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KYOTO: The Ultimate Japanese Experience : A City For All Seasons : Celebrating the Times of the Year in Japan's Capital of Tradition

January 23, 1994|AMANDA MAYER STINCHECUM | Stinchecum is a New York-based free-lance writer who specializes in Asia. and

KYOTO, Japan — There is probably no other culture in which the changing seasons are so sensitively and fully celebrated, both in life and in art, as in that of Japan. The association of a particular place with the beauties of a certain season is described in Japan's earliest poetry, and the customs that grew out of this sensibility are still very much in evidence. Since an excursion to one of these famous scenic spots often requires the better part of a day, eating and drinking have come to be regarded as basic elements of the day's festivities rather than mere concomitants. The food is always something appropriate to the time of year, and often the cuisine itself has become associated with the place.

For 1,100 years, Kyoto was the capital of Japan, the seat of the imperial court and the center of Japan's traditional culture. Although the emperor and the government moved to Tokyo (then called Edo) in the late 19th Century, Kyoto remains the conservator of the arts associated with the court aristocracy as well as of the military and clerical elites that grew up around it. Ironically, perhaps, my favorite places in Kyoto are not embedded in the urban patchwork of post-war concrete boxes, traditional houses and tile-roofed temples and gardens surrounded by mirror-faced high-rises, but in the hills to the east, west and north of the city proper, where snow lies deeper and longer in winter, and cool air hangs in river gorges and in wooded shade in summer.

By mid-April the cherry blossoms have scattered elsewhere in Tokyo and Kyoto, but at the temple of Ninnaji, between the city center and the Takao area to the northwest, the famous Omuro cherries, a pale pink grove of more than 200 trees, are in full bloom. The trees branch out directly from their bases in low mounds of earth--as you walk among them you are surrounded by clouds of blossoms rising like pink mist from the ground. The gracious extent of the temple precincts and the 17th-Century garden reflect Ninnaji's long association with the imperial family. For two weeks each year, low wooden platforms covered with straw matting are set up under the cherry trees. From early morning until late in the afternoon people flock to Ninnaji, paying their regular admission fee plus a small surcharge for a day's occupancy of one platform plus a pot of weak tea. Friends old and new, three generations of family members, cozy couples and company parties growing increasingly merry as the day wears on occupy the platforms, spreading their picnics among the cherry trees, often bursting into song inspired by the luminous blossoms and the sustained imbibing of sake.

Stalls on the temple grounds sell warmed sake and snacks, but the customary way to enjoy the outing is to bring a Japanese-style packed lunch ( obento ). Some of the most elegant come from Kyoto's department stores (usually found on the basement level). Packed in individual wooden (or Styrofoam stained to look like wood) boxes, these may include rice formed into a five-lobed cherry blossom shape, prawns and vegetables cooked in broth, fish paste (colored pink and flower shaped), a few pieces of sushi and pickles.

In the dog days of summer, Kyoto steams under hot, hazy skies. The city's denizens while away their leisure hours in icy coffee shops, or sit at home in their special summer crepe underwear, fanning themselves with elegant folding fans in one hand, mopping their streaming brows with small, neatly folded cloths in the other. Against the blazing sun of shadeless streets, parasols of cloth or paper are more than elegant affectations. The fall of night, when the temperature often holds in the 80s (called nettaiya, or "tropical nights," on the weather report) offers little respite. Real relief is found only at the water-cooled elevated edges of the Kyoto basin. Rushing through a green cleft between Mts. Kurama and Kifune, the Kifune River cools the narrow valley. Here in the hills north of the city, knowing Kyotoites cool their feet and enjoy somen, threadlike fine wheat noodles, served over crystal-clear lumps of ice. By the first Sunday in May, the inns and restaurants along the river have built platforms out over the water, just inches above the swirling stream (the better to dangle your feet in the water when no one is looking).

About 20 minutes on foot upstream, the restaurant Shinshin'an straddles the pavement. Sunlight filters through screens of golden reeds, set up to shield guests from sun and stares of passersby. Clear water pours over the rocks, cooling the air and inviting dipping of exposed parts.

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