Japan, Land of Water
Cities Blessed with Water
Water is a gift, meant to be handled well and protected since we need it every day. These pages present two places that have enjoyed the benefits of water for centuries and prospered as a result.
1. Ample supplies of water foster culture in an ancient capital: Kyoto
Sheltered on three sides by low mountains, Kyoto lies in a basin blessed by two major rivers: the Kamo-gawa in the east and the Katsura-gawa in the west. The rivers have formed an alluvial fan that lets water percolate down, creating a supply of groundwater so vast that Kyoto has been described as a city sitting on top of a big water jug. Summers can be stifling hot and winters bitterly cold, but even so Kyoto served as the nation’s capital without a break for over a thousand years, beginning in the late 8th century.It continued to prosper over the centuries, thanks in part to its plentiful sources of excellent water.
The Kamo-gawa flows basically straight from north to south. It was once prone to overflowing its banks, creating major problems for the city folk, so Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were established at some of the river’s sources, to pray for protection from its wrath. During long dry spells, water festivals were held and residents prayed for rain. The ancient capital played a very important role as a center venerating the gods of water. Religious devotion focused on water, with purification ceremonies that included immersing oneself in a river, and there was faith in the miraculous powers of water from certain wells. Some of those beliefs survive to this day.
Even in ancient times Kyoto residents had no problem obtaining enough drinking water—all they had to do was dig wells a few meters down, just about anywhere, and then quality water was theirs. When priests from China brought Zen Buddhism to Japan they also brought vegetarian recipes for making tofu, as well as yuba (the skin that forms on the surface of boiled soy milk), and fu (dried wheat gluten). Before long these were refined into ingredients that became an important part of Japanese cuisine. Kyoto’s water played a part in this, too.
The key to the water’s constantly good quality is the fact that the well water varies very little throughout the year in temperature and taste. The well water has created many opportunities for older businesses to enhance their reputations, and they still take good care of their wells for their signature products, such as saké and tea. Kyoto’s fine water helped in the development of the sado tea ceremony and ikebana flower arrangement. It also kept temple gardens moist, and supported the growth of traditional industries like weaving and pottery.
Kyoto street scenes are still enlivened by old customs that use water effectively. To gain relief from the heat of summer, wooden decks called yuka are constructed sparsely near flowing rivers for revelers to relax and enjoy eating river-caught fish. Shopkeepers and others sprinkle water on the sidewalks and roads, to give passersby respite from the heat. This practice, called uchi-mizu, lowers the temperature in front of the narrow storefronts, thereby generating a breeze that pushes out warmer air in the long family home, called machiya, interiors. In a low-lying city practically surrounded by highlands, where cooling breezes are often absent and water is plentiful, these scenes give Kyoto a unique and hospitable appeal.
The nation’s capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in the late 19th century, but Kyoto continued to develop, thanks again to water. To promote population growth, a major project was launched to bring water to the city through a canal from Lake Biwa in neighboring Shiga Prefecture. This led to better water-related infrastructure, and to the construction of Japan’s first hydroelectric plant, bringing electric lights and modernization to the old capital.
Kyoto has used water to nurture its thousand years of tradition and culture, and today it is one of the world’s most vividly historic cities.