Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 29, 2012

Rashomon Site (Kyoto Guide)

Thanks to the film by Kurosawa Akira, the Rashomon Gate has become a large cultural presence. This monumental gate was erected at the southern entrance to Kyoto, then called Heiankyo, when the city was founded in 794. From the gate a wide avenue, Suzaku-Oji, led straight north to the palace zone, which formed an elongated block at the northern end of the city. Suzaku was the main street of Heiankyo and split the city into two exact halves, the East and West City.

[Marker at Rashomon site. 
Photo Wikipedia]

The Rashomon Gate was 32 meters wide and 8 high. It had red pillars and double green roofs, a bit like the present Heian Shrine. On the top floor of the gate originally a stern statue of Tobatsu Bishamon was placed, looking like a soldier standing guard. Tobatsu Bishamon originated in Central Asia and acted as a protector of cities. I imagine him glaring at the lands beyond, to protect Heiankyo from evil…

The statue today continues to glare, but now in the museum of nearby Toji Temple. The great gate was damaged by a storm in 980 and was never restored. In disrepair, it became a weird place, a hideout for thieves. People whispered a demon was living there and sometimes corpses of the poor would be abandoned at the gate. The ruined gate is the setting for Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short story “Rashomon” and also provides the narrative frame for Kurosawa Akira's above mentioned film.

[The original Rashomon - photo Wikipedia]

Akutagawa’s use of the gate was deliberately symbolic, with the gate’s ruined state representing the moral and physical decay of Japanese civilization and culture in the later Heian-period. Today, there is nothing left of the once mighty gate. A stone monument indicates its location in a tiny park just west of Toji Temple. The dusty park serves as a playground for children, with a glide, but it is usually deserted. Why do Japanese monuments stand in such ugly little parks full of dust? Why not in a tiled area with some nice flowers around it? Were those parks inspired by another famous film of Kurosawa, Ikiru, in which the protagonist, a worthless public servant, finally starts contributing to society by building a small park for the citizens after he hears he has only a few months to live?

Near the park runs Senbon Street, the successor of Suzaku Avenue. But it runs only as far north as the nearby JR railway, where the tracks and the Umenokoji Park form a dense barrier. This southern part also makes a rather forlorn impression. It is difficult to picture Suzaku Avenue when standing here: 84 meter broad, serving as a firebreak between the two parts of the city. The name, by the way, was taken from the Suzaku, or Crimson Bird, a sort of phoenix who protected the city from the South, where he lived in a now long-drained marsh. History also knows an Emperor called Suzaku and along Senbon Street several schools have opted for the mythical name.
Access: 10 min walk west from the south exit of Toji Temple (mainly along Kujodori Street); 10 min walk from Toji St on the Kintetsu line. Grounds free.