It is a bit of a cliche to say that Kyoto is the cultural mecca of Japan; every advertisement beckoning tourists (both domestic and international) there will tell you that, with the most stereotypically traditional landscapes and images of temples and shrines. And yet, stereotypes exist because there is a kernel of truth to them, don't they?
In my case, my love for the cultural riches of Kyoto comes from the 10 months I was able to spend there 10 years ago when I was doing my dissertation research. In one of my other lives, I am a specialist of Japanese Protestant Christianity (this is, actually, a thing! Read my book to learn more! ahahahaha...) and Kyoto is home to the best archives on the topic. Since I grew up on the outskirts of Tokyo, living in Kyoto was quite an experience. Anyone who believes Japan is homogenous and uniform fails to appreciate the incredible cutural divides that exist between Tokyo and the Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe area (they even run on different electricity voltage). I had visited Kyoto numerous times as a tourist, but living there was a whole different experience.
Research is an inherently lonely pursuit, so there were times I was lonely and isolated, and didn't exactly love what I was doing. But Kyoto is also the place I lived longest in Japan as an adult. It is the city I know the way I know LA. Tokyo is still the big city nearby when I was a kid--I know the trains like the back of my hand, but I'll get lost the second I start walking around. But I know Kyoto, have favorite restaurants and cafes, and most importantly, favorite shops that sell the most exquisite and beautiful little bags and purses inspired by traditional Japanese textiles and design.
Kyoto is also a very stylish and "modern" city--it has the greatest number of European-style bakeries per capita in the country, and because it is a university town, it is also home to student activism and generally youthful energy. My favorite spot in the whole city is Kamo River, which runs north-south at the eastern edge of the old city boundaries (which, any good Kyoto person will tell you, is the real city boundary, new boundaries be damned!). It is memorialized in numerous poems and epic tales. And still, it is teeming with energy and activity. I've seen old men net-fish in it, university activists pound on bongo drums at night next to it, and young couples cuddle at its edge.
I just spent 4 days in Kyoto for a mini-vacation and to search out new ideas. I visited flea markets held at two different shrines and walked all over going in and out of shops. I also had to fight tides of annoying tourists. This is one of the drawbacks of loving Kyoto: so many others do as well.
I have a bag full of kimono fabric scraps to inspire new creations, and am working on a hat pattern based on the cute little purple and white umbrella (pictured above) that I fell in love with. I also visited with scholars I got to know in my time there, since that is not a past life but a parallel life to what I am mostly doing now. I feel reenergized and excited about the things I will make next. As much as the idea that Kyoto is the heart of Japan is an annoying and commercially constructed cliche, it is still true. No matter where else in Japan I go, I keep finding myself making time to go back to my second home in Japan.