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April 13, 2005

TravelBlog: Kyoto, city of a thousand shrines

While Tokyo is the bustling, crowded, frenetic center of Japan, Kyoto is the historic center, having been the location of the capital for several hundred years between when it was at Nara (located slightly south of Kyoto) and Tokyo. It's also the home to an impossible number of shrines and an overwhelming amount of history. In fact, it's difficult to walk around outside the city center without running into some historical building (which, given Japan's propensity for mutability, likely has burnt down and rebuilt a dozen times).

There's something about being awake early in the morning that I like when traveling. Perhaps it's that early morning is a time when the city is just groaning into life, and people go about their business in a way that's pretty independent of culture and location. That is, I just like watching whatever city I'm in wake up. the city of Kyoto itself is surrounded be low mountains (800m at highest), and its the foothills that are where the majority of the shrines lay. Because I had limited time in Kyoto, I decided to focus on one section of the halo of shrines that surrounds the city, so my first stop was the massive Choin-in temple, where I heard three monks doing their early morning chants to the regular rhythm of a drum. The temple buildings can only be described as massive, in that "wow, that roof looks like it weights several hundred tons and it was built using techniques from a thousand years ago" kind of way. These gargantuan structures (topped by beautiful roof tiles) are the exact ones that you see shown whenever someone wants to represent traditional Japan. Inside one of the smaller Choin-in buildings, I discovered a set of calligraphy tables, laid out as if later in the day a group of young Japanese students would occupy them, learning how to make beautiful kanji characters. Choin-in is one of the more touristy temple complexes in Kyoto, but being there well before it opened, I was able to enjoy it quietly.

Although I saw upwards of a dozen shrines and temples during my first day, a few stood out. The Kiyomizu-dera temple is one of several a world heritage sites and is another sprawling complex of buildings, some small and some large. On the approach, you're confronted by a three story tall pagoda painted bright orange, flanked by some early-blooming cherry trees (the cherry blossom season has particular significance to the Japanese, and there are all sorts of festivals scheduled for the time of year when they blossom). The rest of the temple complex is strung out along a winding trail that skirts the bottom of a steep hillside. The main temple itself is raised on five-story-high stilts, which gives it a commanding view of the area. Around the corner from the main temple, a few narrow alleyways were packed with Japanese school kids and merchants selling traditional Japanese fortunes - little pieces of paper folded tightly and bound with a read ribbon. The kids were laughing and teasing each other about their fortunes, and a few took up the challenge of the Love Stones: two stones, placed about 20 feet apart, where if you are able to successfully walk from one to the other with your eyes closed while murmuring the name of your interest, supposedly your heart's desires will come true. Several of the temples I visisted had prayer boards, where people would hang a small wooden plaques with writing and/or pictures on them which are called 'ema' which offer prayers with vows of love. The chief priest of the shrine or temple then prays so that the prayers will be answered on the first Sunday of every month.

Another memorable temple was Sanjusangendo, a 120 meter long building containing 1001 statues of Kannon, and 20-something statutes of the major gods of Buddhism. The odd statue of the 1001 is a larger-than-life bodhisattva. As you walk along the length of the interior, reading the various descriptions of the major gods, it's hard to avoid being amazed at the Japanese's attention to detail. Both with the 1000 identical statues, and the temple buildings themselves, being able to mass produce things that require an incredible attention to detail seems to have a long tradition in Japan. If you mentally compare the relative messiness of the appearance of a gothic cathedral to the extremely well-ordered appearance of a Japanese temple structure, you'll get a good impression for just how amazingly disciplined the Japanese people were when the Western world was still in chaos.

As is often the case when I travel alone, I made friends with a few other people in the hostel over dinner that night. The next day, Rosa, a chinese woman who spoke English but no Japanese, joined me for the day. What impressed me about Rosa was that she was much more confident of her ability to get around than I was. For instance, she taught me that in restaurants, you should ask for the "picture menu", and that failing that, just ask for "fish". It was also interesting to see her mistaken for Japanese and then amusing to see their confused looks when she refused to speak Japanese back to them. Rosa and I took the long way up the nearby Mt. Hiei in order to get to another sprawling temple complex, called Enryaku-ji. Bigger temples, but not significantly novel after my first overdose on shrines. Oddly, in getting there, we passed through a garden filled with reproductions of French impressionist paintings and a restaurant called Cafe du Paris. Those Japanese... very strange. :)

Given how much history is represented in Kyoto, my few short days there were wholly insufficient; yet I'm happy with how much I was able to pack into them. On my last half-day in the city, I visited a traditional Japanese Zen rock garden, the famous Ryoin-ji. The garden is supposedly the quintessential one of its kind, with 15 rough rocks of various sizes arranged on a 40 x 20 ft bed of carefully raked white gravel (I was surprised at the roughness of the stones - my naive impression was that rocks in rock gardens were supposed to be smooth). The brochure instructed we tourists to find our own meaning in its arrangement, and it occurred to me that this perspective is decidedly post-modern, despite the garden having been built more than 500 years before modernism. In several touristy spots, I'd seen Japanese carefully dusting surfaces; in fact, every temple or shrine I visited was immaculately clean. The natural gardens surrounding Ryion-ji were no different, although it was the detritus and stray pieces of gravel that the groundskeepers were carefully removing. From Ryoin-ji I walked down the road to Kinkaka-ji, the Golden Pavilion, built by one of the shoguns while Japan was under military rule. Here, I met throngs of camera-ladden tourists (mostly Italian and Spanish) snapping pictures of a three story building situated in the middle of a tranquil lake, of which the top two stories were completely covered in gold leaf. It was like the dome of Napoleon's Tomb meets the Shogunate, and it sparkled brilliantly in the mid-morning sun. It was here that I met Sarah, an American working as a nanny for a Japanese family outside of Tokyo. Sarah's story struck me as interesting because she had simply decided that she didn't know what she wanted to do after college and so, instead of moving home and getting a job like most lost college grads, she spontaneously moved to Japan for a year. I had to admire her gumption.

There were two things I didn't get to do while I was in Kyoto. The first was to see the geisha in the Gion district. On my way back to the hostel, I took a stroll down the main street in the area, which is literally about four feet wide, and peeked down the inviting entryways to the teahouses. The other was to see some kabuki theatre (I've heard it's boring, but still, I want to see it first hand), which originated in Kyoto. I'll have to come back another time to see these and the temples on the western side of the city. This is probably true of all cultures everywhere, but I couldn't help but notice the similarity of function that the massive temples had as compared to the massive cathedrals in Europe; that is, they inspire awe and reverence for the cause to which they were built. In fact, when Rosa and I were wandering through the Nijo-jo castle, the brochure specifically said that the brilliant Kano-period painted screens were intended to inspire awe in the Shogun's visiting nobles. It's been said many times before, but this gives the function of our modern skyscrapers on a slightly different interpretation, particularly banks.

After my last entry, I had a request to make some observations about the Japanese people and perhaps contrast them with Americans. It's my impression that the Japanese are a somewhat guarded people. They're extremely friendly to strangers and travelers, but that would seem to be a traditional obligation, not unlike the same of ancient Greece (think: The Oddysey). They are also very family-centric, and when you apply for jobs, etc., you typically have to give your parent's contact information, presumably so that the boss can call on their influence, if need be; the family seems to be a crucial part of the social accountability system. At least partially because of the population density, people often live with their parents until they can afford their own place, or they get married. For the women, I don't get the impression that they have as many socially acceptable alternatives to early marriage and housewife-dom as their American counterparts. Indeed, I very rarely saw women around my age who weren't on the arm of their boyfriend. There also seems to be an element of cultural doppelgangerism - the fashion and music of the American 1950s, 1980s, and British punk rock are alive and well here in Japan. (To be honest, I think the Japanese have improved upon the originals.) Also, the Japanese are a people of intense convenience. Heated toilet seats, their cellphones, their shinkansen (bullet trains), ubiquitous automatic doors (even in the smallest of restaurants or stores), etc. are all testament to their desire to live more easily through technology. But what's odd is that they aren't as computerized as Americans are. They love their gadgets for their convenience (and are years ahead of the rest of the world), but still rely on paper copies of information tables and paper files in many of their transportation offices. For good reason, Japan often gets called the place where East and West meet. I think it's modernized extremely quickly, adopting western attitudes for things like technology, some fashion, convenience, etc., but it's still quite traditional when it comes to social mores. I wouldn't be surprised if China becomes even more of a weird blend of east/west and tradition/modern given the rate at which it's advancing.

posted April 13, 2005 11:06 AM in Travel | permalink