Let noted author and travel essayist Pico Iyer, a resident of Japan for over 30 years, whisper in your ear as he describes his sense of magic and wonder for Kyoto.
Listen to him read his impressions of various Kyoto locations, all captured in his recent book, "Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells."
Then when you are standing in each spot during your next trip to Japan’s former capital, a trove of gardens and shrines.
In the countryside, villagers are carving cucumbers in the shape of horses, to urge their ancestors to return for the Festival of the Dead as speedily as possible; they'll make oxen out of eggplants, to send them back to the heavens at a slower pace. Bonfires are lit outside homes so that none of the specters will lose their way.
In Kyoto, a lantern appears next to each of the gravestones in the Otani cemetery, overlooking the busy streets of downtown; twenty thousand lights come on at dusk, wavering above the neon and streaking cars of the geisha district.
When Hiroko and I walked along the broad white gravel pathway last night — the nearby bells rang out, "Everyone soon die," as Hiroko translated, "Do something now!"—we found the huge medieval gates to the "city of tomorrow," as a cemetery in Japan is called, pulled back. Beside them was a large white board on which bold strokes of calligraphy had been scrawled in black. "We may have radiant faces in the morning," read the translation into English, "but in the evening are no more than white bones."
The trees are already starting to turn up here, where there is snow on the ground much longer than in the plains; the blaze of leaves is intense as we look down on the bright, hazy city cradled between hills on three sides. On the other side of the mountain is the modern town built around the lake that shares its name with a lute.
"Oh, let's pray for a long life!" cries the eighty-six-year-old woman in the back. "Let's live till we're one hundred."
"When I was a girl," she goes on, "everyone said I was so cute. Where did you get such a pretty little girl?" they asked my mother. "Sumi-chan's so beautiful."
She breaks into song again, a song from the days just after the war ended. "Don't you worry, little sister, don't you stop. Keep on moving, little sister, don't lose hope."
We drive around the miles of curves that encircle the celebrated temples here.
Mount Hiei is known for the sacred space known as Enryakuji. I'd been visiting the site for years before I realized that "Enryakuji" is not, in fact, the name of any single structure; the whole mountain is the temple, a place of prayer and preparation.
There were once more than three thousand buildings on this mountain, brooding over the capital below, and sons of the emperors came here for twelve years of ascetic training.
Sachi and I are seated beside a narrow stream in the center of Kyoto, overhung by apple-colored leaves in the October sunshine.
The light is knife-sharp on this crystal day; passing under the forbidding wooden gate of Nanzenji, one of the city's five great "mountains of Zen", we'd found ourselves in an intricate latticework of light and shadow, the sun making shifting shapes on the white walls, across the raked-sand garden on the greening moss.
The light so fresh and clarifying in the quiet morning—sharpness and dryness define the season—that we might be stepping into a brand-new world.
It's nearly impossible to stay indoors on a day like this, not least because so many around me are being pulled, almost magnetically, out into the sharpened sunshine, to marvel at the fact that the sky is so blue even as the leaves rust and begin to flutter down. Many of Kyoto's temples open their gates after nightfall now—another of the city's fresh and ingenious seductions—and soon we'll follow lanterns past stands of bamboo eerily lit up, watch fast-moving ghosts holographically projected upon raked-sand gardens.
In the shallow crystal pond of Kodaiji, the five-pointed maples are almost more brilliant than on the trees that the temple's water reflects.
And yet, in our private lives, we're perched on the edge of a cliff, and the slightest movement could send us tumbling over. Every time I come back to the flat, I look, by instinct, for the green flashing button on the phone—no news is likely to be good news—and when I walk into the park, I can't help but wonder how often my mother-in-law will see the maples again. I take myself, to banish the thought, to Susano Shrine, where the light is slicing the courtyard into diamonds; and then I notice, as never before, that people have placed coins around rocks all across the forest, and there are stone lanterns everywhere, as if the whole wilderness were a haunted church.