Garden designer Marc Keane is known for his lucid writing about Japanese nature and culture. He lived for 18 years in Kyoto, working first as a research fellow at Kyoto University and later as a landscape architect with his own design office in downtown Kyoto. He taught at the Kyoto University of Arts and Design, and is presently a fellow at Cornell University’s East Asia Program, Columbia University’s Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies, and the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art, Kyoto. He has written a total of seven books, the latest being Moss: Stories from the Edge of Nature. (See Marc Keane’s website)
The following extracts are taken with permission from a longer piece called Kyoto Waters in the Kyoto Journal No. 47.
Imagine this. You’re standing barefoot on moss in a warm summer rain that falls so gently it can hardly be felt. You cup your hands together in front of your chest, letting small drops gather lightly within them. The water beads and runs down the crevices between your fingers, through the creases in your palms, flows out at the hollow between your wrists, into the air and gone. That… is Kyoto.
The city of Kyoto lies between low mountains which rise on three sides like cupped palms forming a broad, flat plain open only to the south. When it rains (and rain is a frequent and welcome visitor here) the hills receive what they can and send the rest burbling down to the flatland in countless narrow brooks that flow through dapple-lit forests and acres of grass bamboo, tracing the mossy inner folds of granite mountains, falling in quick, light cascades until they reach level ground. Once on the plain, the waters gather in broad rivers — the Katsura and Kamo — which join at the south of the city and from there, doubled in strength, flow on to Osaka and out to sea. Today, urban Kyoto fills that wide plain, but long before the city was built, before even the earliest settlers hacked clearings in the brush along rivers far wilder than they are today, the rain was here, bathing and feeding the land; gentling it in spring, thrashing it relentlessly through summer, shrouding it in chill mists as autumn hills flame then mute to winter, awakening it again in spring, washing away winter’s white mantle, clearing from the land the remains of a year.
Millennia pass; a party of horse-borne men comes riding into the valley from the southwest. Although hunting, they aren’t hunters; they’re nobles and, as such, are trained in the Chinese arts: music, calligraphy, poetry, and, most importantly for that fateful day, the geomantic sciences. They have ridden out of the capital on the western edge of the plain, a vast construction project that has enabled the emperor to escape the clutches of the great Buddhist temples of Heijo-kyo, the previous capital. The new city is only a few years old, yet all is not well there and ill omens shadow the imperial family. The recommended remedy is to build yet another city and by chance, these nobles out hunting happen on the perfect spot; a broad plain clearly governed by Four Guardian Gods. Not the local spirits that the tattooed clan prayed to in the forest by the ancient cedar but, instead, iconic symbols of Chinese origin, geomantic presences perceived in the landscape: a river in the east defining the Blue Dragon; a pond in the south marking the Scarlet Bird, and so on for the four cardinal directions. These fortuitous attributes prompt the removal of the capital to the center of the plain, and so is founded Heian-kyo, the Capital of Peace and Tranquility.
The plan of the new city is based on Chang’an, the capital of the Chinese T’ang dynasty; a perfect rectangle subdivided into a grid of streets of various widths, from broad avenues to narrow alleys. To impose that idealized form on the natural lay of the land means reworking the landscape itself (building a city of 6,000 acres in a year is no small accomplishment) and what cannot be carried over from the old capital is taken anew from the surrounding land. By the time they are done, very little of the natural environment in the entire region is left untouched. Meadows are cleared, copses felled and burned, rivers straightened and guided into stone-lined channels, the whole surveyed and leveled until, in the end, geometric order has been embossed onto the wild, as strange and wonderful as a microchip glinting on a bed of moss.
One day during the construction, a team of men, a handful among a hundred thousand, heads into the remaining forest in search of a tree to use as a column in the Hall of State. A short climb into the hills, by a small waterfall that slips quietly from the shadows, they find a tree of the required girth and settle into their work. The dull impacts of metal on wood reverberate through the dwindling grove. The tree shudders and creaks; encouraged, the men lean deeper into their axes. A bead of sweat is flung from a sun-blackened arm, arcs high and lands on bare earth in the trampled forest, acrid with the scent of crushed ferns. And it, too, remains.
Watered by many sources, Kyoto grew in this way; a drop here, a drop there. Softened and greened by warm rains from the south; sanctified by a devotion to mysterial spirits abiding in all aspects of nature, in grasses, trees, stones, and waterfalls; modified by the sweat and toil of those who reshaped the land, embossed it with grids, terraced, drained and watered it simultaneously; cultivated by religions and cultures that found new homes far from their origins, honoring the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, and the Taoists.
Twelve thousand years have passed since the end of the last Ice Age and in that time this land has been shaped by nature and human society as radically as by the glaciers that came before. Each modulation affected the next, adding layers to the whole, like a stack of woodblock prints laid one upon another, freshly pressed and wet, their images dissolving into one another, retaining a semblance of themselves while also taking on the color of what comes before and after. You can ramble Kyoto, pry into her soul, cut cross-sections by foot across the plain and try to vivisect the past, to peel apart the layers — but the task of extraction is hopeless. Having lain so long together, the layers are now inseparable, and marked indelibly upon each other — a Shinto mystery lays enshrined within a geomantic symbol; aristocratic fashion styles feudal architecture; gardens abstract nature into singular thoughts.
Now, in the 21st century, there is almost nothing left here that could be called wild… There is little wild, yet nature abounds, especially on the fringes. It is not wild nature, however, free of human intervention, but rather nature modulated; a tempered thing like a bird’s nest or a coral reef, things we think of as being natural despite their having been built. There is little left that is wild but the beauty of Kyoto is not the beauty of wilderness; of bright Himalayan majesty or the mystery of dark Amazonian forests. Neither, though, is Kyoto’s beauty entirely that of human creation. The beauty of Kyoto does not originate exclusively from strict control or from wilderness but rather exists in those places where the two meld gracefully; where works of the human hand overlay and interpenetrate the natural world but do not replace it. The heart of modern Kyoto, unlike its fringes, has largely lost its beauty because this has been forgotten and it now stands divorced from nature; an unbroken expanse of concrete boxes and tangled powerlines.
But on the edges, nature washes into Kyoto like a spring tide filling gaps between boulders on a shore; forested hills flow like those waters around temple halls; into shrine precincts where they pool and thrive. And at times (though less and less common these days) fragments of nature even find their way into the city center in the form of tiny courtyard gardens within urban townhouses, existing there not whole, but suggestively, like an anecdote from an epic tale.