Kyoto: the heart of Japanese tradition
Carla Scarano D’Antonio
Landing at Narita everything seems familiar at first glance. The passport checks, luggage collection, toilets, the buildings inside and outside, people’s clothes. The journey to the centre of Tokyo, where my daughter lives, was easy with the JR pass we bought in England. I was travelling with an Italian friend of mine, Ornella, from Rome with a direct Alitalia flight that took twelve hours and was quite comfortable on the whole. They provided a lot of drinks (I had mainly water and tea) and decent food (we opted for the Japanese dinner, salmon and rice) neatly packet and tasty. I even managed to have a bit of sleep and watched The Shape of Water, which was a moving and involving experience, besides reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the LRB.
My daughter lives in a nice two room apartment with a wardrobe and a laundry area a few metro stations from Shinjuku, one of the main Tokyo station, so she is not far from the busy commercial centre. Though, the area where she lives is quiet and looks like a village rather than part of a big city with two or three storey buildings and small shops. We arrived on April 2 and headed to Kyoto that same afternoon.
A weird chirping in the underground made me wonder what it was about. My daughter said it was about nature, the well-known Japanese connexion to nature and seasons. I noticed it at the traffic lights as well instead of the beeping, to warn you it is time to cross. Sometimes in the underground instead of chirping you can have the triumphal march from Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, which is quite reinvigorating. Besides, you need to queue in front of the right gate to board the train, my daughter was very strict about it and told me to move this way or that way in order not to obstruct other people’s movements and respect the unwritten Japanese code of conduct. It was stressful at first but then I got used to it and paid attention. We boarded the shinkansen, the bullet train, which looked pristine and half empty, and had a good two hours sleep.
Kyoto was a revelation. I started to get a taste of Japan, its understated, silent and impeccable organisation and the ancestral and modern quality of Japanese culture. Merging and blending are key words to understand the country together with a firm grip to ancient traditions but always looking forward towards the future. The eastern-western differentiation is subtle and hard to detect sometimes; it is a whispering…or a chirping, Janus-faced. It looks at the ancient past with its links to nature and the spirits present in all objects and elements and keeps faithful to strict rituals at the same time. On the other hand, modernisation and advanced technologies permeate all sectors of working and living.
In Kyoto we went to the tourist office at first and collected a large amount of brochures and posters. They looked so colourful and typical to us that we thought of framing them and give as a present. The same for the temple and museum tickets I kept, they looked so artistic and exotic to me that I could not throw them away, though Japanese people must consider them quite common.
The first temple we visited was Kiyomizudera, a historic monument of ancient Kyoto. We were very lucky as there was a special ceremony of the dragon that day, the blue dragon, a divine god-beast that protects Kyoto. The ceremony attracted a lot of people, mainly Japanese people dressed in traditional costumes, which was a fantastic first impact we had with Japanese stylishness. I felt suddenly immersed in their culture so rich and new to me and longed to know more. I took photos of the beautiful elegant kimonos first framing people from the back conscious of their privacy but then I noticed that they were happy to be photographed and I adopted a bolder approach. The Kiyomizudera is a Buddhist temple but hosts a Shinto tutelary deity as well according to the Japanese tendency to merge their different religious heritages. It was originally founded in 778 by monk Echin during the Heian period (794- 1185) but was re-built several times after fire destructions. The present edifices were built in 1633 and are characterised by overhanging architecture, tall wooden columns and flanking wings typical of the Heian period. The three storey pagoda stood bright among cherry tree blossoms and the structures holding the roof of the temples were an interlacing of wooden patterns jutting out in sophisticated shapes giving a highly decorative impression. The ceremony of the dragon was simple; the priests offered incense, the dragon marched around the temples expanding its protection and the warriors guarded the rituals. The area around the temple is characteristic and we spent the rest of the day there, visiting shops and walking along the narrow lanes, framing everything with our mobiles to share on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It was frantic.
The area was pleasantly crowded and cheerful. Cherry trees were in bloom hanging from gardens, roofs, scaffoldings, beautifying every view with their shades from pure white to intense pink. We felt lucky and cherished. We took a photo under a cherry tree, of course, for good luck and prosperity, and another one in front of the main temple wearing surgical masks, a common thing in Japan. This is to prevent infections but also to protect from cold and smells. I had it on for a few days when it was cold in Kyoto and protected me against low temperatures.
At the temple, I could not miss the rituals according to the best Shinto and Buddhist traditions and repeated them dutifully at each temple I visited to be sure that my wishes would be fulfilled. I gave my offer, clapped my hands to awaken the spirit, rang the bell, made my wish and bowed. I crossed myself as well according to my catholic background. Other times I also lit a candle or incense sticks, or wrote my prayer on a wooden board. I bought the charms as well, little bright-coloured bags with wishes and prayers inside. You cannot open it and it will last only for a year but they explain what is inside. For example, you can have charms that protect from bicycle accidents, help you attain good academic achievements, assure a happy marriage, longevity, good health, wealth or successful business. I bought a few for friends and family.
A good deal of our day out was dedicated to shopping. My friend Ornella took more than one hour to choose several pairs of chopsticks she wanted to give as a present but mainly she uses to fasten her long black hair. I hanged around buying some little things, a fan for my mum, a sewing kit for my mother in law, a couple of small dolls, bride and bridegroom in traditional costumes for me, and a Totoro pin brochure I found at the Studio Ghibli shop together with a Porco Rosso fridge magnet I could not miss. My daughter assisted Ornella in her excruciating choices and endless procrastination, discussing with the shop assistant and helping in translation.
We ended the day in a small restaurant attended by locals, no English spoken. I pointed, ramen with pork pieces and a bowl of rice. It was tasty. Food was challenging at first but then I got used to their light, healthy dishes and lost two kilos. We could not cook our meals in Kyoto so, besides going to restaurants for dinner, we relied on street food and Family Mart supermarkets. They are sort of corner shops where you can find sandwiches, packets of rice (onigiri) you can fit in your palm, round or triangle shaped seasoned with salmon, beans or seaweed, and occasionally some fruit neatly packed. We also tasted different kinds of sweets and cakes, which are made of red beans paste called mochi, not the tasty fatty pasta di mandorle (almond paste) of Italian pastries. The Japanese confectionary looks impeccable and dainty in their perfect forms but the flavour is a bit disappointing compared to the heavy, fatty and delicious Italian pastarelle. The Japanese things do not fill your stomach and leave you a sense of emptiness, something is missing, which prompts discipline and self-control: you can do without it and master your culinary desires. Therefore, Japanese people are not obese, or at least I have not seen one that is. A part from the Sumo wrestlers, who look fat but apparently are not, to me they all looked slim and fit, while some of the European and American tourists I crossed were definitely obese. This is a lesson for our voracious, gluttonous western attitude towards food. We should master our stomach and have a healthier life. This might be the secret of Japanese longevity, which is not the consequence of modern medicine only but dates back to centuries ago. Besides, food is expensive in Japan, especially fruit and vegetables but also some of the other products such as rice, which I expected would be cheap, is £4 a kilo. An apple can be £1 and an orange £3.
In Tokyo we also attended the tea ceremony. They welcomed us with an amazing Sencha, a green tea with a gelatine texture, lukewarm and dense like a budino. Then we were introduced to the ceremony in a simple almost bare room with a scroll on a corner with a motto: the tree is green and the thread is red, and three types of flowers, because odd cannot be divided. In a hole on the floor there was an iron kettle with boiling water. The procedure was very simple and formal as, according to tradition, following the rules of the rituals assures the fulfilment of wishes and respects the gods’ wills. They served us cakes before tea, cleaned the cups with hot water and poured two grams of Matcha tea, taken from the side of the bowl, in a cup with hot water (70% in the bowl and 30% back in the kettle). Then they shook the tea with a bamboo brush until it was frothy, finally they said ‘osakinidouzo’ (please drink it) and turned the cup three times, and we drank it. It was heavenly dense and rich like Italian hot chocolate or a pint of Guinness, but probably healthier. It was like eating rather than drinking. After it, we had the opportunity to make our own matcha tea following all the instructions, and we drank it again. A rewarding experience.
The next temple was the famous Fushimi Inari shrine, the Shinto temple of 1000 gates, which are Torii arches that separate the sacred space from the outside world. They are innumerable here donated by devotees and lead you to the top of the mountain. It was a sunny warm day but we did not have the energy to climb to the top. We opted instead for a matcha ice cream savoured in front of a Japanese garden and had street food from the stalls outside the temple, some crab things, seaweed and potato balls on skewers and grapefruit blended in its own skin we sucked with a straw. I did my usual wishes and rituals at the temple and also bought a Daruma doll, a frowning eyeless white face with red contours on which I drew an eye, made a wish and will wait until the wish is fulfilled to draw the other eye. The god of Fushimi Inari is personified by a fox so I also wrote my wish on a wooden little board with the shape of a fox muzzle, smiling like all Japanese puppets and dolls.
I could not miss a few museums, though the National Museum was closed when I went there. I enjoyed its park with stone statues and impressive trees and spent a long time in the bookshop choosing cards and perusing books on Japanese culture. I also visited a minor museum, the Costume Museum, which was hard to find. I asked to several people on my way and finally, once I reached the building kindly guided in person by a local, I still could not find it. I knocked at a few offices in the same building and they told me to go to the top floor. Still there were no signs so I knocked and opened a heavy metal door and there it was. It is a one large room museum divided in sections dedicated to ceremonial costumes of the Heian period (799-1185) and the Edo period (163-1867) with a reconstruction of some scenes of the famous Tale of Genji written by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. It is a romantic novel about love adventures and courtly intrigues. At the museum there is also a display of the Tale of The Bamboo Cutter which is more like a fairy tale, sort of Thumbelina story, and another display about Kemari, the Japanese football game. In this game, the buckskin ball was kicked back and forth by the players as long as possible without letting it fall on the ground, quite tough compared to today’s football. The attractiveness of the museum are the costumes on display, all in silk, some of them life size, others smaller models. Women used to wear layer on layer of kimonos in astonishing colours that recall the colours of the different seasons and even the middle seasons. This layering of clothes kept them warm and showed their social status. The different colours also revealed their feelings and mood which went in parallel with nature and are linked to the foundation of Japanese culture. For example, layers of apricot colour and green leaves are for summer, while maple colours are for autumn and white and pine colours are for winter.
We visited the Geisha district as well but could not spot Geishas. The Philosopher’s Walk was an interesting site with cherry trees in full blossom. We took more photos, close-ups and wide angle images, crazy about the sakura whose beauty would fade in a few days, unfortunately. Or luckily, as the Buddhist monk Jenkõ used to say:
It is only after the top and the bottom edges of the silk have frayed, or when the mother-of-pearl has peeled off the roller, that a scroll is truly impressive….real quality lies in irregularity…a gesture towards the future.
He also said some less nice things about women, such as ‘the one thing a man should not have is a wife’, and that women’s hair is a trap that ensnares men. I suppose he was not in favour of concubines either; he believed in moderation as all human passions are vain and ‘all things in this phenomenal world are mere illusion.’
The Golden Pavillion and the Bamboo Forest were the other two sites we could not miss in Kyoto. Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavillion, is sparkling, reflecting its unassuming majesty in the pond in contrast with the bareness of the Zen garden of the surrounding area. It was originally a villa that hosted nobles, then became a temple which contains relics of Buddha. It is covered in gold foils with a phoenix on top. We took photos from different angles together with hundreds of other tourists crowding the area. It was hard to find a free spot. The garden was inviting as well, it communicated the importance of paying attention to the essential in life and inspired a sense of peace.
On the way back home, we found a second hand shop that mainly sold haori, sort of jackets, and kimonos. I found two beautiful haori, one with spring patterns in red and green, the other one with autumn patterns in brown and ochre for 1500 and 500 yen, the equivalent of £ 12 and £ 4. It was definitely a bargain.
Arashiyama (Bamboo Forest) was impressive with its tall bamboo plants, endless columns of the Temple of Nature. The light filtered from the thick grove giving the impression of an overwhelming presence beyond our human control. Ornella wished for a souvenir, a piece of wood or bamboo to bring back home; and she found it, a big solid piece of about ten inches just beyond a fence. We ended the tour in shops, as usual, where my daughter found a yellow wide brim hat and some cards with insects and fish painted in watercolours; and I found nice pink sakura accessory made of fabric to hang on my mobile and pin in my hair, which I proudly did.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio © 2019.