Kyoto’s Maruyama Koen: A Public Monument to Privacy

I stepped out of the near-silent black taxi and looked around. 

The low wooden gates of three-hundred-year-old temples stood on both sides of me, on a little lanterned lane barely wide enough to accommodate a car. A poem was inscribed on a four-foot-high gray rock, in flowing calligraphy, next to a stone pillar remembering a “guardian of the Emperor” who’d lived here. Five-story pagodas towered above the low walls at both ends of the narrow road, and around the corner was a cottage built by a haiku poet in honor of the great haiku master Basho.

Night was falling, and I could barely make out a sound or shape in the deserted street. I might have been standing inside a Hiroshige woodcut. No one had told me, when I left my twenty-fifth-floor office in Rockefeller Center to come and live in Kyoto, that the ancient capital of Japan was more populous, more built up, often more noisy than Detroit. Yet in the vicinity of Maruyama Park I could forget all the commotion and step into something unfathomable.

From the windows of two-story teahouses I could hear soft laughter, occasionally see the ghost-white face of an apprentice geisha; pairs of twinned slippers at the entrance to a tiny restaurant spoke for chapter upon chapter of some unfolding romance. The café next to the little temple in which I was to take a room consisted of low tables next to which, cross-legged, I could watch giant, decades-old carp while sipping a green-tea float. The sanctuary across the street, created by the widow of the formidable sixteenth-century ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi, helped mark the beginning of a pilgrim’s quarter, leading up steep flights of steps to Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Water, commanding a hill overlooking all of Kyoto.

My second evening in the area, I slipped out of my small, bare tatami space and stole past the geishas’ excited murmurs, along thin, white-globed lanes, to a phone booth plastered with pink stickers advertising company for the night. Around me were traditional teahouses, freshly washed pathways snaking between low hedges. Next to me, through a thirty-foot-high, orange torii gate, was a park, and as I walked into it I found myself inside a silent world of lights and huts barely lit by flaking sticks of incense.

At its southern entrance, Maruyama Park slips into a seventh-century shrine, Yasaka-jinja, whose central wooden platform is ringed by sixty bobbing white lanterns on every side. A woman—apparently from the adjoining geisha district of Gion, the “water world”—was standing alone in prayer in front of the main hall, hands joined, eyes tightly closed. I wandered past her to the center of the park and came upon a grove of eight hundred cherry trees around a single, majestic, weeping cherry that was, a sign told me, the most celebrated in Japan.

At its western entrance, ninety seconds away, another high, gray-tiled orange torii led out of the park into the very heart of Kyoto’s clamorous downtown. To the north, the park leaked into a tiny street of vast, wooden temples: Chion-in next door is the place where the New Year is ritually tolled in, with 108 strokes each January 1, the central temple of the Jodo sect, representing the Pure Land school of Buddhism. And all around the edges of Maruyama Park were teahouses and traditional restaurants, many of them open only to those whose families had been associated with them for centuries; Kyoto’s classic aesthetic cherishes an exquisiteness that’s curtained and a community based upon everything that doesn’t need to be said.

Metropolitan yet somehow mystical, full of familiar props in radically unfamiliar settings, Maruyama Park quickly came to embody for me precisely the sense of secludedness, the subtlety—the rich reticence—I’d come to Kyoto to try to absorb. It was like a public monument to privacy. 

But it was also a bridge, drawing together disparate influences from everywhere. I could almost hear, from the west, crowds gathering around the stores selling fans and lanterns and parasols and obi, along one of
Kyoto’s busiest shopping streets. But from the other side came the sonorous gongs of the Buddhist temples, as they have come for centuries. (“The bells of Gion Temple knell the impermanence of everything,” as
the famous first line of the classic Tale of the Heike intones.) And if I walked past Maruyama’s swan pond, and zigzagged among its cherry trees, up a wide, irregular series of stone steps, past a thin waterfall, I’d find myself in one of the most hidden and mysterious entertainment quarters in the city, a spectral scatter of private restaurants and temples set around a bamboo forest.

I started going to Maruyama again and again, in the days that followed, as if to try to figure out the riddle that was my new home. After midnight, I came upon the few homeless people in the city, rolling out their mats in one sequestered corner of the park and sleeping in perfect rows, shoes tidily laid out at their feet, before making themselves scarce as soon as the light came up. In the daytime, couples were shopping for Hello Kitty socks near the pond, or dipping into brown tea-and-tofu or green-tea-and-vanilla ice creams. Sometimes I saw men in glasses furiously shaking blond-wood cylinders out of which came a thin stick telling their future in life or in love.

There were no rolling lawns, as in the parks I’d grown up on in Oxford and New York City; there was no space for young ladies to ride horses or for boys to throw Frisbees. Haiku-brief, inward looking and mostly paved, Maruyama Koen (as it is called in Japanese) had no place for joggers or shortstops or sunbathers. It was more of a place for flâneurs and epicures, home to mostly grown-up pleasures: the site where the city’s cultured night district dribbled off into spirit-filled hills, and no one could be sure what that young woman was whispering to that shaved-headed monk in the dark.

Kyoto, capital of Japan from the year 794 to 1868, is a palimpsest city, a lesson in layers and veils; it tells you not to judge by appearances and not to presume you can read how deep an implication or connection might be.

When I first arrived in Maruyama Park, like many an unschooled newcomer, I took it to be a perfect emblem of the Meiji Period, at the turn of the twentieth century, when Japan suddenly began importing Western props that somehow made the country more Japanese than ever. The European restaurant that sits right next to a long pathway often flowing with girls in cotton kimono advertises a “Beer Garden” in the summer and now offers what it calls a “Tea Seminar.” A wooden sign nearby tells you that Maruyama in its modern form was designed in 1913 by the landscape gardener Jihei Ogawa VII, who was also responsible for the gorgeous strolling garden in the Meiji-era Heian Shrine a few minutes to the north. At the center of the park’s haphazard walkways stands a large statue of Ryoma Sakamoto and Shintaro Nakaoka, two of the celebrated samurai who lost their lives trying to bring the Mejii Reformation into being. And thus, as it happens, taking the court away from Kyoto and placing it in Tokyo, making Maruyama Park a reminder of departed glory—merely a “deserted place of shrubs and weeds,” according to a sign—at the time when the city around it was a thriving capital.

But look closer. A tiny map at your feet points toward a hermitage, a “Dream Stone Monument” (apparently a great bell linked to the cherry blossoms) and the city’s central graveyard, two minutes to the south. Look around you and you’ll see statues of foxes, agents for the gods, and shrines tucked among the trees, above stone basins whose ladles invite you to clean your mouth and hands before you pray. Walk into the shrine and an elderly bald grandfather, in white and pale gray summer kimono, is teaching three toddlers, aged four or five, how to swing the worn rope and clap their hands twice to summon the gods.

A secular, international-seeming modern place filled with ancient memories and gods: how better find a microcosm of Kyoto itself? The spiritual heart of Maruyama Park, after all, Yasaka Shrine—sometimes known as Gion Shrine—dates from 656, 138 years before there was even a city here. In this very spot, it’s said, the hot-tempered Shinto god of sea and storms, Susano, chanced to visit the humble home of an ordinary man, and was so moved by the hospitality afforded him that he promised protection from pestilence and prosperity to the man and his family forever.

As a result, Yasaka Shrine became the place where everyone came to pray for divine assistance as Kyoto began to take shape. By the turn of the first millennium, it was a shrine to which the emperor sent messengers when he wanted to pass on news from court to the Shinto gods. Nowadays, each December 28, a sacred fire is struck at the hour of the tiger—4 a.m.—and from it votive lanterns are lit; visitors during the New Year’s celebration take parts of the auspicious flame, on strands of rope, back to their little altars at home. In spring, people crowd in to inspect the often bare, almost witchy tree at the park’s center suddenly lit up, thick with pink, frothing blossoms, and hundreds of businessmen, in loosened ties, sit under the flowers and belt out bawdy songs over cans of beer. In autumn, as you look up from beside its pond at Mount Maruyama to the east, you can see the full blaze of reds and golds, against deep blue skies, as if to shed light on the Buddhist idea of constant change against a canvas of changelessness.

Even when nothing is going on, the place seems alive as only a miniature swarming with details can be. As the cicadas buzz deafeningly one morning in midsummer, I come upon four older men—relics of last night’s revelry, or just early risers discussing the day’s prospects, it’s hard to tell. A woman in Dior is hurrying home through the park, looking away from a stranger’s eyes, yet fully in possession of herself.

I associate parks in most cities with sunshine and the suddenly loosened excitement of stripping off extra layers and going out to enjoy daylight and space. But Maruyama is a more formal place, made for dressing up, not down. It’s best savored at dusk, when lights come on around the teahouses in its corners, and darkness deepens above the benches. Japanese sentences tend to trail off for maximum implication, and so it is with the walkways that dawdle for maybe three minutes across the park and then disappear among the hushed streets that lead to a small graveyard, Anyoji Temple, and a shrine honoring a goddess associated with music.

I like to go to Maruyama, therefore, on misty days, a quarter century after I first came upon the park. It’s a place for reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay in praise of shadows, or seeing the clouds veil then reveal the hills a few minutes away, remaking the space every moment. When I need to spend a night in the city, visiting from my new home ninety minutes away, I stay in a traditional inn just outside the park’s southern entrance, and sample the incense museum that now exists next door, the shop that sells nothing but owls. When visitors come from overseas, I make sure to take them through Maruyama Park, not because there’s anything special to see there, but because not looking for something to see, simply inhaling the atmosphere and finding pleasure in the everyday, is the way to get the most out of recessive Japan.

The ideal approach to the place, I think, is to set aside all words and head up its great steps on a late afternoon at the end of November. Walk past the growling lions on both sides of the western torii, past the bright red festival stands selling fried octopus balls, past the vestal virgins, all in white, selling charms for success in exams and protection against traffic accidents, and then past the European pond with swans barely visible in the dusk.

The whole of Maruyama is alight in the last fiery glow of late afternoon, golden light slicing through the trees, and at the back of the park you’ll come to a manicured mini-forest that seems to have been forgotten by the world. Kimonoed silhouettes are just beginning to stir behind the paper screens of a nearby restaurant. The chill of winter is coming into the air. You can almost feel the approaching dark. Sit down, catch your breath, and listen to the great bell of Chion-in summoning robed men to prayer. It’s only when you can’t see much at all that Maruyama—like the city around it—comes most deeply into its own. 


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This essay was adapted from City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, an anthology of pieces on great parks of the world, edited by Catie Marron, featuring pieces by Bill Clinton, Sir Norman Foster, Candice Bergen and many others, and published by Harper Collins on October 15, 2013. Published here by permission of the author and the publisher.





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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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