Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cooling it in Kyoto

Confession: I'm an unreconstructed tourist. I search out popular and significant sights and sites in foreign lands and take photos of them along with numerous selfies and pictures of what I eat. All goes into an album of memories, most likely these days on Facebook. This makes me not unlike a collector of stamps or the Boy Scout accumulating merit badges.  On my TripAdvisor page I'm up to 216 cities in 30 countries. Wow.

Seasoned travellers look down their noses at this.  I once traveled with a lady in Sri Lanka who sneered at my predilection for modern hotels with sumptuous breakfast buffets.  She thought a measure of discomfort was a mark of the exotic.  We parted in an ancient hotel on the beach at Negombo where fish were drying on the sand. For me, the exotic can often be found in the familar. Even the lowly McDonald's outlet can provide surprises in a menu adapted for Thai or Japanese tastes.

I live now in a foreign land far from where I was born and every day is a tourist excursion. As a resident in Asia, my goal has been to explore the neighborhood, and in the recent past I've taken selfies and eaten strange food in Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore.  This year the destination was Japan, home of the Karate Kid, where Marlon Brandon said "Sayonara" and John Wayne was the barbarian who courted a geisha, birthplace of the Ninja Turtles and the place where Bill Murray became Lost in Translation.

We see what we are prepared for.  In my case, besides the movies already mentioned, my anticipation was conditioned long ago by reading James Clavell's novel Shogun which was made into a popular TV miniseries in the 1980s with Richard Chamberlain as an English ship pilot in the early 17th century.  In addition to films, I also have a fondness for the art of Hokusai and the haiku poetry of Basho, but both are associated with Eido which grew into Tokyo, now the world's largest city.  Tokyo, however, held little attraction since I already live in a large Asia city. It was Kyoto, imperial capital of Japan for a thousand years and home of the shogunate, that appealed most to me.

In the run up to departure, I read Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk, the story of how he fell in love with the city and the woman who became his wife, and I poured over maps and guide books and looked at pictures of many of the 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, 17 of which have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.  From a YouTube video I learned that pickles and tofu were specialities of Kyoto cuisine. Friends said that our departure in the second half of April was too late for the blooming of the cherry blossoms, an almost religious event in Japan, but it also meant smaller crowds of tourists. I bought Nan a Kyoto guide in Thai and for me the just published Kansai Cool: A Journey Into the Cultural Heartland of Japan by Christal Whelan which takes a regional view to include nearby Osaka and Kobe.

Reality can be unexpected, since it's mostly of our own construction.  For reasons of price and location in the temple-saturated Higashiyama neighborhood of Kyoto, I picked a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, thinking it would add to our immersion in historical Japan.  It wasn't sleeping on a futon over tatami mats in a tiny room, or the postage-stamp bathroom, that was difficult so much as the 4th floor walkup in a building without an elevator.  Everything else about the Kyoto Traveller's Inn was superb, from its location opposite the zoo and art museums near the Heian-Jingu Shinto shrine, to the food and the friendliness of the staff, and not least the onsen hot bath in the basement (probably more correctly called a sento since the water wasn't from hot springs) that was strangely always empty.  The hot waters helped to soothe aches and pains brought on by extensive walking.

The burning summer weather had just begun in Thailand as we set off for Kyoto where long sleeves and coats were necessary and the shorts I brought useless.  Despite warnings that Sakura, the Japanese blossom time, was past its peak, there were blooms everywhere and tourists and locals who were taking their photo.  We cut notches on our tourist samurai sword by visiting Nanzen-Ji, Ginkaku-Ji and Kiyomizu-dera on the east side and Tenryu-Ji in the west. We walked the grounds of the Imperial Palace and Nijo-Jo Palace where the shoguns lived but failed to see much without the necessary reservations.  We sniffed the smells and eye-balled strange food in Nishiki Market and climbed to the top of the ultramodern Kyoto Station in the shadow of Kyoto Tower.  We walked the blossom-lined Path of Philosophy and the through the giant bamboo grove at Arashiyama.  In the evenings we ate yakiniku, okonomiyaki, sushi and sashimi, and sipped incredibly tasty noodle soups. So what if we missed Fuji and the short trip I'd hope to make to Nara?

In my imagination, Kyoto was forever lost in the shogunate period from the 11th to the 19th century.  And the authorities have certified that the tourists sites are historically authentic.  But Kyoto today is a cosmopolitan city of one and a half million with a modern bus and subway system that we quickly learned to navigate.  Ginkaku and Kiyomizu are surrounded by a veritable Disneyland of shops selling a hodgepodge of souvenirs as well as pickles, mochi and green tea ice cream. That it was Easter weekend probably did not increase the usual crush of visitors to the sites. Arashiyama was particularly crowded because it was a Sunday to celebrate the coming of age of young girls who could be seen everywhere in kimonos strolling with their families. I felt the stickiness of stereotypes jostling for dominance with the commerce of tourism, mostly from Japanese themselves, so much in evidence.  What, I wondered, was the relation of the city's history to the fun-seekers queuing up for hot buns or taking selfies in the Buddhist shrines?

We had a wonderful time during our six-day visit. Nan got to rent a kimono one afternoon for a stroll down the street in Arashiyama, and she was able to buy a variety of Nippon goodies for gifts and for treats that now fill our refrigerator.  Our journey was made easier with the help of Kanae who grew up in Kyoto and Nueng from Thailand who is now studying there, both friends from my university in Ayutthaya.  This blog has turned into somewhat of a meta-reflection on tourism rather than a traditional travel report.  Hopefully you can browse through our photos in the Holiday in Kyoto album on Facebook which I have made public.

More than any other city I've visited, Kyoto is a paradise for bicyclists, if not pedestrians.  In Bangkok, the motorcycle taxi drivers roar down the sidewalks, but they are no more dangerous than the two-wheelers that whizzed by me in Kyoto.  Despite this sign, there was plenty of bike traffic in the downtown shopping area. Another observation: Kyoto is a city where the elderly remain active.  Japan has an average life-expectancy of 81 and the old folk were everywhere. Maybe the long lives are due to the ubiquitous face masks worn by residents to prevent the spread of infection. When I visited Germany in the 1970s I thought about the elderly I saw and wondered who might have supported Hitler. Perhaps enough time has past now so those thoughts did not arise when I encountered the elderly in Japan.

More likely, it's because I'm old as well now.  The Vietnamese I met in Hanoi seemed to have forgiven the misdeeds of my country.  So I have no more reason for grudges.  This trip made me realize my age acutely.  The four floors walkup in the hotel didn't help.  Most mornings while Nan slept, I wandered the surrounding area with my camera looking for a good cup of coffee (toast was the usual accompaniment).  By the time we set out on our day's tourist adventures, my feet, right knee and legs were already sore. I learned to search out the elevators and escalators in the underground. Rheumy eyes made it hard to see clearly. And I even got sunburned though the weather was mostly cloudy with a bit of drizzle.  Arthritic fingers ached from gripping maps. By late afternoon, I was pretty much wiped out, and we took more taxis than our budget recommended. Future trips will require better pacing.

As Christal Whelan points out in Kansai Cool, Japan's ministry of tourism now uses the slogan "Cool Japan" to advertise its wares. When we got off the plane back in Bangkok the hot air hit us like an explosion, emphasizing the temperature difference. But the cities differ in other interesting ways.  That night back home we went to an outdoor restaurant in Pinklao serving Isan food. The place was full of people happily chatting. In Kyoto at night the streets were silent, except for in the busy karaoke bar section of Pontocho.  In my youth, I lived for a time in Cuernavaca, and loved the street life there.  I found it again in Bangkok.  Thailand and Mexico are outside cultures, while Kyoto and probably all Japan are inside cultures.  I don't know if it's totally due to the long hot summer since Japan, like much of the north, has seasons.  In many respects, Kyoto reminded me of San Francisco.  And it was wonderful to see again pine and fir trees.

One other significant difference between the cities: Thailand is known as the "Land of Smiles" and if you look at someone they will almost always smile at you (even if they think you're a farang who smells like a turtle).  I smiled at lots of strangers in Kyoto and no one returned my grin.  On the other hand, we were struck by the friendliness, from the customs inspector at the airport who wanted to know if we were married, to the helpful staff at the hotel and the subway ticket taker who saw we were lost and gave us a free ticket to the proper stop.  The Japanese are punctual and incredibly efficient.  At the Daimaru Department Store, the information staff pictured directed us to an elevator that had not one but two operators, both grinning from ear to ear and eager to help us to our destination.  When our plane departed, the ground crew waved goodbye (they also did in Taiwan).

In Japan I knew nothing of the country's politics.  There could have been a revolution brewing and it wouldn't have interrupted my activities. This must be what it's like for a tourist in Bangkok ignorant of the current crisis that seems so disturbing to us expats.  After nearly a week there I will probably pay more attention to any news stories I see mentioning Japan.  Obama arrived in Tokyo the day we left the airport in Oasaka. Parts of the country remain uninhabitable after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.  More than the tourist crowds and the temple shopping malls, I'll probably remember quiet mornings in Higashiyama when residents came outside to water their plants and sweep up the leaves while the many streams through the area provided the rippling sound of water rushing over pebbles.

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