I went to the Louvre, walked right into Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' painting The Turkish Bath and spent some time as a cherubic-bodied nude in the Japanese baths (onsens) in Hakone.
Public naked bathing.
We leave life on the tatami mat (bamboo matted on-the-floor living) at our ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house) and return to waist high living on beds, chairs and couches in Kyoto. Kyoto is a couple of hours south by Shinkansen bullet train at 200mph. The Shinkansen maintains an average of on time within 6 seconds of its schedule. This average includes natural disasters and accidents, which make it an amazing statistic and one of many indicators that reveals the Japanese value of precision. As we make our way my husband admires the under belly's of bridges and other miscellaneous structures that haven been earthquake proofed.
I did not learn this from any Japanese source but Kyoto was considered as the fateful site for the atomic bomb during WWII. It's an intellectual and cultural center (it used to be the capital during the days of the emperor) and the people there would quickly understand and react to the gravity of an atomic bomb, which is pretty twisted. A guy named Henry Stimson, who was the American Secretary of War at the time, had honeymooned in Kyoto and appreciated the cultural and architectural significance of it and the 2000 temples present so pressed hard for it to be spared. Thank you Mr. Stimson, thank you.
That's right, 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines in one town. It is also Maiko and Geisha capital of Japan (Maiko are Geisha in training). There is a rank and file to the level achieved in one's Geisha-ing and it is displayed in the differences of hair, make up and dress. My favorite part is the W that they exact on the nape of their neck with the white make up- such freaking attention to detail. The party line is they do not perform sexual favors. Our hotel had a whole mysterious floor dedicated to what we surmised was entertainment by Maiko or Geisha. I queried about this mysterious floor revealed to us only by an unclear description in English on the elevator button and was told it is used by couples that have their families meet for the first time before they are wed and businessmen. Break the ice, play some games, have someone warm things up and keep any awkward moments from hanging in the air. Part of me admires and appreciates the art form with its intense gracefulness and the general preservation of tradition. I do believe I developed that appreciation of tradition in England- God Save You, Queen. Things can be lost in a generation without society, families and individuals caring enough to take conservation measures. I respect that. But, I have to admit, the realist in me says Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto... they seem like priestly robots to me. I mean I have never seen a teacup rubbed for drippage as much as I saw during a tea ceremony- I though Aladdin was going to make an appearance. Every swish of the bamboo whisk to mix the tealeaves into the water was followed up with a rub of a cloth to catch the imaginary droplets that didn't really exist. The cloth was then excruciatingly folded like a sacramental vestment and stashed in the kimono belt then re-produced just a moment later to repeat the process one whisk later. It is all very graceful, but efficient, ah, no.
Our hotel is situated right on top of the train station in Kyoto, which is extremely convenient. The bed is good, my back approves! We are on the 9th floor with 2 rooms next to each other. There is a special access panel in the outside wall of our room that you pry open in an emergency and get out into this structure that looks like a lego stuck on the side of the building. There is also a flashlight mounted in the room. (Godfather voice) I keep escaping the reality that I am in earthquake central and they keep PULLING me back. The constant presence of implements for earthquake survival doesn't allow me to pretend they are not a factor here. I hate that the kids are in a separate room. I don't fret but am mindful of the lego escape hatch and flashlight and think through a one-minute mental rehearsal of what if….just need to ensure I have a trusty place I can always find their key so establish a shrine of my own for it.
Once we settle in our hotel we reveal to each other one by one the state of emergency our suitcases are in. There is more dirty laundry then clean and more than half of us are in our last pair of clean undies. We start loading the bags and filling out the form and gulp- a quick calculation reveals it will cost a walloping $600 USD to have our laundry done by the hotel. LOTS of temples here but nowhere is a laundry by the pound place. We eventually end up at a coin-operated shed of sorts. Looking back years from now I want to remember that on the way to that shed while dragging a suitcase jammed with dirty laundry around the chilly streets of Kyoto we experienced an earthquake. It was not the kind you measure on a richter scale. Sometimes its good to have things shaken up a bit.
About 20% of the women in Kyoto are in kimonos with their traditional tabi (my youngest daughter call them deer feet socks) and flip-flops. I want to understand this robed culture a bit more so I go for a little looksy at my favorite cultural information gathering site- the department store. I target Daimaru. Daimaru started right here in Kyoto in 1907- there is nothing like a flagship store. You can learn so much about people and what they value by what is reflected in personal space retail centers. I make a beeline to housewares and find Kyotos 2001st temple. Everything is not only beautiful, but also engineered with thought.
The bowls, matching lids that convert to dishes with a flip, scaled spoons, sticks, steamers, rice bowls and platters all are embedded with a feeling of caring. Contiguous to the dishware were aprons- hundreds of them. There were every kind, in beautiful fabrics. Some were evening gown status- you wouldn't know they weren't black tie unless you viewed them from the back where just a ribbon holds the façade together. Attached to the apron section were the slippers. Some slippers even matched the aprons. All were smart, luxurious, stylish, and serious. No slipper socks here- leather constructed, plush. The coziness only continued to grow after the footwear with the softest lounge suits I have ever felt. The fabric here I have never seen or felt before- they are holding out on the west here in the east. Gimme some. Next came the duvets- patterned designs- so thick yet so light. The towels were folded presents of plush with edgings and trims elevating them to artwork yet not compromising comfort in the least. The garden items stunning with copper chain that hangs from rain gutters to make the water trail down in lovely beads and Bonsai trees over a century old going for over $1 million USD.
A kimono department stood all on its own with yards of fabric on bolts waiting to be custom measured and a measuring sight of tatami and commensurate with bridal gown treatment. The men's suit department was the same- hundreds of bolts of fabric and tailors hanging out ready for made to measure. Cattycorner to the suits is a sizeable collection that makes you take pause. It is a very large collection of same-shaded black dresses. Very clearly funerary uniforms, the display leaves no doubt. The Japanese death ritual includes someone in the family sitting with the body from death until wake. The body is wiped with water especially at the lips and orifices filled with cotton then the body is placed on dry ice, not embalmed. Services common in the west are similarly performed after the wake- it is usually a Buddhist funeral. Friends that call bring money. After the funeral the family accompanies the body to the crematorium, watches it be slid into the flames, and returns around 2 hours later for a bone picking ceremony. This ceremony is when each of the family members is given a set of chopsticks to pick up the bones to put into the urn. There is an order to the picking of bones starting with feet. There is an attendant that points out the pieces to pick up in order- the adam's apple is the most important bone. The family performs this bone picking with two persons grasping the same bone fragment together and putting it into the urn in unison. This is why when two Japanese reach for the same piece of food at the same time with chopsticks, both will quickly pull back, as this is the only time two people hold the same thing with two sets of chopsticks. I find this all extremely interesting to ponder.
My last round of information gathering at Daimaru was near the kimonos in a small section reserved for what research reveals they call Hina dolls. These dolls are ornate little likenesses of a traditionally dressed emperor and empress. We were in Kyoto for 3 March, which is Girls Day also known as the Doll Festival. Intentions for girls are prayed for everywhere and most homes set up a special step-altar to arrange these Hina decorated with boughs of peach blossoms and offerings of freshly made rice cakes. Right next to the Hina dolls was an equally sized department of shrines. These wooden structures are in most Japanese homes where worship and gratefulness takes place not on a specified day but a regular part of daily life. Prayer and thanksgiving as well as nature is not something the Japanese need to go out of their house to do- they establish it into their living space- it is always present to them.
Shrines are part of the Shinto belief system prevalent in Japan. Most Japanese are also Buddhist as well. Shinto is based on the worship of nature. It has no founder, no dogma, no scripture and its most important concept is purity. On the contrary, Buddhism teaches how to escape the agonies of life to reach nirvana, or enlightenment. These religions co exist with most Japanese going to Shinto shrines for occasions related to this life such as the christening of babies or weddings and to Buddhist temples on occasions related to life after death, such as funerals.
It is amazing what a department store can reveal to you. We karaoked like baying bloodhounds later that night.
Almost poised as penance for the crimes of karaoke we found ourselves at the Shunkoin Temple the day after my department store sociological data gathering. We were scheduled for some meditation instruction. Shunkoin was established in 1590 and is a Zen Buddhist temple that belongs to the Myōshin-ji Temple of Excellent Mind school, which is the largest of 14 Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhist schools. I think that must be impressive? Like I said before, Kyoto is Temple central. Our meeting was with the deputy head priest vice admiral. He is in a black robe- nothing orange at all. He has been educated in the US and in addition to his duties at the temple owns a guest-house he established a couple of years ago and woos corporate clients and westerners for meditation classes. He is married with an 11-month-old baby girl. I later do some research and find that while some Buddhist monks in Japan have the traditional shaved heads, orange robes and chant, others do not and smoke and drink, drive around in fancy cars, are married with children, and earn six figure incomes from their blessings and funerals gigs.
Our deputy of sexually active monks was a very nice guy....and interesting. His grandfather was integral in hiding a treasured piece of underground Christian history- the Jesuit Bell of Nanbanji, which is housed there at the temple. Christianity was banned in Japan when missionaries were seen as politically motivated infiltrators from the west. When all this went down the Buddhists at this particular temple helped hide the Christians so became sacredly and secretly linked. Their temple treasures reveals this once forbidden secret with hidden Christian symbols embedded in Buddhist art forms. We talked shop and found out his guesthouse was doing alright but had a trying start as its launch coincided with the 2011 earthquakes/tsunami so many westerners, his niche market, were not keen on visiting Japan. This opened up the topic so I dived in and asked what reports are regarding Fukashima radiation, workers, those displaced from their homes and the food source. It is still quite a mess. He said he does not buy fish caught in the east because the way the currents go he feels they are contaminated…but then he followed up that he knows that fish from the west are polluted from China so it is all a big challenge. Ugh. He advised us to arrive in Beijing with masks as there are deadly particle limits 10 xs what is allowable in Japan and a mask shortage there. Apparently, the pollution from China is such an issue for the Japanese that they just sorted a system to publicly disclose daily reports notifying residents when to stay inside because of dangerous air quality in the wind from China. Oh Japan. We get some neuroscience lessons then meditate 15 minutes, take a tour of the temple and Zen garden then meditate for another 5 minutes. The kids did great, I feared a fart or laugh attack from them during the silence but neither came.
Another stop on the train brings us post meditation to a bamboo forest like you have never seen the likes of before. Extremely cool, tall, thick bamboo looks amazing in volume. Imagine the tulips of Holland with an Asian twist. We take a rickshaw ride back from the forest to the train and the guys humor me by pointing to the distance and screaming GODZIRA.
I am struggling a bit by now with the food. We have no kitchen so are doing all our eating out and there is usually not a vegetable in sight, and if it is it is usually fried. Assorted sea life including sea cucumbers, jellyfish and worms seem to keep surprising me by being bundled so pretty only to horrify me with their taste. The only thing green is seaweed but it is not in volume, jut crinkled up in a ton of white rice. I just want some fruit and veg not soaked in salty broth with noodles or fried. Only thing I can find on the street is an occasional sweet potato. Never expected Japanese eating to be such a struggle for me.
The next day, before leaving for Tokyo, we stop at the Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine famous for its thousands of torii gates. These gates mark the entrance to a sacred space- the crossover point, if you will, from the ordinary to the divine. This particular shrine allows donors to purchase and donate gates so there are thousands to walk through as you hike up Mount Inari, which is a 2-3 hour climb. Shinto shrines are almost connected to nature in some way with a creek, mountain or the most prevalent- trees. This is so much so that if you look out in the landscape and see the tallest, largest trees you can hike there and most surely find a shrine. Fushimi Inari is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari's messengers so this shrine is laden with very cool fox statues. We had happened upon a Shinto shrine when hiking through some gargantuan cedar trees in Hakone so recognized the scoop. Once you cross the first gate there is always a purification station with cold water and bamboo ladles. You rinse your hands and your mouth here before proceeding for cleansing. Then the shrine structures come, there are many small ones set up. Shintoism does not want the focus on one large grand building like Christians do, they want the focus on nature so the trees or mountains can never be trumped by any building structure of man and thus kept small. These shrines often have places for people to express their intentions and gratefulness with incense, candles and ropes where little wooden plaques can be hung or paper notes can be tied. There are also these very cool often very large ropes with bells attached that hang in front of an altar. You toss some coins in the money box there, ring the bell by shaking the rope then bow, clap twice sort of slowly, then bow again in prayer and rise only when you are done. You are praying to something the Japanese call the kami, which is best transcribed a non-gendered divinity or supreme being present in all of nature. This posed no conflict for us at all so we all took our turn at the rope- it was the kid's favorite. Everyone just kind of hangs out doing their own thing but yet gathered in community all the same. Some sort of ceremony was going on in the main shrine with Shinto priests in large hats picking things up and moving them around while a gong played. These places are pretty cool and always offer not only a feeling of comfortable inviting sacredness but also amazing nature and hiking. I come to see from my time in Asia that ancestor worship really just means believing that while the body of your family member may be gone their spirit and essence remains and should be acknowledged and remembered yet allowed to move forward. Some traditions of Buddhism even appoint them a new Buddhist name on their death as to not call them back into life when their name is spoken. Staying with them and helping their body return to its state of dust and their spirit release seems like a difficult but loving process that keeps the reality of their beliefs grounded in their lives.
I take the time while at the shrine to light a candle, pull the bell, and worship my favorite ancestor half way up the mountain, next to a cascading stream alongside a grove of bamboo.
Goodbye Kyoto, 35.0000° N, 135.7500° E.