A window on Japan, Part II
09.05.2013 - 25.05.2013 23 °C
here I am with the second part of my blog about Japan, a country that from the very first day has only fascinated me... and in which I have definitely fallen in love. I would like to talk about a few things that did not appear in the first part a few weeks ago, and also tell you about things that I did not encounter in the area surrounding Kyoto, but that I experienced traveling south through Kansai (the region of Kyoto and Osaka), Chogoku (Hiroshima) and Kyushu (Nagasaki and Fukuoka). Moreover, I will tell you a few facts about "traveling in Japan". Since I fear for everybody (me included) that this chapter is also going to be quite long, I have prepared a bottle of sake to be my buddy in the next few hours while writing this post!
The beauty of Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines
I grew up in Europe, and there religious building are also very often the landmarks of a city, given their size and power. However, religious buildings in Japan are almost hidden in the outskirts of town, and can almost never be seen if not when in front of their entrance. There are many Buddhist temples, that are the places related to the figure of Buddha. These complex have usually a huge building as entry gate, and their size is definitely bigger than that of the shrines. The Shintoist shrines are on the other hand related to no specific figure/god, but instead to that particular place/person/deity that is unique to that shrine (there are obviously recurring themes or deities). Here, people come to greet such entities and express their wishes, sometimes by writing them on small wood tablets that end up forming piles, by buying an amulet at the "shrine shop" or by trying their luck in drawing a fortune out of a wooden box (my first and only was bad luck. oh well).
But the thing that has fascinated me the most is the pure beauty of these sacred places. Everything very simple, elegant, and that allows for a personal spirituality. Something that I rarely find back home. so let me show you a few pictures of some of the places that I liked the most, or that for reason impressed me:
The silver Pavillion, Kyoto
The simple structure, centuries-old, and the surrounding pond, are probably the best garden I have seen in Japan. It is for me the finest temple of Kyoto, a city that has such sacred places as the major attractions, contrary to Tokyo that has whole neighborhoods to wander around as activity.
Itsukushima Shrine and its floating torii, Miyajima
The story goes that when entering a shrine, a devout always need to go through such a gate, but apparently in the older times some where not allowed to set foot on the sacred island, so the floating torii approachable by boat.
The largest wooden building worldwide (besides some new stadiums), only 2/3 of its original size before it burned down a few times, is a sight that had me "awwwwww" for a while. I mean, it is incredibly big, and it stands powerful in front of you, swallowing hordes of tourists in its tiny door. What's inside? one of the largest Buddha statues in bronze, called Daibutsu in Japan):
I loved this little zen temple, it had this little garden within the main house, around which you could sit and enjoy the sunshines of the sun setting on the bright green leaves of the trees, while a gardener was pouring water on the central stones creating such a calm and peaceful atmosphere. If you add then the right music I had in my iPod, this was definitely one of the best way to finish a very intense day of temple discovery:
Do you see that small Buddha statue on the left corner below? Well, it was probably one of the most beautiful things I've seen in Japan. When I told it to some people employed in the temple, they found it funny because I guess that statue is nothing special in any way, but... I loved it.
I would have many other pictures regarding temples and shrines, but... ok one last that will allow me to make cool transition into the next chapter. Actually to the next two chapters considering that this is Gion, a particular neighborhood of Kyoto. But let's consider this shrine's torii the door from the sacred world of Japan into the modern and urban one:
As it was clear in my previous post already, Japan has many faces. The contrast I want to point out this time is between such peaceful and sacred places described a while ago, and the new Japan, that you can encounter just a few steps away. This urban world takes so many form that is pretty impossible to describe, but let me make a few example to give you an impression, all taken from my short staying in Osaka:
Fashion lights at Ebisucho bridge
Here are they all, here they meet and plan the evening, here they show their new styles and complicated hairstyles: the fashion victims in their purest form! And it might sounds like sarcasm, but I was sometimes a bit envious - some of them really have got a huge deal of style, and were able to pull off things that in Europe would be deemed as too extravagant! And you can imagine me, standing there with one of the same t-shirts I've been wearing (and washing!) for 5 months, all-round shoes and backpacker style all-together: it was like black and white! I really felt like an outsider, watching a catwalk under some impressive light show:
I say underground because they were really in the underground area of Namba station, but the point is that in Japan (at least the "urban cities" of Tokyo and Osaka) people dance. I've seen countless gangs of youngsters training in front of mirrors in the malls, or in the parks. The place where I took this picture was definitely a dance hub as many groups were there practicing, from hip hop to... stuff I did not know. But the one I was really happy to see was breakdancing, maybe because I remember a few years ago when me and my friends were into it and looked like worms (*not* did the worm as the cool move, we looked like worms), and some of the coolest crews on the web where from Japan!
Go big, even with fishes
Have you ever heard of the Osaka's aquarium? It is one of the biggest worldwide. I am a big fan of marine life, so I had to go check it out... however, I cannot say that when I got out I was that happy. Similarly to when I go to zoos. I know that having animals in captivity is a chance for research, and to educate people, especially children. But there are some animals that should never!!! be looked up - in this case, dolphins and a whale shark of 6-7m, the only one in captivity around the world. This is to say that sometimes modern Japan goes big, really big. And in cases like this, beyond the border:
Meeting with a geisha
I will now tell you a story. Before coming to Japan, I started reading the famous book Memoirs of a Geisha by A. Golden, a book that has been very much loved as it opened the world of geishas to the west. However, there is much controversy about geishas in Western countries, as they depict the figure of geishas too close to what some people erroneously think they might be: prostitutes. They are not. Let me clear a few things up: they are entertainers, that have specialized in various arts like dancing and singing, but that are also masters in making the guests at ease with pleasant conversations, funny stories and light flirting. Of course they are not nouns, so if they really want to have sex with a customer, they will, but this is not what they have been paid for, it's their own initiative. Their image has been misused for long, especially during WWII when the Allied forces occupied Japan and many prostitutes adopted the geisha-style that was very much loved by the Americans, but they never were real geishas. The world of the real geishas is a world of mystery and wonders, as it is open only to a few. Tourists like me can attend public dances that take place a few times over the year in such quarters (and I did - extremely interesting!), but the original form of entertainment takes places privately, when a customer organizes a party with guests in an ochaya, or "tea house". However, ochayas only let a selected network of acquaintances book such a night, as it is a matter of trust and respect. For such reason, somebody must be introduced in the network by somebody that is part of it already. So, as a tourist, the only thing you can do is either attend a public dance, or do some geisha spotting in the evening in the streets where the ochayas are - I did it, even though I was not proud of it. This means staying in front of an ochaya waiting for somebody to show up, with your camera ready to shoot. And let's be honest - who likes to have a big camera put in front of their nose by dozens of tourists every night, when you are basically going to work? Nobody. However, seeing a geisha is something so intriguing, and this is one of the shots:
But this was not my first encounter. Probably, it is because of my first meeting that I was so eager to see a geisha again. I was in Kanazawa, north of Nagoya, and went visit the geisha quarter during the day, like everybody else. I got interested in this world, also because of the book I was reading, so I also paid the ticket to enter a very well known ochaya in the street, and I was fascinated by it: elegant rooms, one with red walls for businessmen, one blue for the samurai. Sliding paper doors, soft tatami on which to walk, elegant flower arrangements... well, I fantasized how it would be to have a private party there. I started to talk to my guide, and soon I also got introduced to the owner of the ochaya, a lovely lady that explained me many more things about this world... we got along nicely, and maybe also because I told her I am Swiss and she loved visiting my country, and that she was friend with the owner of the guesthouse were I was staying, I got an invite: I could attend the end of a party the very same night!!! I was extremely excited, and when I showed up later that night I could see from the back of the room the two geishas performing in front of the guests, that had just finished dinner. So that was the real deal! After that, the owner of the ochaya kindly introduced me to the two geishas, and asked them if they would be willing to take a picture or two with me. You can understand from my story how difficult it is to have a personal contact with a real geisha, so I was very happy when this picture was taken:
Moreover, I got the chance to take a picture of the lovely Sozuka:
Maybe for many this does not mean anything special. It's just a girl in the end. But for me, after considering what the figure of a geisha is, how much Japanese culture is embedded in it, how mysterious and inaccessible their world of the flower and the willow i, this meeting was absolutely one of the highlights of my trip.
A country built for peace
This chapter is a bit historical, I hope it won't be boring for you, but it essential. I am sure you have heard the names Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I've been to both cities, and I have visited their museum, parks and halls in memory of the big tragedy, namely the annihilation of the two cities by the atomic bomb. I will not go into details about it, as it might get complicated - however, I cannot not express how sad and angry I always felt when confronted with such story. Sad is easy to understand, 140'000 (Hiroshima) + 70'000 (Nagasaki) people died, their life burnt to ashes, like the city in which they were living. Seeing the picture of a city not burnt, not shaken by an earthquake, but completely flattened was... like a punch in the stomach. Seeing the pictures of carbonized children is something difficult to digest. And I have been angry, very angry. In Europe we have the tendency to grow up by considering Germany as the "evil", and the Americans as the "saviors" (extreme generalization, but allow me to do it for the moment). After having been in these two cities, I clearly understand that during WWII there was nobody that had clean hands. I still cannot understand how this was possible, independently on how much Japan was a threat or hurt the US with e.g. Pearl Harbor. How it was possible to involve so many civilian lives, and erase them in a few seconds. TWICE. How this was possible after even the researchers of the bomb advised against its use, especially without any previous notice, so not to give any chance to anybody. How this was possible after Germany surrendered already, and Japan was clearly defeated (US reports will confirm that even without the bombing, it would have surrendered in a few months). How it was possible that some people involved justified the use of the bomb with possible criticism in the US after having spent so much in R&D, or that otherwise Russia would have had the chance to take a bigger piece of cake (a defeated Japan). Again, how it was possible that Nagasaki was bombed 3 days after Hiroshima after it was possible to see its devastating effects. I will not focus on this, as it is a very complicated matter and I might not even have all the pieces of the puzzle.
What I want to focus is the resolution of these two cities in being messengers of world peace. I have been amazed by the strong spirit of these cities, that still now strive for a total denuclearization, and for a lasting peace. And this, from two cities that have experienced the atomic bomb.
Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the bomb was dropped the 6th of August 1945, 8.15. She did not die. But she developed leukemia due to the radiations of the bomb. She was then hospitalized 10 years later, with a maximum of 1 year to live. In Japan it was said that if you fold 1000 paper cranes, the god will grant you a wish. That is why during this time, she set her mind to accomplish this goal, using all kind of paper she could find as it was scarce. She folded 644, but then died. Her classmates folded the remaining, and buried the 1000 paper cranes with her. She has become one of the symbol of the victims of the bomb, and the folding of paper cranes has remained a strong tradition in elementary schools since then, so that many classes of all around Japan come to Hiroshima or Nagasaki to bring their folded paper cranes, in memory of the victims of the bombing but also for praying for worldwide peace. You know, whenever somebody speaks of world peace, it sounds... unreal, almost childish. But whenever somebody raises the matter in such a contest, in a city that has been bombed by the atomic bomb for crying out loud!!!, it becomes a powerful message. Maybe the only one that really matters. I have been very much moved in these circumstances, and I was happy to see the kids today performing such a ceremony, class after class:
Let's return to easier topics, shall we? I promised some facts about traveling in Japan compared to other countries so far, and I've come up with three examples, a selection of many:
Oh, so many types of accomodations! Most of my time was spent in hostel, as I really like their atmosphere here in Japan (more than in other countries), people are extremely friendly and the hostels are pretty nice. However, it is fun to try something different, like the famous capsule hotel! I went to one when I was in Tokyo, and I was pretty surprised because.. it's not like you are beeing buried alive! They are pretty spacious, and very discrete - the only drawback: they are not as cheap as you would think, many hostels are cheaper than this! Then, you have the alternative of the manga kissa, or more commonly internet cafe open 24h, in which you can rent a private cubicle with either comfortable chair or thin mattress, computer, free drinks all night long and especially a huuuge manga library. Nerd paradise - and I loved it. Third, we have the other extreme, the charm of a ryokan, a typical japanese accommodation that correspond to the older inns that used to host travelers. Not only is the room is pure japanese style with paper sliding doors, tatami and futon, but you also get a personal maid that is going to attend you regarding every matter, and she is going to serve you dinner in the room! Extremely enjoyable, especially if you can soak your bones in the private onsen (thermal bath) of the ryokan. You are being pampered like a samurai, and wearing a yukata add some of that feeling!
2) Hordes of tourists
Even though I think it is very positive, it is sometimes very bothersome: Japanese love to visit their own country, and they do it in big numbers. Especially around Golden Week, the first of May in which everybody is (finally) forced to take a few days off. So, it is highly suggested to wake up early in the morning to beat the crowds, unless you wanna line up behind 30 old people led by a shouting girl waving a small flag. Then, when you think Golden Week is over... Activity Week is up for all schools! I've never seen so many students all together, from all ages, with the same uniform! They are reaaaally many... if you see a line of 50 kids moving towards the entrance of a museum, be sure to get ahead of them! Waiting won't help, as there are probably other 10 classes behind them. This causes a few problems with photography, as you keep on having some kid running around your subject. But that's ok, I mean, they are kids... the problems begin when instead of kids you get... deers:
3) Be the star!!!
Ahah this is fun. Very often, being a lone traveler from the West can turn you into an attraction yourself! It happened quite frequently that kids shouted me an "HALLOOOOOO!!!!" from afar, or that groups of junior high school gather around you asking stuff. If you then draw out the camera and tell them you would like to take a picture with them... they go crazy! I have to be honest, I have enjoyed the attention received eheh! The best thing happened today when a kid stood up from a group and came right at me pointing at the sketch in my travel journal and telling me "very good!!!".
And this is it. Some stories from Japan, a few of many that I hoped you enjoyed. I do not actually know how many of you have reached the end since this post was again very long, but for those who did... you make me happy! It usually takes me around 5 hours to write a chapter, and I love doing it, but.. if I know that you also enjoy it, you really make it worth it! As you probably noticed, the two chapters of Japan were kind of different, or so I felt by looking at the pictures I posted and the way I wrote about it - I think it is because I fell in love with this country, and felt the need to explain many things that I perceived and show many things I encountered, contrary to the usual short summary I do for the other countries.
However, right now my trip in Japan is over. And so is the sake, so this is a clear sign that I should close this entry! But as always, the end of one chapter is the beginning of a new one - next is China, and I am very happy my girlfriend will be able to join me! Back at home, I wish you all the best, keep on following me till the end!!! =)