Travel Journal: Japan, August/September 2015 — Selected Entries

Walking by the river in Kyoto: the water is shallow. Square cross-shaped concrete blocks line the bank, and young people sit upon them and down the bank, knees up, lounging languid along the grass. The buildings along the river are a mix of old and new, ancient wooden ones with sliding doors and big windows and old dark, wooden terraces next to others made of concrete and reinforced with steel.

Later, in the evening, we lounge on the riverbank too: a woman in a wedding dress sits on the grass with a circle around her. A group of Americans with beards and accents and loud voices sit between them and us. One of them strums a guitar, and another claps as the wedding-dressed woman rises and leaves. Meanwhile a young boy, a man, and a young woman set up a speaker and a microphone, test it, and then start singing — the woman sings and while she is a fine singer, her voice is too loud, and the strumming acoustic guitar from the speaker is too faint.

It is nighttime and the sun has set, and it is beautiful here along the river, our feet stretched out towards the stones that angle down into the water, while snatches of Japanese float through the air, mingled with the occasional loud American laugh.

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The Ponto-cho is a narrow street, lit at night by Japanese lanterns, red and white, with Kanji caligraphied on their surfaces — not the touristy lamps sold at the gift shops along the path to Senso-ji in Tokyo, but nice lanterns, that seem somehow more authentic.

Most of the people walking are Japanese, though a few are tourists, clutching Lonely Planet guidebooks, trying to decipher the menus and match the Kanji in the books with those hanging on the wooden signs outside each elegant window. The buildings are all magnificent, possessing a quiet, charming elegance, doors closed, the menus hidden behind wooden partitions, giving the street an almost neighborhoody charm, as if we were walking past beautiful, expensive private homes that look out onto the river.

The sign at the front of the street informs us that the street’s name comes from the Portuguese or the English, back in the pre-Tokugawa period when Japan was engaged in foreign trade. Seeing all these bearded foreigners and hearing other languages on this street of multi-linguistic origin makes me happy — a sign that we no longer live in a world where people separate themselves, that the long era of nationalism may indeed be over and that the new Globalization may give the world a much-needed era of peace — the dream of those peace-marchers we’d seen earlier in Gion, led by the guy in the anti-Abe shirt, made real.

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After paying the entry-free and getting a map and a postcard of two Buddhas, we walk into Nison-in, down a long, tree-lined path, up a shallow set of stone stairs, and emerge into a set of buildings: one is being restored and covered in scaffolding. A small shrine is ahead of us; we stop briefly and then continue through the gardens to a stone staircase. We follow it up into a leafy cemetery, which, like the rest of the temple-complex is eerily quiet. The weather gets hotter the higher up we go, until the humidity is making out faces and arms slick with sweat. My shirt clings to my chest and the strap of my camera bag chafes against my neck. Added to this is the rain which falls in a light drizzle around us, so faint it might be just a mist.

But in all this, I still feel a strange sense of peace. Ascending the staircases feels like floating to a higher plane, one more serene, where the momentary problems fade to insignificance. I can’t read the gravestones, and even if I could, so many are fading, the etchings in the stone weathered and scratched, erased by the weather. Yet there is power here, in the small groups of stones clustered at each level of the staircase, some graves big, with marble marking them, most small, strange crosses with rounded tops, different enough from Christian or Muslim graves to be foreign. And yet I understood them, their purpose their power, why the monks chose to bury them on this ascending hillside, looking down over the roofs of Nison-in and Kyoto beyond. Religion is the burial of the dead, and here amidst these clustered stones lies all the meaning behind the buildings below, behind why the monks pray so fervently, behind why it is still so wonderfully preserved and why tourists like us continue each year to visit.

At the top, after we ascend the final staircase, we turn to admire the view — but a tree blocks it, and the hillside is angled so that only a sliver of Kyoto’s roofs are visible against the distant gray sky. But it doesn’t matter because the calm majesty of the stones around us and the quiet patter of rain against the ground is all our senses need to know.

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We pull into a cafe because I have to piss, on the side of the main street in Downtown Kyoto, a place called Holly’s Cafe, best described as American Kitsch: a diner vibe, mellow oldies playing, booths and tables with old off-white chairs. We debate what to buy, settle on coffee, and sit while each of us pees. The mellow music keeps us quiet, and we stare instead at the artwork on the walls — vividly colored paintings of stick figure-like people with square heads that in some places double as coffee mugs — and at the old ladies smoking at the tables next to us. It is these old ladies that move us the most, solitary, staring into space while smoke curls around them and drifts to the fluorescent lights above. What thoughts run through their heads, we wonder? What brought them to this place to sit and drink and smoke on a Monday mid-morning? What must have happened in their lives to produce their world-weariness?

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I think as we walk to Kinkaku-Ji of the monk who burned the temple down in the mid-20th century, ostensibly because he loved it so much. When I see the reconstructed pavilion, it is beautiful, gleaming in the sun, reflected off the pond. But I still wonder about the original — so many of Japan’s monuments had been lost in the war, and it seems a shame that one that survived should be lost too.

Nevertheless, we snap our pictures, stare with brief wonder, then move on.

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Immediately as we step off the train, we see signs that we are near the shrine — vermillion railings in imitation of the Torii Gates, crowds of tourists with cameras, a security guard at the turnstile guiding people through, or to the fare adjustment if their ticket has insufficient funds (in my case).

The approach to the shrine itself is through a large vermillion Torii Gate (reconstructed or original?) and the temple is an orange to match the gates. It’s flanked by fox statues each with a different object in its mouth. Fortunes are available in the familiar shaking boxes nearby.

As we wind our way up the hill under the vermillion gates, which flit by overhead like an orange sky, an unending stream that stands out like an orange ribbon against the green forests of the mountainside, and as the water drips steadily around us and as we pass the various wooden fox shrines and get whiffs of incense mixing with the smell of damp wood and leaves, I ponder the idea of Inari, kami of grain and commerce. Like Demeter, Imari is the least appreciated yet most essential of the divinities — for what ultimately was more important to ancient civilization (and even to us today) than those two things, grain and commerce? Are they not the basis of civilization? The Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks glorified Demeter, Persephone, and Triptolemus, who gave man the gift of agriculture — and however much stylish contemporary theories criticize agriculture, it is still the best of human innovations, the thing that allows us to be fed, to settle, to build shelters, to create art, to be more than just nomads wandering the earth. And so, it is moving to see a temple devoted to Inari and to see that even today thousands flock to see her shrine, to stare with wonder at the gates, to stand before the shrine, between the fox statues, to ring the bell, bow their heads, clap twice, and pray for the continued gifts of grain and commerce.

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Restored buildings are, after a week in Japan, no longer a surprise, and nor is it a surprise that tourists continue to flock to them despite their reconstructed natures. In fact, it’s a very Western, privileged perspective to wish for original buildings here when it was our planes and fire-bombs that often destroyed the old buildings. And so, I have no problem with the fact that Osaka Castle is a 1930s concrete reconstruction of the original. Just standing in the spot where Hideyoshi ruled from is enough for my historical interest.

The inside though is less effective than the outside, as far as reconstructions go: tacky museum displays and a 90s interior (fake wood, shiny surfaces, metal, etc.), all give it a strange, Disney-fied feel, despite the fact that in these display cases are authentic letters from Hideyoshi and Tokugawa, swords and armor of the 16th century, and the most impressive of all, screens painted with gorgeous images of battles and religious rituals. Staring at them, one manages to forget for a moment that he or she is standing one floor away from low-budget videos hagiographically retelling scenes from Hideyoshi’s life.

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Museum displays in Nara are the best in all of Japan, Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji in particular. Walking into the dimly lit, air conditioned space, one feels the power of the Heian period as one gazes up at the grand, looming Buddhas, starring down at you through glass cases, the red felt of the walls behind them bringing out their deep bronze, highlighting the ancientness of them, calling attention to every smudge and crack, every reminder that you stand in front of some of the oldest things in all Japan.

In the final hall before the exit one can gaze on Kofuku-ji’s big, bronze Buddha, its many arms a terrifying, humbling sight (who says Buddhism isn’t also violent and awe-inspiring in the way Christianity is?). But the more chilling statues are those opposite the Buddha, lining the back of the hall by the exit. Spaced out against the black felt wall, each glowing with a different colored light from above, like performers on a stage, are eight Devas (according to the plaque later I learned that a Deva is a kind of nun-human, earthly entity, not a God, but still a better, more refined being than a human). In the center is the standing Deva, whiter, paler than the others, female in figure and face, with four arms stretched around it. Somehow, though smaller, it is more chilling than the Buddha across the hall. Its watchful, vigilant gaze is more penetrating, as if it’s looking at you in particular, and knows your name and all the scattered thoughts racing through your head.

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