Japan Diary: part two

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Photography: Linda Mackay Sabiston

Onigawara is the household god who squats on the ridge tiles of Kyoto, warding evil from gold-plated temples and humble homes alike. He has a fearsome, aggressive face, but this is just to frighten off malevolent spirits. Onigawara is a friendly gargoyle.

We glimpse Onigawara time and again on the rooftops as we travel on the bus round this most magnificent city of Japan’s interior. Kyoto, the ‘thousand year capital’, is ringed round with mountains where dense city gives way immediately to dense forest. There are hundreds of magnificent temples and shrines in the clearings.

You can still see the ancient, narrow streets, and the low, dark timber houses with their elegant eaves. There are rock gardens, tea houses, imperial sites. In the evening, Geishas – pallid ghosts – pass on their way to work. Restaurants light their lanterns. After saki, blonde tourists sing Summer of 69, too loud for Zen. But to allow yourself to become irritated would be contrary to the teaching of Zen. Nothing should disturb the peace of this place.

The shadow of the Angel of Death flitted over Kyoto in 1945, but passed on when strategists decided not to drop a nuclear bomb on it. It was too beautiful, and had too much ‘cultural significance’ to be obliterated. U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson loved Kyoto. He had his honeymoon here, and argued successfully for the preservation of the city. So it seems that Onigawara did his duty for Kyoto, at least.

Historians will argue forever about the rights and wrongs of the weapons of mass destruction that were dropped on Japan seventy years ago. Some call these bombings ‘successful’. And no Japanese soldier has set foot anywhere else in the world since. British forces, by comparison, have been in continuous deployment in one part of the world or another ever since. It makes me wonder why nations need ‘interests’ and ‘spheres of influence’.

*          *          *

We’re already thinking about the long flight home. We will travel close to the tragic flashpoints of the Middle East. Basra, Mosul, Aleppo. There are thousands of families there, too, thousands of mothers, fathers, and bairns who would welcome the protection of brave Onigawara, right now.

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