sublime, the cute and the occasionally lewd. On this hazy afternoon, the boughs of cherry trees arch gracefully over the banks of a moss-draped canal, as though they were reaching for a sup of its waters. A stone torii off to the right leads to a Shinto shrine that honours a lowly field mouse for once having saved the life of a hero from Japanese mythology. Further along there’s the burial tomb of the teenage emperor Reizei, from the 10th century, who once illustrated a letter to his father with a giant penis.

Beginning at the temple complex of Eikan-do, the path largely traces the course of that canal as it roves past a circuit of shrines and Buddhist temples set back amid the forested hillsides of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, before ending at Ginkaku-ji in the north. Its name commemorates the early-20th-century philosopher Kitaro Nishida, who strolled this way daily – alone and invariably fixing on some problem – while he was a professor at Kyoto University.

Otoyo-jinja entrance; Nanzen-ji Temple

Left to right: Sign marking the entrance to Otoyo-jinja, a Shinto shrine guarded by a pair of mice; underneath the aqueduct at Nanzen-ji Temple, near to the start of the path.

Until his death in 1945, Nishida was Japan’s most influential philosopher, best known for his attempts to synthesize various strands of Western thought (Immanuel Kant, Henri Bergson, Edmond Husserl) with Zen teachings. I could never make much sense of Nishida’s writings, which he admitted could be painfully obscure. But I used to come here often, 20 years ago, back when I taught English in nearby Osaka and fancied myself something of a fledgling Buddhist.

Nowadays I’m more of a half-assed, faltering Buddhist, which quickly becomes clear when I revisited the trail recently. Take the ease with which, while studying the sand mounds at Honen-in Temple – artfully raked according to a different pattern every couple of weeks – my monkey mind is distracted when my phone starts pinging out a profusion of Donald Trump-related news alerts. So much for the sand mounds, which are meant to “purify” one’s thoughts.

Canal sketch artist; lighting incense at Nanzen-ji

Left to right: A sketch artist at work beside the canal; lighting incense at Nanzen-ji, one of Kyoto’s most important Zen Buddhist temples.

If you wanted to sit out the end of the world and watch things immolate from afar, Kyoto should rank in the top 10 places to do so. Meditating before a rock garden, say, or on one of the raised drinking terraces overlooking the Kamo River, or, were you a Japanese man, in the geisha district of Gion. Here, refined melancholy is the native aesthetic. It’s enshrined in the notion of mono no aware – roughly, an acknowledgement of the transience, pathos or ahh-ness of things – a sensibility distilled through the work of Kyoto’s artisans across the centuries.

Bicycle parking at Nanzen-ji temple

Bicycle parking at Nanzen-ji temple.

History has provided its own feedback loop. Many of Kyoto’s temples were destroyed – by fire, by natural disaster, by war – and rebuilt more than once. For more than a thousand years, the city enjoyed pre-eminence as Japan’s capital, until, in 1868, the Emperor moved his residence to Tokyo. Modernity would only pour on the pathos. In Yasunari Kawabata’s novel The Old Capital, published in 1962, the Nobel Prize winner dramatized how the rapid changes of postwar Japan threatened to undo the livelihoods of the traditional artists and performers who embodied Kyoto’s soul. Three decades later, Alex Kerr, an American expat in Japan, called Kyoto “an endangered species” in his book Lost Japan, lamenting how the city’s centuries-old way of life was “nearing its last gasp as modern development sweeps over it.”

Philosopher’s Path sign; Nanzen-ji forest garden

Left to right: Wayfinding along the Philosopher’s Path; a forest garden behind a sub-temple at Nanzen-ji.

If irrelevance once threatened the capital, now it’s arguably the opposite: too much interest. The number of visitors reached a high of 56.8 million in 2015, with much of the growth coming from newly affluent Asian vacationers on package tours. The spectacular Kiyomizu-dera, a massive temple built without a single nail, is so choked with people, it better resembles a theme park. Same goes with the famous gardens at Ginkaku-ji: There, things have gotten so out of hand that signs not only forbid the use of tripods and selfie sticks, but drones as well.

Outside of cherry-blossom season, following in Nishida’s footsteps is a happy respite from the hurly-burly of Kyoto’s popularity. The area around the path has changed only modestly since the professor’s walking days, except for the quiet cafés, craft shops and galleries now dotting the route, and some of the more wildly conceived modern mansions that have gone up nearby.

Meditating cat; Kyoto’s mayor Daisaku Kadokawa

Left to right: Cats meditate too; Kyoto’s mayor Daisaku Kadokawa, taking in preparations for the Gion Matsuri festival.

And what might today’s traveller philosophize about while walking the path? You might recall riffs from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. (“It’s a Mr. Death... He’s come about the reaping.”) Or you could take a cue from Nishida himself. A memorial stone set in a grassy plot beside the canal is inscribed with one of his waka poems: “People are people / And I will be myself. / Regardless, / the path I follow / I will follow on…”

Nishida wrote these words in 1934, as right-wing nationalists were consolidating their hold on Japan. Critical of the nationalists’ militarism and xenophobic propaganda, Nishida was targeted for being insufficiently patriotic – his engagement with Western philosophy viewed with suspicion. While the poem may seem a bit plain, it expresses, albeit gently, Nishida’s resistance and his belief that the violent emotions of the day would eventually pass.

As I’m standing at the waka stone, my phone pings twice more. Trump again.

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