If you are ever lucky enough to travel to Japan, Kyoto should be high on your list of places to visit. It offers a contrast to the neon lights of ultra-modern Tokyo – a glimpse of Japan’s history and tradition.
At first glance, much of the city appears to be ancient. Great temples and shrines can be found around every corner. Nijo Castle and The Imperial Palace dominate the northern part of the city on the map. Yet, All isn’t quite as it seems…
The problem is that most of Kyoto’s great historic buildings are made out of wood. Beautiful, intricately carved, highly flammable wood.
The city of Kyoto appears to have had great trouble historically with mastering fire. No trouble at all with creating it, but containing it..?
Kyoto is a tourist city, and like any great city with tourism at its core, a wealth of information is provided in little pamphlets at every historic site. I am yet to find one without the phrase “re-built after destroyed by fire” somewhere in it.
The Imperial Palace – almost always alight
There is no greater example of this than in the Imperial Palace pamphlet. I was thrilled to find that the grounds of the Palace were open for viewing on the day that we visited. Like Nijo Castle, it is a place full of interesting and nation-shaping history. Yet, as I learnt a little more about the place, I came to realise how much of that great history had gone up in flames. Regularly.
Clues about the fiery history of the palace included the line “When the inner palace was damaged or destroyed by fire, the mansions of the aristocracy would provide temporary accommodation for the Emperor, as a temporary Imperial Palace.”
That’s right, fire damage was so common at the Imperial Palace that the Emperor had an agreement with his neighbours that he could crash on their couch for a while, as the palace was rebuilt. I wonder what the aristocracy thought about that – Did they draw straws to see whose turn it would be to put the Emperor up this time? Is an Emperor supposed to chip in for dinner and help with the washing up? Did the Emperor allow his mates to crash at his joint when their mansions inevitably burnt down?
Read a little further into the pamphlet and you will find that the current “Imperial Palace” is actually originally one of those temporary residences. For over 500 years the Empire had crashed at a mate’s place. In true Kyoto style, that palace was “plagued by fire”. It was most recently reconstructed in 1855.
Fire – the Common denominator
Most of the places we have visited in Kyoto have, at some point, been fully or partially destroyed by fire. In fact, due to war or other calamities, large parts of the city have at times been set alight, in events referred to as “the great fires”.
I guess it’s not that surprising. The whole city is a giant, beautiful tinder box. And if they can’t even stop the Imperial Palace from burning to the ground at semi-regular intervals, what hope do the common folk have?
The good news is that the people of Kyoto have never let a little catastrophic fire deter them from having amazing wooden buildings on every block. They simply got on with the job and rebuilt their precious icons whenever they burnt.
Just down the road from where we are staying in Kyoto is a Buddhist Temple called Higashi Hongan-ji. On our second day in Kyoto, we wandered through its grounds and buildings, in awe of its scale and magnificence. After a little time looking around I stumbled across an information board. It informed me that although the temple had been originally built in 1602, it was rebuilt in 1895… due to fire.
Fire Safety 101
Kyoto is still a city full of flammable wood. Street upon street is full of beautiful old houses with intricate features, all made out of wood.
Thankfully, modern-day Kyoto has an ingenious solution to the problem of fire – the bucket. I hear you laughing, but it’s true. Outside the front door of every house (in certain parts of Kyoto) there sits a red bucket, already filled with water. My understanding is that it is the fire bucket. If a fire starts, simply run out the front door and grab the bucket!
I assume one little bucket of water doesn’t actually do much to a half-decent fire (it does, however, make an excellent mosquito breeding ground). Perhaps they somehow alert the neighbours, and all combine the firefighting powers of their buckets to deal with the threat. After all, if your wooden house is in a row of wooden houses where one is on fire, it’s in your best interest to help out!
There is also a modern-day fire department. They follow the standard Japanese emergency vehicle procedure of yelling at people over a loudspeaker, while simultaneously blasting the siren.
I still wonder though, even with their buckets and fire engines, whether the people of Kyoto would be able to do much about a fully-ablaze giant temple, even today. The things are vast and wooden.
Perhaps they need bigger fire engines… or at least a bigger bucket.