An Exploration of Tradition as Found in Kyoto and its Place Within Anime



In my previous posts about my trip to Japan I highlighted a number of occasions where particular aspects of that trip, specifically in Kyoto illuminated attitudes towards tradition and it’s important to Japanese society. I had intended to explore it further, but given the length of the posts to begin with, it was better to simply write an entire post that explored these themes, which is precisely what this post will be about. While I was enjoying my time in Japan, one of my main reasons for visiting Kyoto was to focus on tradition and how it affected anime. Kyoto was chosen, partly because it’s an interesting city, but also because of its importance to Japanese culture and history, and its constant presence within anime set in the everyday. In fact, when thinking about Japan, its culture, and history, it is usually Kyoto that comes to mind as a representation of the countries past, although there are plenty of other historical sites and cities such as Kamakura, Tokyo, and Hakodate. It also occupies an important place within popular culture, specifically anime in this case, and is often used to represent a cultural, social, and historical tradition that has come to represent Japan as a country, and its people.

‘Tradition’ is also similarly complex, and can often occupy an important place within the process of building and maintaining a national identity. Tradition is tricky to define; although for this piece I characterise it as referring to behaviours and beliefs that are infused with special meaning or value in the present because of a sense of continuity with the past and also with the future. Traditions are constantly changing, even though they retain (or at least seem to retain) some connection with the way they were performed in past years, or by previous generations. And they are practiced in the present only because they have (or seem to have) some bearing on the future. Traditions, one might say, are creative continuity, and the process through which it is portrayed in anime operates through a tug of war between two forces – the conservative pull of the past, versus the immediate pull of the future (and present) needs.

Various aspects of tradition, things considered to be essentially ‘Japanese’, continue to hold immense power over the Japanese imagination – and Kyoto, as the symbolic, and spiritual capital of Japan – remains an essential symbol of Japaneseness, with its myriad temples, palaces, and other historical monuments. One aspect of Kyoto that becomes increasingly obvious as you visit its more famous temples, and other historical sites, is the prevalence of kimono, and kimono rental shops. Elsewhere in Japan you are lucky if you ever see a kimono outside of the yukata found around onsen resorts, or on special occasions such as the Bon Odori, or New Year celebrations. But in Kyoto they are everywhere, and kimono clad women in particular are a common site throughout the cities historical districts, and temple/shrine complexes. In this respect, tradition is reduced to a series of simple gestures and actions, the tangible elements that can be easily followed and understood, such as wearing a kimono when visiting a historical monument or famous temple.


And yet, once you start to look a little more carefully, the role of temples and shrines are far more important than a simple day out. I saw a number of people searching out specific temples (many that are off the beaten track, and I only encountered by wandering), perhaps because they are famous for specific omamori, or enshrine a different deity, or are linked to a sacred stream, or mountain. In fact, the possibilities are seemingly endless, and while they are shared across all shrines in particular, the specifics of individual shrines can be especially important. Furthermore, once you get beneath the tourist attractions of well-known shrines, they are also spaces for devotion and prayer. There may be queues to buy certain, well known omamori, or walk between the two love stones at Kiyomizudera, or perhaps pray to the enshrined kami at Shimogamo, or Yasaka-jinja. These little, almost inconsequential acts (at least when taken at face value) all form part of the religious landscape of Japan, and represent a series of deep religious beliefs in a country that argues it is secular, rather than religious.

Although, because Japanese religion consists of so many small acts, without a set doctrine or teachings (in the case of Shinto), it is possible to understand why so many Japanese consider their country to be secular. In this respect, visiting jinja or shrines is part of daily life, and while omamori, or other offerings may be purchased, and prayers offered to the enshrined deities, such practices are not viewed as being part of any formal religion. This differentiation between religious practice, and rituals that are part of daily life is especially important when we look at the role of religion, tradition, and history in Japan. A role that is further emphasised in Kyoto, a city with an exceptionally long history, and one that offers a physical, and cultural link with Japan’s historic, ancient, and mythical past. A city famed for its temples, shrines, and monuments, that together all construct an image of Japan as an ancient, cultured, and distinct country.

The continued importance of Kyoto is particularly pronounced when we consider the ever-changing nature of tradition, which may be affected by the periods socio-cultural fashions, and shifts in peoples view of the historical past. When one glances at Japanese cultural traditions, it can often appear that tradition is reduced to kimono, temple/shrine visits, and ‘traditional’ arts (sado, hado, kyudo, etc), the most visible aspects of the historical past when can offer the Japanese something tangible to hold on to. Of course, that is not to say that there aren’t other aspects of tradition which are important to the society and culture, but they may be part of people’s mannerisms, or beliefs, and not necessarily easily recognised unless you know what to look for. Tradition is also flexible, and can often be consumed, and used without quite understanding its origins. For example, while working in Hokkaido, the owner of the nature school talked about tucking your shoes under the tarpaulin when bivvying one night, otherwise kitsune will steal them. To most who were present it was something a little funny, a little silly, but it has its origins with folk beliefs about kitsune as tricksters, who among other things, hide traveller’s shoes. Similarly, aspects of one’s culture and society are deemed essential, even if their origins aren’t immediately familiar or widely known. One highly visible example of this, particularly in Kyoto, is the kimono, Japan’s national dress, something that is rarely worn except for special occasions, or by those from old, and very traditional families.



Because tradition can be so flexible, anime, and its focus on well-known deities, spirits, and places, plays an active role in the creation, and recreation of Japan’s public image, alongside the role of the historical past in the creation of a uniquely Japanese identity. Anime rarely presents lesser known deities, or the complexities surrounding specific kami such as Inari, although series such as Noragami, and Binbougami-ga (among others) remind an audience that lesser known deities exist. In the case of Inari (an especially complex deity), the only major representation in anime depicts the deity as a female kami dressed in ritual Shinto clothes. The syncretic nature of Japanese religion, and the significant influence that Buddhism has had on the development of deities such as Inari, alongside broader religious beliefs, rituals, and religious sites, is rarely mentioned within anime, although they may be present if you know what you are looking at. This is not to say that Buddhism is completely absent from anime, and it is often found in the form of exorcists (in series such as Ao no Exorcist, and Ushio to Tora), or series lie Hoozuki no Reitetsu that is set in Buddhist hell.

The syncretic nature of Japanese religion as found in well-known sites like Kuramadera, Fushimi-Inari, and Kiyomizudera, all temple/shrine – complexes that have numerous links to Shinto, and Buddhist traditions, while also enshrining multiple different kami and Buddha’s/Bodhisattvas – are almost entirely absent from anime, at least in any overt form. Kami are presented as uniquely Japanese, even when they are from Buddhist belief systems, such as Bishamonten, Ebisu, and the other members of the Shichi Fukujin (Seven Gods of Lucky and Fortune), similarly, the Buddhist aspect of Inari worship are ignored, focussing instead on Uka-no-Mitama-no-Kami, one of the most common, and well known Shinto iterations. This is particularly curious in the case of Bishamonten, given the deities Hindu origins, and important place within Japanese Buddhism. With occasional exceptions (Bishamonten for example) kami in anime are portrayed as uniquely Japanese, and quite clearly part of Shinto – although in most cases, those same deities are worshipped under different names and guises across Japan in Buddhist, Shinto, and independent institutions. Kuramadera for example enshrines the Thousand-Armed Kannon, the name Inari is often worshipped under within Buddhist institutions.

Kyoto is a rather important city when seeking to explore these approaches towards tradition for a number of reasons. Perhaps more than any other city, Kyoto draws upon its extensive history as the cultural, social, and political centre of Japan. Even when real political power was held elsewhere (The Kamakura Shogunate, and the Edo Period for example), Kyoto was still the centre of Japans religious, cultural, and social institutions. Most major Buddhist sects, and a significant number of important Shinto institutions have their headquarters in Kyoto, while a large number of religious groups can also trace their founding back to the city. Classical Japanese literature either originates from the Imperial Court of Heian Era Kyoto, or was influenced by this era and its styles, while numerous social and political structures, and institutions can find their origins in Kyoto, although they certainly bear little resemblance to the originals. As such, although contemporary Japan looks nothing like Heian, or Muromachi-Era Kyoto (it doesn’t even resemble pre-war Japan, let alone the Meiji period, both much more recent), much of Japanese culture, society, and religion can find their distant origins within Kyoto at one point or another. Indeed, many of the more classical, or ‘traditional’ arts that are consistently invoked when talking about Japan, such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, Noh drama, landscape gardening (as seen in the famous gardens of Ryoan-ji, Ginkaku-ji, and Kinkaku-ji, to name but a few), architecture, and literature, alongside Zen Buddhism, and the rise in importance of Shinto can all be traced back to Kyoto during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573).


Suffice to say that one can arguably position Kyoto as the centre of Japanese tradition, national identity, and the creation of a national image. And while Tokyo is now the countries capital (and has been for over 400 years), where all of the institutions of government, including the Imperial Palace are now located, alongside the centres of Japan’s economy, Kyoto remains essential as a cultural, and religious centre. ‘Tradition’ is a complicated word, and in this respect, I am using it to describe aspects of Japanese culture that are often portrayed as ‘purely Japanese’, without western, or other external influences. Although such a portrayal will largely ignore the role played by other countries such as China and Korea in the creation of Japanese culture, tradition is, after all, something that can ignore the external, and focus inwards. Interestingly, the traditional, comfortable rural landscape that we might occasionally see in anime appears to lack a point of origin such as Kyoto, but is instead a nebulous place where the Japanese originated as a people with a deep connection to their environment. So, when we take into account Kyoto’s role in the creation of Japanese culture, however simplistic that might be, the prevalence of kimono rental shops, and of people wearing kimono while visiting well known shrines and other areas of the city starts to make a little more sense. Because they are in their cultural, spiritual, and social capital, the kimono, Japan’s traditional dress, becomes the natural clothes to wear, and can perhaps be viewed as an attempt, whether conscious, or unconscious, to connect with a traditional Japan that has been all but lost since the immediate post-war period of growth and change.

As such, anime that deal with the religions, and superstitions of Japan, alongside those that focus on Japan’s arts and heritage, most always reference Kyoto, although a large number are either set directly in the city, or in its surrounding areas. And many that specifically focus on kami will also quite specifically reference other important religious sites like Ise, one of the oldest, and most important Shinto Shrines in Japan. The focus is always placed upon especially important buildings, structures that help to convey the magnificence of Japan’s past, and the roots of its culture and society. Uchouten Kazoku for example is set directly in the older, and most famous areas of Kyoto, and also reference aspects of Japanese mythology in the character’s names. The main family of Tanuki all live in Shimogamo Jinja, are take Shimogamo as their family name – their Tanuki rivals, the Ebisugawa family take their name from Ebisugawa-dori, a street full of shops selling traditional Japanese goods, and crafts. Furthermore, the ‘Friday Fellows’, the series central threat, all take their names from Shichi Fukujin, while the series Tengu are all from famous sites that surround Kyoto, such as Kuramadera. The series is therefore set in modern day Kyoto, but continuously references myths, legends, and the historical past in its character names, settings, and central narrative. And while it is possible to enjoy the series without prior knowledge of the city and its history, recognising the names, places, and mythologies that surround it’s narrative and characters adds a further layer of meaning to their actions and approaches to life. It is therefore a series wrapped in the traditions of Japan, and specifically Kyoto its main setting, and one that would arguably lose much of its depth if it were set somewhere else in Japan.


Utakoi presents another example of the historical past of Kyoto informing contemporary culture. Choyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi (to give the series its full name) is a very liberal interpretation of the Hyakunin Isshu, an anthology of one hundred Japanese waka by one hundred poets compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). Teika is widely regarded as one of the greatest Japanese poets, and by some the greatest master of the waka form – his poems, and anthologies all date from the late Heian, and early Kamakura periods. They are therefore compilations of historical poems that offer us a glimpse of court life, specifically during the Heian period, while also representing the classical period of Japanese literature and poetry. The UtaKoi anime is a rather liberal interpretation of these poems, largely because they take the Heian era but use contemporary language to convey the feelings of the original poems. Every major character in the series is a historical figure from the Heian period, with each episode focussing on life inside the Heian Imperial Court and aristocracy. By adapting such a well know anthology of poems, UtaKoi uses a classical text to provide a direct link between contemporary Japan and the life of the Heian court through the popular cultural medium of anime. ‘Tradition’ in this context is the appropriation of classical culture in a modern setting.

Such anime, especially those series that deal directly with Japan’s historical past, regardless of what changes may be incorporated (different genders, certain elements of science fiction, and so on) all reinforce its importance, and create tangible links between the golden eras of Japanese literature, and martial prowess, with contemporary Japanese society. Anime is therefore taking an active role in the creation, and interpretation of tradition. It portrays elements of Japanese culture, and the country which are immediately recognisable by all but the youngest children. Almost all high schools have a school trip to Kyoto for example, and many also visit Grand Ise, furthermore, famous works of Heian Era literature such as Genji Monogatari (important as the first piece of literature written in Japanese, rather than Chinese that we know of) are also taught in schools. This alone fascinates me, because Japan has such a rich cultural history, with numerous works of literature, architectural styles, and the interplay of religion and secular culture. The Kamakura, Muromachi, and Edo periods all left their mark on Japanese culture in one form or another. In particular, the Muromachi period (1336-1573) arguably represents the start of modern Japanese traditions, with proximity of the imperial court and the bakufu resulting in a comingling of the imperial family, daimyo, samurai, and zen priests. Resulting in a flourishing of the arts, architecture, literature, Noh drama, Kyogen, poetry, sarugaku, tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and flower arranging all flourished during the period, and were informed by myriad of different cultural forms, including esoteric Buddhism, and Shinto.


Furthermore, the current importance of Shinto can be traced back to the Muromachi period, which between the eighth and fourteenth centuries had been all but completely absorbed by Buddhism, becoming known as Ryobu Shinto (Dual Shinto). As such, it is arguably the case that modern Japanese culture and society actually originates from the Muromachi period, and many of the best known temples and gardens in Kyoto all originate from then. But schools keep going back to the Heian era literature, thus demonstrating that Kyoto and its history may often be viewed as an amalgamated whole, rather than a city that, like so many other old cities, has been shaped in different ways by the changes in politics, culture, and society that Japan’s different historical eras have brought about. It is as if Kyoto is viewed as an essentially Japanese city, without all the complications of different cultures and traditions – within Kyoto they all merged together to create the Japanese cultural and social aesthetics, regardless of their origins.

When one walks around Kyoto it is apparent that a significant element of its history is linked with Buddhism. In fact, many of the most famous temples and temple complexes all have strong links with Japan’s political, and military leaders, alongside the imperial family. Ninna-ji for example uses the chrysanthemum stamp, a reference to its past history with the imperial family (numerous emperors and sons of emperors served as the temples abbots for a thousand years), while numerous other temple complexes originally started life as princely palaces, or villas where important historical figure would retreat to in order to avoid the politics of the court. Buddhism has played a significant role in Japan’s politics and wars for far longer than Shinto, which remained a series of beliefs and rituals, rather than set doctrines. In fact, the majority of Kyoto’s major historical sites are Buddhist temples, or Buddhist in origin, rather than Shinto shrines, and yet, when we see Kyoto (and more broadly, Japanese religion, and religious sites) in anime, it is the Shinto element that gets mentioned rather than Buddhism. Even when a famous Buddhist site, such as Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji, or Ryoan-ji are depicted, their religion is conspicuous in its absence (although one can argue that such facts would already be known by a Japanese audience of a certain age).

Shinto, as the native religion, is given preference over Buddhism, the foreign interloper that usurped Shinto’s authority (although strictly speaking, given the varied nature of Shinto, it never truly had anything resembling ‘authority’). In this respect the effect of the Meiji restoration is still present in contemporary culture – it was during the restoration that an attempt was made to separate Buddhism and Shinto by creating a form of state Shinto with the emperor as its head. Such a forcible split had significant consequences for religion in Japan, with many Buddhist institutions either losing all of their money, or forced conversion to Shinto in order to avoid potential damages. For the State during the early Meiji period, Shinto was viewed as a non-religious moral tradition, and patriotic practice that was used to support nationalistic practices and believes, alongside the creation of a uniquely ‘Japanese’ culture. By all accounts, early Meiji-era attempts to unite Shinto and state, while also separating Shinto and Buddhism into two distinct religions failed, and if you travel around Japan today, you continue to see the syncretic nature of Japanese religion as it manifests itself in multiple different forms. However, when we look at the presentation of these two religions within anime, we see the continued presence of Shinto as the ‘true’ religion of Japan, and although that position may never be explicitly stated, the silence surrounding the numerous important Buddhist institutions in Kyoto especially, alongside the vocal recognition of a small number of Shinto shrines, albeit important ones, suggests that the attitudes towards religion created during the Meiji period are still very much present today, and are part of contemporary cultural understandings of Japan’s history and traditions.


As a cultural medium, anime also portrays the most well-known Kami, Shrines, and Youkai, largely leaving out the complications that arise from the syncretic nature of Japanese religion – kami that have their origins in India for example, or the most classic case of Inari, who is worshipped under Buddhist, and Shinto guises. Kami are all part of Shinto, not the complicated Shinto that incorporates the old, and the new, but the simple (even simplistic at times) Shinto that has more in common with the Shinto of the Meiji and pre-war eras, when the state attempted to separate Japanese religion and push Shinto as the one, true Japanese religion, above the foreign (Chinese) interloper that is Buddhism. But, even here, tradition is malleable, and we see the portrayal of contemporary understandings of Shinto, those found in the public imagination, rather than scholarly discourse. As such, the youkai found in anime are well known – kitsune, tengu, and tanuki – with regional and historical variations largely ignored. Certain anime such as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away), and Ushio to Tora offer a glimpse into the complex nature of Japanese folk beliefs, with a wide variety of different creates, spirits, and apparitions. Youkai literally translates as ‘strange apparition’, and as they are often intimately linked with specific geographical locations, or certain aspects of nature, such as rivers, trees, and mountains, and there are numerous regional differences, they are exceptionally varied in nature.

Similarly, Japanese Kami are also exceptionally varied in nature, with the syncretic nature of Japanese religion resulting in deities being worshipped as Kami and Buddha’s/Bodhisattvas, sometimes simultaneously. Furthermore, as with the example of Inari, many of these deities may be worshipped under numerous different forms, and a similar number of names – in those guises they may retain elements of their most well-known form, while also incorporating regional, and historical powers, and links to specific landscapes. Such variation, while fascinating, represents far too much complexity for a national narrative and image. Within contemporary culture these complexities are ironed out, leaving a highly simplified, and easy to grasp image of Japanese culture and tradition, one that uses recognisable depictions of kami and youkai which fit with known images and understandings of Nihonjinron, or Japaneseness. Although we must be careful when exploring the idea of Nihonjinron, as there is a danger of talking about a uniquely Japanese existence free from outside influences, something that has arguably never existed. However, such discourses still play a significant role in popular culture, as highlighted by the continued use of recognisably ‘Japanese’ images, and understandings of the country and its culture, as found in anime that deal with ‘tradition’, and all that the word entails.

When thinking about the importance of Kyoto, and particularly shrines to Japanese culture, a number of interesting thoughts arise. While most people visiting world heritage sites like Tenryu-ji, or Ginkaku-ji, and especially Ryoan-ji, may have little understanding of the principles behind the garden, they are still playing an active role in the creation of tradition. Even now, many reasons and ideas behind specific gardens, their meanings, and specifics about their construction may not be fully understood, even on a scholastic level, let along on an everyday level. But, they are important sites that are an integral part of Japan’s cultural heritage, and by visiting them, Japanese tourists (and tourists in general), and especially school groups, are taking an active role in the preservation of a cultural tradition, irrespective of their individual understanding. The same is true of wearing kimono in the Gion, or other historical districts – it might be a highly reductive form of tradition, but it still exists, and those who choose to do so are preserving a particular form of traditional clothing in a very public fashion. This suggests that tradition, or at least a public’s perception of tradition doesn’t need to be driven by in-depth knowledge to play an important role in the creation of a national image and history. Furthermore, Kyoto remains essential to this image precisely because one does not need to know its full history to realise how important the city has been. But Kyoto hasn’t always been the centre or political, or economic power, with Kamakura, Tokyo, and a number of feudal states holding true power throughout Japan’s history but, even during these periods, the Imperial Palace, alongside numerous important religious sites remained in Kyoto (in the case of the Imperial Palace, it was only moved during the Meiji Restoration), further cementing its importance to Japanese social, cultural, and political life.


About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

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