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Genius loci

Gion Morisyo

Interior of Gion Morisyo, Kyoto. Photo: Jose Ignacio Arbulo

In the Kamibentencho neighborhood of Kyoto, Japan, there is a narrow lane that leads to the Yasaka Shrine. Other than being a shortcut to the shrine and the temples and gardens situated beyond it, the lane, whose name is probably known only to the people who live along it, is best known for the oyakodon stand at its midpoint and the lines that start to form in the late morning. By midday it is crowded with people: school­children waiting in line for lunch, neighbors carrying bags on their way home from the shops along Higashi Oji Dori, and tourists and pilgrims on their way to the temples and shrines. Lost among the jostling crowd but directly across from that rice-bowl stand is an understated door with a sign no larger than a business card identifying one of the more storied ryokans in Kyoto: Gion Morisyo.

Gion Morisyo has been in existence for more than one hundred years; this traditional inn was a favorite retreat of the revered Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki, whose novels intricately describe the domestic landscape of his characters as they search for identity and meaning in a rapidly westernizing Japan. Many architects and designers know him more simply for his seminal essay on the nature of beauty, “In Praise of Shadows.” Known during Tanizaki’s lifetime as Yado Hana (The Flowers Inn), Gion Morisyo occupies a site much smaller than the average South End townhouse lot yet offers a richly textured experience and a potent synthesis of Tanizaki’s themes of place, object, memory, and emotion.

Traveling to Gion Morisyo always brings the same rapid emotional deacceleration — the efficient exhilaration of the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen, the arrival at Hiroshi Hara’s bizarrely futuristic and bombastic Kyoto Railway Station, the chaotic taxi ride across the Kamo River and up into Minamimachi and Kamibentencho until, like a salmon swimming upstream, the streets get narrower and the stream of automobiles becomes a stream of pedestrians. The taxi is abandoned, and the last steps are taken to the doorstep of Gion Morisyo. Stepping inside, time and space suddenly compress. Uncannily, Mrs. Morita, the gentle owner, senses my imminent arrival and stands waiting at the other end of the small courtyard. The disassociation is made greater by her limited English and my even more limited Japanese. With warm smiles and remembrances, she bows graciously, carefully places my shoes on the first step, gestures to enter, and then disappears.

Left alone to navigate the dimly lit interior spaces is like being inside an old wooden sailboat. The ryokan seems to sway and roll beneath my feet as the sounds of the city gently lap up against its sides. The narrow corridors and stairs twist and turn, then double back on themselves. Rooms unfold and hover above interior gardens. The intimate scale, dark textured surfaces, creaking floor beams, and muffled voices in a language not easily understood all serve to heighten my senses while simultaneously slowing down experience. I am left keenly aware of the present moment and the intrinsic beauty of ordinary things.

In the summer, there is the ground-level tatami room with its shoji screens slid back at night, leaving me suspended above the garden like an insect on a leaf. The carefully framed views, the smell of the moist fertile earth, and the sounds of the rustling leaves and trickling water make me a part of the garden, not just a viewer of it. In the winter, the experience is very different in the upper tatami room, with its shoji screens softly rattling in the wind and the distant view across cold, silvery rooftops to the Kodai-ji temple.

Waking early from jet lag and reading by the soft predawn light, I feel the shadows strengthening as the ryokan starts to stir to life. I know exactly where Tanizaki was sitting when he wrote his memorable observation: “And isn’t it better really to leave things only hinted at?” ■

Photo: Bryan Irwin AIA