Why The Best Views in Kyoto are the Most Humble Small Buildings
by Ty Billman | TRAVEL
John Einarsen, a resident of Kyoto for over 30 years, has come to know the city like the back of his hand mostly through his daily commutes by bicycle. As part of a photography project spanning more than two years, his focus has been the diminutive, unassuming architecture of the city. Some of these images can now be found in a little book, called Small Buildings of Kyoto — the second volume of which was released in late 2018.
A graphic designer, photographer and founder of Kyoto Journal, John takes advantage of Kyoto’s unique accessibility and focuses in on those sights that can only be enjoyed on a leisurely meander through the city streets. Indeed Kyoto’s inherently walkable nature, with its secluded neighborhoods, hidden temples and traditional shopping streets, is one of the things that make it so attractive to visitors.
“Kyoto is famous for its masterpieces of Japanese architecture, including many listed National Treasures, Important Cultural Properties and World Heritage sites,” John writes, “yet when visitors ask me what to see, I often recommend just walking and cycling aimlessly through Kyoto’s backstreet neighborhoods… it is here that the modest magic of the ordinary reveals itself.”
We asked John to pick out some of his favorite shots from the series, and the stories behind them.
1. The House of the Easy-Going Heart
Naturally, John has witnessed many changes that have taken place in Kyoto over the years. Among these, the decline of traditional machiya wooden townhouses and construction of new high-rises has been particularly evident, especially during the economic bubble leading up to the early 90s. He picks out one image from the book of one such type home that is quickly disappearing from Kyoto’s townscape.
“The inhabitants of this house gave it a name. This is a popular custom in Asia, and mostly pertaining to the dwellings of artists, calligraphers, or so-called hermits. So the plaque above the door here proclaims this abode as ‘Rakushi-an: The House of the Easy-Going Heart.’ One can hardly imagine this tradition continuing from say, within a concrete apartment block.”
2. Kyoto City Gardens
John also admires the use of space in these old neighborhoods. “Like so many houses in Kyoto, this is a typical dwelling using the limited space out front for a simple, uncontrived garden of plants loved and cared for by the owner,” he says. “Kyotoites, and many people across Japan for that matter, are well-adapted to living in small spaces and are incredibly resourceful with it. It is no wonder that this philosophy of living has captured imaginations around the world, with figures like Marie Kondo coming to the forefront of that movement.”
3. Modern Japanese Architecture
He points out another, more contemporary example. “There is no end to the creative use of space in Kyoto, I think. Here, a new small family dwelling makes use of traditional Japanese design elements but still retains a cozy, contemporary feel.”
4. Kyoto Eclecticism
Kyoto’s urban planning is frequently criticized by conservation groups and ordinary city residents alike; however, John has come to appreciate the very eclectic and sometimes incongruous mix of architecture that can be found here. John is also an instructor of Miksang contemplative photography, and this has greatly informed his approach to shooting these buildings. “The idea behind Miksang is to bypass your impulse to qualify or judge a subject. This in the long run helps you attain a real richness in perception,” he insists. He points out the square facade of what was presumably a small business, the kanji on its signboard long since worn away, “Just look at the textures and lines of this one!”
Besides photography, there are plenty of workshops and cultural activities that you can take part in while in Kyoto. Find out more about these 10 Activities for Your Kyoto Itinerary!
5. Taking a Break from the Gion Festival
John next turns to a photo of a figure clad in traditional garb taking refuge in front of a single electric fan, against the backdrop of a rather plain home. “This was taken during the Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s largest festival, which takes place in the heat and humidity of mid-July,” John explains. Gion Matsuri sees a wealth of treasures on display, from portable golden shrines to floats adorned with sumptuous tapestries and precious painted folding screens. “Just a block away there were throngs of people strolling the neighborhood. This festival participant is just taking a break away from all of that and the elaborate festivities, perhaps sending out some photos from his computer. It’s a quiet moment, and the humility of the setting complements it.”
To enjoy the treasures, or the quiet moments, of Gion yourself, check out these 9 Must See Highlights of the Geisha District.
6. Kissaten Coffee Shops
Looking back through his photos, shot entirely on iPhone, John found that he had great variety of particularities and fusion of styles that perhaps cannot be found elsewhere.
“Among the more quirky, avant-garde buildings you find in Kyoto are the Showa-era kissaten coffee shops and barbers in particular. Take this one: In the 1980s and 90s a boom for country-style handmade houses and furniture took place in Japan, largely fueled by the popular lifestyle magazine Woody Life. This coffeeshop I came across in Arashiyama obviously dates from that era.”
7. Nashville, Kyoto
Another example John shows us is Nashville, established in the late 60s. Quirky it may be, the coffeeshop is also a time capsule of music culture in Kyoto: one of three famous country & western coffeehouses in the city that offered live music. “Instead of the Starbucks and Tully’s coffeeshops you see today, Kyoto was famous for its music kissaten culture of the 70s and 80s. Independently-run coffee shops specialized in jazz, rock, R&B, classical music, and punk. Today, you can even visit Ringo, a tiny place that plays only Beatles music all day every day.”
For some more suggestions for quirky coffee shops and irresistible restaurants, take a look at these Top 5 Things to Do in Downtown Kyoto.
Is Kyoto at risk of losing all that that makes it unique? Well, thankfully, there are those who recognize the value of its architecture as cultural capital, renovating them into attractive and comfortable cafés, restaurants and guesthouses. “Old buildings are being renovated all the time. Here is one in Higashiyama that is ready to open as a new guest house. The great influx of tourists in recent years has resulted in all kinds of new accommodations throughout the city, some more tasteful than others.”
9. Natural Beauty
We ask John to pick out one last favorite of his from the series, that encapsulates his love of the city.
“The Kyoto basin is laced with rivers and smaller streams. Here, the Shirakawa (white river, so named for the gravel of white granite it brings down from the mountains) winds its way through a neighborhood in Higashiyama. These rivers are places for strolls and playgrounds for children. Kyoto may not be what it once was, but marvelous natural beauty can be found here and there if you look for it.”