Saturday, August 30, 2008
The ride was a local for a couple of stops and then shifted to an express. I waited patiently for the giant Buddha I had seen on the way in, hoping to get a photograph. And I did, but not a good one, with Buddha serenely looking down upon the corner of a car dealership.
We arrived and checked in and went up the escalator to the food court and Starbucks. Looking around I noticed that no one had luggage and it finally dawned on me, not only was this an airport, but it was a regional mall. Suddenly I had an explanation for all the people on the train without bags - they were heading out to the mall for some shopping and lunch. The crowds made it very difficult to move around with a carry on bag, and every time I ran over someone's foot I got a look as though to ask "why the heck do you have that stupid bag here in the shopping center?"
Having had a coffee to increase my sense of stress I made it easily through customs but I was shaken down by security. This is twice now since I bought that Chinese GPS that I have had to unload my bag, apparently I have crossed some threshold. And I suppose I do look odd with two cameras, two iPods, a computer, a Blackberry, a power supply, a computer, a Sony eReady and a bag of candy bars. The young woman checking my stuff found it pretty amusing that I kept producing item after item. She ran them through and I passed and she came back and repacked my bag precisely the way I had it, which is something in itself. In the US they dump it on the table and walk away.
I traded in what was left of my Yen because I had far too many of them and then went to the lounge where I now sit eating Lindt truffles and watching the planes take off. Business class again for me on this ride home, which might make it a bit more tolerable. Well, that and the fact that it's two hours shorter than the haul from Shanghai.
Japan surprised me in many ways, some good and some bad. It's an interesting country, very wrapped up in tradition and trying to break free in what often appears to be unproductive ways. My final assessment is that I will almost certainly come back if only to see the remainder of Kyoto and perhaps the more northern regions. While my trip didn't leave me excited about a future visit, it certainly left me interested in one.
The only problem was it was not clear which was the proper side of the station to catch the train so we asked an agent who was pretty much unable to help us other than to say that the tickets were wrong and that we’d have to change them. Why the machine did this, was unclear and he could not explain it aside from pointing in the direction of the ticket office and saying, “Go there.”
Again, no English but we were more or less able to muddle our way through the process with the next agent who understood about 7 words “Express, Reservation, Kyoto, Shinkasen, 5 tickets, No Smoking and Track.” Turns out we had underpaid bay about 100% making me wonder even more what the machine had sold us.
The Shinkansen train is a white serpentine monster that cruises the countryside at 180 MPH. Not as fast as our friend the Maglev in Shanghai, but certainly no slouch. It’s a very comfortable way to spend the 40 minutes to Kyoto.
It was rainy when we arrived and so we had a debate about how to make our way around town. Kyoto is not huge, but walking does get tiresome after 8 or 10 miles. The option of an all day bus pass with discussed with a kindly English-speaking woman at the tourist information office but that felt a bit confining so we headed out of the station and into the rain.
Umbrellas are ubiquitous in Japan where it apparently rains all the time. I’d opted for my high-tech Gore jacket and began to pay the price for that almost immediately. It was hot and I was steaming up at a rapid rate, but I forged ahead having no other option. I am pretty surprised just how hot and steamy it is here, considering how far north we are. One of these days I will have to spend some time doing a bit of research about why the climate is so warm in this part of Asia.
Kyoto was spared significant bombing during the Second World War so it is unique in that much of the pre-war architecture remains intact. The neighborhood streets are narrow and cluttered, and it’s not uncommon to find a shrine or two interspersed among the tiny apartment buildings and houses. We had no problem navigating as the Tourist Society had put together a couple of nice maps which the lady at the desk had graciously given us. One gave a good view of the city and the other depicted a set of walks designed to take you past the historical sites. Our goal was a walk that wound its way through the foothills past many of the famous temples and shrines.
Like most of the Japan I have seen, the urban areas are not particularly attractive to the eye. They tend to be gray and shabby and the areas we covered were no different. But as we neared the foothills, things began to change. The land picked up, the forestation increased and we found our way to the first of the shrines.
We saw so may today that I really have not had a chance to do much research about their individual stories and so I won’t be going into detail about each one. The pictures below are a nice representation of my favorite spots, chosen mainly to give a broad exposure to the different sites. Most of these were Buddhist in contrast to the Shinto shrines I wrote about in Ise.
We wandered around our first stop, staying a bit to observe a Shinto ritual that was underway. A priest in black and green robes carried a lacquer tray from an altar to a family standing at a rail in the front of the shrine. He said a few words and there were many bows and they he went on his way as did they. Down the path, a young woman from the group stopped to take a family picture and when she was done I pantomimed an offer to take one with her in it. She was very grateful and after I took the shot I was thanked with many “arigatos” and bows. This might have been my first positive cultural experience since I arrived.
We took a wrong turn out of this stop and climbed a hill to the Kyoto cemetery, a serendipitous mistake as the burial grounds here are like none I have ever seen. In a country where space is always had at a premium, little ground can be dedicated to the dead and so cemeteries make the most of what is afforded them. The plots are tiny and very closely spaced, each having a simple gray or black marble spire and a small altar for offerings. I saw many small ones from the train to Ise, and none of them compared to this. The only thing that came to mind was a small scale model of a big city with skyscrapers marching off into the distance. It was an interesting contrast in sameness and difference in a densely packed patch of ground.
Heading back down the hill we located the street that angled up the hill to the first of the major shrines. It was a tourism paradise with souvenirs and snacks offered in shop after shop. We once again sampled the ink cartridge ice cream and on this hot day it was quite refreshing. The rain had mostly stopped by now so I got out of my jacket which was also nice given the nature of the climb. One interesting little observation here – umbrellas at the bottom of the hill were 300 yen. At the top, they were 450. Supply and demand in action.
It was a tough slog up the hill and the multiple flights of stairs at the top really capped it off. But the view of Kyoto was spectacular as were the multiple buildings on the site. This was Kiyomizu Dera, an ancient temple rebuilt to its current state in the 1600s and now a World Heritage Site. The orange painted buildings offered a spectacular contrast to the densely green hills. Dozens of smaller shrines dotted the hillside along with several large timber buildings further up the rise. The beauty of this place made the long haul worth every burned calorie.
We headed down another street that went off at an angle to our path up - more shops and even more tourists. We found the continuation of the temple walk which made a right heading down a set of stairs. One of us ducked into a shop to buy a snack of these little cakes that were being stamped out by and automated machine in the store window. The dough is pressed into little circles by a metal stencil and a moving table sends them into a small over. They were a tasty sort of pound cake but the second bite uncovered a center that looked and felt like refried beans, but tasted much sweeter. I'm not sure what it was.
A beggar in traditional dress held out a bowl with a bowed head, straw hat obscuring his face. I suspect he was an officially sanctioned pan-handler and perhaps the donations go to the temples. I’m not sure, but it seemed a bit too pat to just be someone looking for spare change.
Towards the bottoms, rickshaws were offered by young tour guides for rent. They had the most amazing shoes – identical to rock climbing slip-ons but with a split for the big toe. Coupled with gum soles, I suspect they are designed to offer better purchase for these guys as they head up and down the steep, slippery streets.
We took a side road off to Ryozan Kannon shrine, the site of a big Buddha and a shrine to an unknown soldier. Two hundred yen bought admission and a stick of incense to place in the burner. Behind the Buddha were several smaller shrines hiding in a dense forest of the biggest bamboo I have ever seen.
By now it was getting to midday and the rain was picking up making the climbing of the many, many flights of stone stairs to these various places tiring and a bit dangerous. I stopped and bought a nice little umbrella for 400 yen as insurance against another downpour – there was no way I was going to put that jacket on again. Of course spending the money was actually a guarantee that it would not rain again, and it didn’t.
Our goal of reaching Heian Jingu, one of the chief east-side sites, was beginning to slip away and the walk up to Chionin Temple was all it took to put a final bullet into the only genuine objective we had for the day. Two things were at play here, exhaustion from walking up and down the hills in killer conditions and a sense of being “templed out.” After a point, you just lose interest, and that point is about 5 hours.
After entering through a massive timber gate, you climb several hundred feet of stairs formed from 15 inch stone blocks bringing you to an open space on the hillside that holds 4 main buildings. The purification font in front of the main temple was a welcome means to cooling off after the climb. We headed over to the big building and removed our shoes, placing them in plastic garbage bags that were offered for that purpose. Up a very steep set of wooden steps, we entered a large temple hall and sat down on tatami mats. A monk was performing a ceremony, chanting and sporadically beating on a large, deep sounding drum. A woman walked in and entered a small office to my left and spoke with a monk behind a desk. The monk rose and brought the woman to an altar off to the left of the temple where she knelt in prayer. The monk stopped by and said a few words to his chanting brother and the chanting stopped. The office monk left and the chanting monk got up and moved to the right, sitting in a new location and beginning a new chant, this time striking the most mellifluous gong which rang true and clear, resonating for many seconds with each strike. I closed my eyes and sat there soaking it all in. Other people in the hall would occasionally stand up, approach the main altar tossing a few coins over the rail and then kneel in prayer.
I could have stayed there for hours – it was sublimely peaceful – but the heat was oppressive so I went back outside and sat on the top stair while my body regulated my temperature back down below heat stroke level. At this point it was clear to me that the day was over, and what a perfect way to end it amidst a sacred ceremony, incense and a hall decked with golden hangings, Buddha and peaceful worshipers.
We caught a couple of cabs at the base of the stairs and headed back to lunch at the train station. The ticket purchase was not so difficult this time but we ended up with non-reserved seats which meant we ultimately had to hunt and peck for a perch, including a near fatal walk through the smoking car. The ride back to Nagoya was fast and quiet, and an interesting contrast to the throngs that were out for Saturday shopping in the station.
I’ve mentioned some of the oddities I’ve seen to date, but today’s crowd trumped them all. A pack of teenaged girls, dressed all in black but with cat ears, whiskers and big, striped fake bandages awaited us on the platform, sort of an injured Ninja Hello Kitty clan, complete with silver face make-up. Topping them were the girls in alternating black and white leather outfits wearing platform boots with 4 inch heels clogging their way through towards the escalator. One of them had a dog collar tightened on her forehead acting as a hair band. Another interesting cultural aberration was represented by a plump little girl wearing a waist length Geisha jacket complete with obi and back pad, a bright pink ballerina’s tutu, bunny ears and pink Converse Chuck Taylors. Her friend wore a conical straw field worker’s hat and navy blue pajamas decorated with little red, blue and green farm animals. I wish I could find a bench and just sit there taking pictures all day long, because my descriptions just don’t do justice to the weirdness these kids dream up.
My overall impression of Kyoto was very positive, and I think I would like to come back and see the rest of the sights. But I’d do it in November or March when the heat and humidity would not suck the life right out of you. It’s a grand place, and certainly worth the time to explore it.
The last little vignette of the day has to do with a little boy on one of the food floors of the mall below this hotel. We were heading down the hallway on the way to our meal at an Indian place when this little guy headed out the door of an adjoining restaurant. He took one look at me, got this terrified look and did an abrupt u-turn. But his curiosity got the better of him and 10 seconds later he was peeking around the corner again. I made a big smile and waved and he tore back inside. We did this two or three times until he finally started smiling back. Eventually he was delivering giant smiles and big waves, under the protective watch of his grandmother, who had just appeared out of the place.
You wouldn’t think in this day and age in one of the largest cities in Japan that children would still be shocked at the sight of a westerner. Yet, they look at us with amazement all too often. Perhaps we are unusual in this particular place, perhaps they just like to play, but it was a nice moment for me at the end of a long hard trip to a place I am still pretty unsure about.
Friday, August 29, 2008
The weather in Ise was threatening, it had rained earlier and while the sky was still gray, it was clear it wasn’t going to come down in buckets any time soon. We caught a local train and headed out of the station towards the south.
The land was a bit different along this route. It was mountainous and we passed through several tunnels as we gained ran along. For the first time, the tracks were lined with tall, dense forests of bamboo interlaced with copses of deciduous trees. Again, it was greener than imaginable and so heavily wooded and dark beneath the canopy.
Crossing one range, it began to pour – clearly some maritime storm was backed up against this line of mountains making the weather on this side far wetter. We arrived and left the station during a brief respite from the showers walking along the harbor front towards Pearl Island. It looked quite a bit like Monterey, and one lone cypress tree on the top of a small island sealed that impression.
While a couple of the crew found a pearl shop and started bargaining, the rest of us wandered around. Boats were pulling into a big dock unloading baskets of fish. Pearl stores lined the streets and mothers with children headed in clumps into the Aquarium. We headed back to collect the shoppers and the sky opened up. We walked under what cover we could find up onto the second floor of the Aquarium and decided to wait the showers out. From the patio we could see a tank full of madly swimming seal lions, so animated that you’d think they were heating the water in their tank. Once in a while one would stick its head out of the water and issue a yell that sounded like an angry man. At the other end of the patio, walruses languidly drifted in their tank offering a peaceful alternative to the seals. A cage full of flamingos and a trough full of domestic ducks completed the menagerie.
It more or less let up a bit so we tried to make our way back to the train station. The sky opened up a second time and so I pulled up my hood and bent forward into the sheets of rain. I was getting into that Zen zone where nothing matters like the mission when I was rudely awakened – a truck hit a big puddle and sent a sheet of water straight into my face. I wiped off and kept on moving.
Nearing the station we took a detour into a building that offered a covered path over the highway to the trains. It was an interesting place, more or less an small mall offering local goods, cheap toys, expensive pearls and all kinds of seafood from dried lobster meat to live abalone to huge living scallops to strange fruit filled pastries. It was quite a smorgasbord so we wandered around taking in the sights.
The train ride back to Ise was pretty much a bore aside from these three school girls who thought we were the funniest five people on two legs. They thought nothing of pointing at us and saying things in that voice that only a sneering teenager can offer, punctuating that with uncontrolled laughter. I know it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did, because it was just so blatantly and obvious and in some way it summarized my feelings about my visit here. I’ve been to China so many times and have never felt as alienated as I have during these three days. Part of it is the language and part of it is the behavior and character of the people. In China, if you can’t make your wishes clear, the person you’re attempting to communicate with will push back and try to pull the answer out. Here, they just stare at you. In China, English is everywhere, even in the remote places. Here, English is hard to find, even in cities as large as Nagoya. The contrast is stark. I took their picture just to remember the moment.
Arriving in Ise, we returned to the hotel to collect our bags from the concierge during a power blackout. We got our bags, turned around and headed back to the station, once more in the rain.
We had a very hard time at the station with the agent trying to buy tickets; again no English and for some reason no willingness to try. The schedules on the boards are bilingual, as are the tickets. But no matter how many times we repeated “limited express” it wasn’t sinking in. But finally the light bulb came on and we paid up and tried to enter the station where we were stopped by a different guy. Seems the tickets were for the train that was now on the other side of the tracks and for which we had no chance of catching. So the original guy took back our tickets, cut us five new ones and pointed us on our way.
Again dragging our luggage up two flights of slippery steep stairs, we waited, boarded and left on time. The ride in was uneventful
After nap and a shower, we went out for Indian food which was really, really good.
It was early so Matt and I decided to take the elevator up to the 51st floor to the Sky Lounge for a cocktail. We were told we could not be seated at a table – they were all full – and were instead shown two seats at the empty bar which was fine with us.
The bartenders were classics in bow ties, vests and slicked back hair. Both were fun to watch as they meticulously prepared every drink, shaking the shakers with a personal flourish. After a half hour or so of watching incredibly drunk women in sprayed on blue jeans and designer tops stagger our of the place, one nearly landing in my lap, the band came on.
A gray haired man and a middle aged woman in a ball gown, both Americans took the stage and launched into their rendition of “Route 66.” I figured that was some sort of message from my homeland. Next up was “I’m in the Mood for Love” followed by “Smooth Operator”, “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Take the A Train.” Apparently on request, they sang a lengthy “Happy Birthday” to the clapping of everyone in the bar. This all went on for a while before they took a break and left me thinking about the movie whose title has been borrowed for tonight’s blog.
This is a strange place, for me it varies from the sublime beauty of the Grand Shrine to the psychedelic green of the rice paddies to the human crush of the train stations. It never feels as good as China, which I find interesting, instead it just feels alien. The Chinese impress me as wanting to meet the cultures of the world halfway, Japan feels like its saying “this is it, take it or leave it and we’d really appreciate it if you chose the latter.” I think some of this is shown by the tough young kids in the street with platinum hair, pancake makeup and a million piercings. It just seems to be a culture adrift.
But back to the lounge. When we came in, the host who seated us made an oversized gesture of pointing out the “Reserved” sign protecting the two seats next to us at the end of the bar. Not a problem for us, until the patrons showed up. He was an aging American hipster in an oversized black shirt and slacks. He had hair to match pulled back in a fuzzy pony tail and a nice enough gold watch. She was a much younger, subtly well dressed gorgeous Japanese woman. I knew we were in trouble when he pulled out a packet of cigars, each 6+ inches long, entering into the ritual of lighting one up. She ordered a tall red fruit drink and stared ahead. He order something on ice and then made a grand show of expressing his dislike for it by screwing up his face, rolling his eyes, rocking his head back and forth and gasping for breath. The bartender stood their smiling obsequiously explaining that it had been concocted properly. The cigar smoke was drifting our way and so we beat a hasty retreat back to civilization.
Tomorrow, weather permitting we’re headed to Kyoto and hopefully a chance to recapture some or the serenity we achieved at Naiku. I hope so, because about now I need a bit of centering in this alien world.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
The native and most ancient religion of Japan, Shinto is a polytheistic practice that believes in spirits residing in the natural world. Because of this basic tenet, the Shinto shrines are very, very beautiful in their construction and landscaping. Entering the grounds immediately imparts a sense of inner peace, which is the intention of the creators of the sites. Kami, the powerful spirits, are enshrined all across the island in consecrated rocks and evergreens, and in sanctuaries called jinja. The word Shinto literally translates as “the way of the kami.”
There are more than 100,000 sanctuaries across Japan and Jingu is the most sacred of all. Like Mecca for those who follow Islam, all Shinto are expected to make a pilgrimage to Jingu and to that end it hosts almost a million visitors each year.
Ise Jingu is composed of two main sanctuaries – Kotaijingu (Naiku) and Toyoukedaijungu (Geku), the Inner and Outer Shrines. Naiku is dedicated to the supreme deity Amaterasu and Geku is dedicated to the great deity Toyouke Omikami. There are additionally 14 auxiliary sanctuaries and 109 lesser sanctuaries in the area.
The area has been considered sacred for approximately the last 2500 years, but the first incarnation of the shrine was built around 4 BC by Princess Yamatohime no Mikoto, Geku was built later, in 477 AD. The interesting thing about Shinto sanctuaries is that they are completely disassembled and rebuilt every 20 years. So even though the site has been used for many centuries, there are no old buildings or ruins. Each rebuilding recycles all the old materials and the buildings are duplicated precisely.
We borrowed the cab that brought us back to the hotel from work and asked him to wait while we gathered out gear. Naiku is only about 5 kilometers from where we were staying, but we figured given the heat and the humidity it would be better to ride up and walk down as this site is up in the hills on the far side of a tall ridge. We arrived and stopped at the visitor’s center for a map, of which they happened to have an English version.
You enter the site by walking across a gracefully arched wooden bridge that spans the Isuzu River. The walks were broad and composed of gray pea gravel which made for easy walking. This portion of the site sits in a valley surrounded by densely forested hills draped in a broad mix of evergreens and deciduous trees.
Before you enter the actual complex, you stop and purify at a large tank of ice cold spring water. Two spans of bamboo poles hold a few dozen ladles to splash the water over your arms and hands. It was a welcome feeling as we were really beginning to roast at this point.
A second purification spot was down on the banks of the river just before the trail turned up into the forest. The water was shallow, crystal clear and surprisingly warm. The rocky stream bed formed rapids, and trees dipped their branches down to the surface. The feeling of serenity was quite strong here despite the people and the activity. I can only imagine how wonderful it must have been 1000 years ago on an afternoon like this.
Moving up into the woods we were surrounded by incredibly tall trees, some sort of relative of our Coastal Redwood. I thought them to be Japanese Cypress, but they don’t fit the bill. Like our trees in California, these were huge and reminded me that around the whole Pacific Rim the natural world is very similar, point to point.
It was very, steamy in the woods due to all the water and plant life. The shrine buildings all fit very well within the natural space. They are both ornate and simple at the same time. In front of one of the smaller shrines an old man stood raking the gravel on the path, removing the foot prints and restoring the harmony. We walked along the path down to one of the bigger auxiliary shrines. It was surrounded by two aprons of shiny agate rock – one dense black and one peppered white. No rocks of either ilk were present in the field of the other.
A couple came up to the shrine and paid their respect – a nod with hands held up in prayer and 3 quick claps.
Moving along we passed other buildings and small clearings with a single massive evergreen in the center – homes to the kami. We reached the central shrine after climbing a broad staircase made of blocks of green-gray stones covered with sea fossils. In a small building to the left a Shinto priest sat in full regalia performing a ritual.
We wound our way around the complex stopping here and there at different buildings. A group of 20 or so priests passed us walking apace in their gleaming white robes.
We found our way out and wandered down an associated tourist lane that offered souvenir shops, tea houses and restaurants. We had an ice cream at one of the stands that was prepared in the most unusual way. You made your choice and the girl pulled what look like a big ink cartridge out of a freezer and placed it in a dispensing machine. She pushed a button and the machine squeezed the ice cream out of the ink cartridge and into a cone. Quite a tasty treat on a day like this.
Our next planned stop was Geku, the outer temple located about 3 kilometers down the hill. So off we went, from the sublime, peaceful beauty of the shrine to the city streets.
It was just as hot out on the street as it was in the woods. We passed through neighborhoods made up of modern homes built in traditional Japanese style with shake wood sides and rolling screens for windows. Along the way we found ourselves in a Persimmon forest, neatly trimmed trees rolling off into the distance on ridges on both sides of the road.
I’ve included a couple of signs we passed along the way. The Panda is the analogue to the Irish “Look Left Look Right” sign you see at cross walks. One thing I did not know before coming here is that Japan drives on the wrong side of the road also, so you have to remember which way to look when crossing. The Dog Police sign is self-explanatory.
After an hour or so of trekking, we reached our destination and entered the woods surrounding the shrine complex through an old, battered gate.
Geku is not nearly as majestic as Naiku but was interesting in its own way. At one end of a small lake, senior citizens in waders and conical hats were working with the aquatic plants along small canals. Elderly men sat in a pavilion overlooking the water visiting and drinking sodas. We walked along the lake, trailed by big black carp whose backs just broke the surface of the water.
On the far side of the park, we found our way into a small shrine complex that was at the end of a tunnel formed by pillars and beams intricately decorated with Kanji characters. At the end in a dark grove of trees were two small shrines, one decorated with tiny pieces of wood each with a fox painting on it and the other framed by two stone foxes on pedestals that were covered with tiny white ceramic fox figurines. The fox holds a special place in the Shinto pantheon being the messenger of Inari, the deity of rice. The depiction of Inari himself has largely disappeared from regular worship, replaced by the fox. And because of the importance of rice, the harvest and fertility, it is important that the fox is kept happy through worship and offerings. Fox is also a strong ally in warding off evil spirits and so plays a double role in Japanese thought.
The air was damp and the atmosphere a bit spooky, as though we had stumbled on some strangely ancient pagan practices out in the jungle, but it was not sinister, just odd, and so we lingered a bit enjoying the nature of the place.
The final section of today's blog is dedicated to Granny Jean. Among the interesting things about Naiku shrine were the chickens, roaming freely around the smaller shrines, pecking away at scratch left our for their enjoyment. The chickens at Ise are famous, being a live offering called ikenie which given to the kami of the Grand Shrine. They were clearly aware of their exalted status, strutting and posing and looking for a handout. Here are a couple of shots, including one of the very special whites.