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Wednesday, March 3, 1999

ON THE archipela-GO

Look to the source in 'City of Flowers'


Ever since Kyoto was founded by the Emperor Kanmu in 794, its temples, garden sanctuaries, artisan quarters, elegant back streets and superb inns and shops have lent credence to the city's nickname, "Hana no Miyako," the City of Flowers.

Every flower needs a ready source of water to thrive, a commodity which Kyoto, fortunately, has in plenty. If the history of the Arabs has been influenced by the absence of water, Japan's culture has been shaped by its abundance. Kyoto, with its rivers, commercial canals, irrigation channels, artesian wells and garden ponds, is perhaps the most aquatic of Japan's inland cities, though in such a discreet and seductive way that you would hardly notice.

The site, surrounded by mountains at the northern extremity of a fault basin, was chosen in 793 not only for its conformity to Chinese principals of geomancy, but for its ready supply of water from the Katsura and Kamogawa rivers. Indeed, one of the few traces of cultural geography to have survived from the time of the Emperor Kanmu is a large pond, originally part of the Shinsen-en, or "divine spring garden."

Fire, Kyoto's greatest enemy, has devastated the city on countless occasions throughout the centuries and would doubtless have destroyed everything but for the city's access to water. Fires often feature as the subject of Japanese woodblock prints, and firemen dashing with buckets of water scooped out of the Kamo River are depicted both in popular prints and kabuki plays as folk heroes.

Downtown Kyoto still has hundreds of narrow lanes flanked by wooden houses which, in an emergency, are attended by firemen with specially designed miniature fire-fighting equipment.

At one time there were thousands of wells in Kyoto. Some private houses, if they are old enough, still have them, and you may be lucky enough to be offered a long, cool glass from one during the humid summer.

Glasses of water are often placed along with rice cakes and other delectables, in front of the stone figure of the bodhisattva Jizo found at roadsides or corners. Fountains at the gates of Shinto shrines, strips of dyed textiles fastened in the current of the Kamogawa, inundated rice fields in the suburbs of the city are constant reminders of the importance of water in the lives of Kyoto residents.

The spiritual and aesthetic side to water is evident in the use of spring water for the tea ceremony. If you get up early on a cold winter morning and climb to some of the waterfalls located beneath the eastern hills, you are likely to find Zen devotees taking lustrating showers called misogi in the first light of dawn.

Kyoto residents seem to take their more conventional baths and water dousings with a sensuous relish that outdoes even the normal Japanese passion for such things. Once more back in fashion, old bathhouses are being renovated back to their original style, as old cinemas and churches have been in the West. Whirlpools, electric baths, cold plunges and mineral baths are the norm. From Yase no Kamaburo hot spring, with its traditional steam baths built inside circular clay ovens, to the humblest home tub, Kyoto offers almost every variation.

Kyoto's carefully contrived gardens, rippling streams and gurgling brooks are artfully blended with iris banks and moss-covered rocks that yield just the right amount of moisture to sustain the gardens verdant appearance. Kyoto's master gardeners are said to have 26 different words at their disposal to define the movement and flow of water.

Even Zen gardens like the one at the Ryoan-ji Temple, composed of the driest elements (sand, rock and gravel) turn out to be conceptual representations of the sea lapping around mountainous islands and rugged outcroppings. These "gardens of nothingness" overflow with evocations of water and liquidity.

A devotion to the ritual significance of water can be seen most days at Kiyomizu Temple where pilgrims queue patiently to take their turn scooping cupfuls of pure water from Otawa Falls, a sacred fountain gushing from the hillside. Even the humblest shrines have their stone basins for water ablutions, and even in the metropolitan hub of downtown Kyoto, you can still find religious sites such as Rokkakudo Temple, where the water bubbles up from springs that pass under the arches of a new skyscraper, a typical Kyoto anomaly.

Traces of Kyoto's aquatic past can be seen in sections of waterway that once formed part of a southern city port that carried flat-bottomed boats along the Yodogawa River to Osaka. As metropolitan Kyoto began to grow during the 19th century the demand for water increased. Canals were dug under the mountains and water transported from Lake Biwa to the city center.

Part of the network that existed prior to this engineering feat still skirts the geisha quarter of Pontocho. Women once passed along these stone quays soliciting business from passing boatmen, a practice that gave birth to the expression "the water trade," a term still widely used to suggest a world of forbidden sensuality bordering but never quite conforming to the Western notion of prostitution. Today, Japan's mizu shobai still implies a world of illicit delight.

Take any stroll through Kyoto and you are rarely beyond the presence of water. Whether it is the mundane functioning of a gurgling culvert or a rainbow bridge over a carp pond, water continues to be one of the main leitmotifs defining the character of the Imperial city, and one that visitors are always grateful for.

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