28 February 2009

Japan, pt 3

I'll repeat a bit of where I broke off last time.

Leaving the Golden Pavilion one my second day in Kyoto, I waited at the bus stop with a cigarette in hand. It was fairly chilly, with a persistant breeze that stole the smoke from my lips. Next to me on the bench were a young couple, who I noticed appeared to be Korean. I can't always tell apart asian ethnicities, but they had the plump and low cheekbones of the typical Korean. The man was fumbling with a very small map of the city, squinting from under the brim of a generic baseball cap, while his wife rubbed her arms to stay warm. I greeted them in Korean, venturing an "annyonghaseyo" in a questioning tone, and offered my own fold-out map of the city. They spoke a bit of English, and we hit it off very well and went to lunch together before proceeding on our separate ways. We had pan-fried noodles and soup; simple and savoury.

The rest of the day was much more relaxed, as I had seen most of the big items in the city. Now that I had seen the "musts," I could adopt a sedate pace and visit the more optional sights. These included Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion (not silver), whose most impressive feature were expansive Buddhist sculptures of packed gray sand, scraped into cones and patterns with what must have been meticulous care. I walked down the "Philosopher's Path," a well-cared-for set of stone walkways that winds in broad curves down the east of the city and goes past a dozen temples and shrines. And in the evening, I went to Kyoto Tower to see a view of the city as it descended into night. My dinner came from RamenTown at the station; I had takoyaki, a local specialty. These large dumplings are dusted with salty seasoning and filled with a rich gravy of octopus shreds.

My third day, I had scheduled a visit to the Museum of Kyoto. Fellow travelers told me it wasn't very good, but they also said that this was because it had too much "historical stuff." Based on the strength of their unwitting recommendation, I had decided to go. I was not disappointed; the temporary exhibit was an amazing retrospective of Japanese cinema, including a section on Kurosawa (the most famous and notable of Japanese moviemakers). Only about half of the exhibits had accompanying English explanations, but most of them didn't require even labels; it's hard not to understand the significance of a director's chair with Kurosawa's name on it in Japanese.

Notable within the museum, as well, was Roji Tempo, an enclosed recreation of an ancient Kyoto merchant street. It hocked assorted touristy items, such as handmade paper and the ever-present cheap fans. Roji Tempo didn't quite have the desired effect on me, but it was very amusing to look at some of what they had available.

From the museum, I went on to the Imperial Gardens of Kyoto. And let me tell you: from what I can tell, the emperor loved gravel. Fully half of the gardens were taken up by the extremely wide streets crisscrossing the grounds, covered in gray gravel. I'm not sure what the purpose of these streets were then, but in the modern day they served only to make me feel extremely small as I walked down the center of a lane as wide as a city block.

After a detour to Shokokuji Temple and the Jotenkaku Museum within the garden grounds, I went on my scheduled tour of the Imperial Palace. The tour and admission were all free, provided as a courtesy of the Japanese Imperial Household Agency. Unfortunately, all of the buildings were closed to entry to help preserve them. Their exteriors were very beautiful and covered in gilding and detailed carvings, of course, but the fact that we were barred from entry made the tour seem inadequate. I also couldn't help but reflect on historical injustice when looking at some aspects of the Palace; the roof was composed of eighty layers of cypress bark held together with bamboo nails, all made by hand and entirely replaced every eight or ten years. The amount of labour required for such a feat must have been staggeringly oppressive to the serfs forced to it.

After the Imperial Palace, I went to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shrine was south of the city, well out of range of the normal bus and train lines, so I was forced to buy another ticket in addition to the intracity tour ticket I purchased each morning. A small local train took me down to the shrine.

Shinto, the traditional Japanese animistic religion, has many inari shrines throughout Japan. These shrines pay homage to the spirits or ancestors with displays of torii, the crimson-painted arches that are so emblematic of Japan. The Fushimi Inari shrine is one of the most famous inari shrines thanks to the thousands of torii that have been accumulated there. Years ago in 711 AD, a series of mountain paths led from the small town up to the main shrine compound. A handful of mighty stone torii dotted the paths. But in the modern area, donating torii has become a very popular past-time. Over the long decades, wealthy individuals and organizations have donated arch after crimson arch. Now the archs are packed in like sardines up and down the mountain, crammed in until they have become solid corridors, interrupted at long intervals by the original stone torii or the occasional broken arch whose timbers have rotted. The accumulated effect was gorgeous in the low light of evening, as bright red lines leapt out of the green-and-brown side of the mountain.

I got back to Kyoto that evening having seen almost everything I wanted to see in three packed days of sightseeing. I have omitted in this account many small temples, shrines, shops, and other such things that filled the gaps between the most impressive items. But perhaps these lesser sights were the most important. I may have gained a better understanding of the city and Kyoto from a meal of sushi grabbed at a stand-up sushi bar next to a trio of giggling sukeban ("girl gang" equivalent of punk girls found in Japanese schools) than I did from the twanging words of a palace tour guide. In other words and as in all traveling, it's in the little things that you experience the land.

The next day I rose very early and caught the first train to the city of Nara. Lacking the modern-city feel of Kyoto, this area was the capital of Japan during the whole of the eponymous Nara period, and has dedicated itself almost wholesale to the presentation of that history. It was an excellent day-trip, since almost everything of importance in the city was located either in Nara Park or within walking distance of it. Here in Nara Park was the Nara Five-Story Pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Japan, and it greeted me as I walked from the train station as it erupted into the sky from behind a hill.

Nara Park had relatively sparse trees, being mostly composed of gentle hills and wide grassy meadows. Because of this, it seemed even larger than it was, spreading out to all sides before sloping up seamlessly into the surrounding mountains. Its main inhabitants were the Nara deer, whose presence was continual. Fat and bold from year-round handouts, these animals slunk in packs of twenty or thirty near the vendors who sold overpriced deer food. They pounced on anyone foolish enough to buy some, like myself (twice). While not quite impudent enough to wrench the whole pack from my hands, I suspect this was mainly because I held it out of their reach and ran screaming like a little girl. It was very difficult to take pictures of them, since if I didn't have food they weren't interested and if I did then they constantly rammed into me or nipped my jeans. Rubbery deer lips left trails of saliva as they tried to mouth my sweater and myself into submission.

After the feeding frenzy, I went to main attraction, Todaiji Temple. This is entered via a long path surmounted by the immense Great Southern Gate, the oldest wooden structure of its size in the world. The Gate housed two beva kings of Buddhist legend, and their sixty-foot towering presences wielded worn wooden spears and offered angry scowls at those who might seek to harm the Buddha.

Todaiji Temple, just beyond the Gate, is the largest wooden structure in the world. It has to be, of course, since it houses one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, the Vairocona Buddha. This site was the center of Vairocana Buddhism, and the Buddha's serene face had seen the passage of many centuries. I lit a stick of incense at the temple, and paused to reflect on its spicy scent. It was a cloudless and bright day.

After Todaiji, I went to Nigatsudo. Nigatsudo was to stone lanterns was Fushimi Inari was to torii. Carved stone lanterns, weathered by rains, were everywhere in neat rows. They were lit only once a year, a process that took the whole day. The area was a good introduction to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, which replicated the impressiveness with hanging metal lanterns that dangled from the ceiling by the hundreds along the brightly-painted wooden halls. They were of varying ages, with some so old that their copper had darkened almost to black, while others were still bright-shining and new.

On my return to Kyoto that evening, I felt steeped in ancient history. This would be a fitting preface to the next day's journey. I was going to Hiroshima.

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