Ayaka Fujii: Meandering Kyoto

It has been two weeks of meandering and walking about in Kyoto’s neighborhoods. Within this time frame, I have stayed in three locations, each of which, by chance, have been in Nakagyo (Central) Kyoto,  Shimogyo (South) Kyoto, and Kamagyo (North-West) Kyoto. Some of this time has been spent with family, and more recently has begun as a solo experience. The days, reflecting a messy process, reflecting a multilayered and dynamic city, have consisted of later mornings, a few hours of meander in different neighborhoods in the thick of Kyoto’s summer afternoons, dwelling in the stillness of temples and shrines or resting in parks, and reflecting in the evenings. Initially designed as an open, process-oriented project, I am exploring the particularities of “space” and “place.” Both concepts of space and place provide an awareness into how a city, such as Kyoto begins to mould and form both psycho-geographically (a place as intimately experienced and remembered in one’s consciousness) and more collectively in a geographical, cultural, and historic sense. To consider the distinctions of space and place has been a leading mode of questioning how and why we inhabit specific environments. As is distinguished by humanist geographer, Yi Fu Tuan, place is defined by space and vice-versa, in that space = motion, place = pause; “each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (Tuan 6)”

In considering this central relationship of space and place, central questions leading my investigations of place-making[1] in Kyoto are: How do we gather a sense of place in spaces of the unknown, of yearning, and of the imagined? How can we travel in such a way that expands possibilities for spatial awareness and sense of place? To put more simply, I am asking: What lives in-between space and place? I find that such questions are significant in order to consider the way we navigate an increasingly traversable and interconnected network of urban environments around the world, and how this shifts the internal landscape within ourselves, our body. 

There have been little revelatory moments, but many whmmm-dim-light bulb contemplations in spaces of dwelling (Kamogawa cafe, Umekoji Park, and Kamee Coffee in particular) The questions invite an open experimentation process, as is necessary in any creative investigation. Walking has been a significant part of the process allowing for the body to be embodied and physically in motion as it traverses streets and neighborhoods to and from places. 

Some observations that are beginning to characterize the streets of Kyoto:

  • Kyoto uses a grid system. Although its small alleyways are often difficult to navigate with the map, Kyoto numbers its larger streets from West to East, across the North-South plane. Ichijo (First avenue) is North, heading towards Jujo in the South (Tenth avenue). 
  • Large populations of people walk and bike; bikers, walkers, and drivers share the same small alleyways and middle-sized streets without divided pathways, demonstrating a non-dominant mode of travel and diverse means of city motion allowing for various rhythms in street movement. Walking and biking allow for a preservation of more intimate, small historic alleyways that are more difficult for cars and larger vehicles.
  • Similarly to many urban cities in Japan, Kyoto also has what are known as “arcades”. These are indoor streets that are mostly for pedestrians and bikers, maintaining a diversity of function. Within the more local Sanjo arcade, there are bike repair shops, cafes and local grocers, pickle stores, butcheries and bakeries, real estate companies, barbers, small retailers, and offices. The arcade is a space of gathering in this neighborhood. While some have grown more touristic, changing in function and for a varied communities (e.g. Nishiki Market near Shijo, Central Kyoto), local arcades serve as a centralizing pathway for the local community.

(Sanjo arcade, 15 minutes walk from my guesthouse)

Part of the process in experiencing Kyoto has been getting lost – while unintentional, this, to me, has been a vital part of placemaking experiences. As Yi Fu Tuan writes, spaces transform when they begin to familiarize. We often find unfamiliar spaces a haze, and with time we begin to find a focused sense of place. Often taking a wrong turn, or going into the opposite direction has led me into residential areas, local shrines, and emptier streets, offering impressions of Kyoto’s quotidian. Getting lost, is not an easy experience, generating an inner angst that lives at the juncture of my own inner tempo and restlessness, and my desire to find comfort in the unfamiliar. I have been reflecting on how concentrated I am when navigating the city – even in the process of getting lost. In familiar environments, such as downtown Manhattan on my walks home I often feel my mind and body so comfortable with the space around that I’m subconsciously walking familiar pathways, unfocused on my surroundings, simply due to the habitual nature of my walkscape. Often however, familiar walkscapes inspire choreographic ideas. I am often lost in a new movement idea when walking home in the evenings.  Yet, when I am in unfamiliar places, there is nothing in my mind but trying to absorb, or seek out my arrival point. This too is the opposite extreme of the spectrum in our spatial awareness and sense of place – I am so concentrated on the surrounding space around me, I lose myself, I lose sense of the environment that is my body. I am arriving at new questions about how to arrive into the present – both in the space around and within the body – within urban walkscapes, both familiar and new. 

I am taking a few workshops with a Butoh artist, Seiji Tanaka in Nara, about an hour by train from the Nijo neighborhood in Kyoto. What I am learning in Seiji’s classes has been illuminating and surprisingly intertwined with the project at hand. Seiji’s workshop investigates how the body reflects the environment it inhabits. “Don’t think, just reflect,” he prompts often. Walking through the city yesterday, a day after my first workshop with Seiji, my entire body is filled with city sensation. My first experience of Butoh has offered a performative and embodied practice of inhabiting space by becoming its mirror.

In closing for now, some thoughts towards my central question posed earlier: How do we gather a sense of place in spaces of the unknown, of yearning, and of the imagined?

At the heart of my explorations here, I am looking to find further connection to my part-Japanese background. Hence, my focus on sense of place is particularly along the axis of how the unknown collides with the imagined, or the extrapolation of our familiar places. How do our roots extend themselves? How do we nurture depth in the places we inhabit? (More questions to investigate) I will continue to walk around different neighborhoods, and explore stillness amidst motion. Further, it is an important reminder at this moment in the project to also give attention to the temporalities of spaces. Kyoto, with its many neighborhoods has its own temporal particularities that I am not yet familiar with (commercial districts and most of the city gets dark/closes around 9pm to respect the many religious/spiritual spaces of Kyoto, yet midnight trains are teeming with university students and a younger crowd still bustling around like it is mid-day.) Experiencing time as it moves in and through me is another significant factor in further building my relationship and interactions with the spaces, places, and people of Kyoto.

 (Kamee Coffee, Sanjo arcade)


[1] I am using placemaking for the lack of a better word term for what I am trying to convey. By “placemaking” in this specific context, I am referring to place-making in the more psychogeographic sense of how places function, change, and ferment, both by the individual and collective.

One thought on “Ayaka Fujii: Meandering Kyoto

  1. It is amazing how much I am learning from your blog in helping me conceptualize my research sites as spaces that are influencing people “psychogeographically.” It reminds me what my current method is lacking, hopefully, it is still not too late! Could you refer to me some texts that you are basing on? I also enjoy your using the term, “ferment,” very refreshing! Looking forward to hearing from you more about the readings and just life, let me know how things go!

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