Richard Steiner has an eye for characteristic Kyoto scenes, as his woodblocks display, but here he turns to a verbal rather than visual medium to explore one of Kyoto’s special hidden secrets – and these pockets of forgotten time truly are hidden.
One would not expect there could be something yet remaining in Kyoto to be discovered and explored. There is. If you walk slowly thru almost any of the larger, older neighborhoods, or those neighborhoods that somehow escaped being cleared away for “mansion” building, you may notice some narrow, covered and often dark alleys between houses or shops. If you turn and enter one, it will lead you to an earlier Kyoto, literally untouched by post-war developments, or tradition-destroying renewal projects. There is a housing law on the city’s books that forbids tearing down to rebuild any building whose access is narrower that about two meters. The owner can remodel or re-roof, but cannot remove.
There is one such treasure in the Demachi district I found about two months ago. The passage goes straight back from Imadegawa, but takes a sharp left turn, than another right turn. You find yourself surrounded by very old, wooden, dilapidated, one-storey houses, plus an early Showa two-storey shop that had been turned into a tiny parking structure facing the main street. Weeds were all that were growing in the open spaces around the houses. Some trees were also growing quietly behind broken fences of gardens overgrown by now dead, potted flower plants and bushes. The place smelt of Taisho. Quiet, very still, totally forgotten, happy to be left alone in the sunshine.
Another discovery was a broken, cemented walkway leading back to irregularly shaped, painted cement-block houses with junk thrown here and there, smelling of poverty and age.
Still another narrow passage lead to an open area, clean, cemented over and having homes with small, barred windows facing the courtyard. I could hear voices and other life sounds.
The location of my previous studio was something like this. A covered, flagstone walkway lead back to a row of five identical houses, each two-storied. One house was in total disrepair, and smelt of mold and rat. I could open its front door. Inside was a rank smell that would sicken the weak. Dark, dank, very damp, a dead atmosphere where nurses once lived long ago, I learned. Nothing sanitary remained whatsoever after the doctor, who lived nearby, disappeared with one of them.
Kyoto has stories aplenty. Any brief inspection, even a shallow perusal of Kyoto’s history, will reveal centuries’ worth of tales. The kidnapping and murder of a maid, snatched by a burglar from her master’s house on present-day Karasuma, and taken to Horikawa to be raped and thrown into the moat, the neighborhood ignoring her screams for help, continues to haunt me terribly. I want to hire a Buddhist priest to preform a ritual where she died (Nakagachiuri and Horikawa) to rest her soul, even though she was killed several hundred years ago. Maybe some day I will actually do this.
It is probably best to investigate these narrow passageways in the daytime, otherwise you too may disappear, eaten by blood-sucking weeds!