See You Later, Kyoto

June 24, 2007

I remember my first morning in Kyoto. It was more than five years ago, when I first came over to Japan for study abroad. The night before, I had been so tired and scared that I had locked myself in my hotel room and gone to sleep immediately. I woke up the next morning at 2 a.m., watched Japanese TV – of which I didn’t understand a word, and waited for the sun to rise. Around 6 a.m., I hesitantly ventured out into daylight.

The Higashiyama hills, vibrant with the morning sun’s rays, greeted me. I strolled along the picturesque Sosui canal, venturing over to Heian Shrine. I was stunned by its magnificent orange and green paint. This is Japan! I thought. It was love at first sight.

Like any long-term relationship, I outgrew the honeymoon phase. I went to work in the “real world” in two ultra-conservative work environments: the government and a 117-year old hotel. I got annoyed with the bureaucratic, inhuman aspects of this society – the facades of politeness that greeted me at every store, every office, everywhere. Once I understood Japanese well enough to watch TV, I realized most of the shows were about as unfunny and uninteresting as watching plants grow. As a foreigner, I grew isolated – not quite fitting in with the NOVA English teachers but never really accepted by my Japanese friends either. It seemed both groups just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a foreigner in Japan who spoke Japanese and understood Japanese culture. In other words, my relationship with Japan soured. I wanted out and I decided to go back home, to the US.

With not even two weeks left in Japan, I decided to make a final trip to Kyoto, to take care of a few chores and to say goodbye. I had anticipated the trip, but oddly, when I stepped off the train from Nagoya, I felt no grand feelings of “I’m back!” Walking through Kyoto Station felt too natural for that. My instincts took over and I only thought of the logistics – find a coin-operated locker, find my exit, buy a bottle of water. Perhaps thinking of only the mundane is the mark of a true resident.

I stayed at a guesthouse, Waraku-an, on Marutamachi-Higashioji, directly behind Heian Shrine. A remodeled machiya, Waraku-an reminded me of my own machiya that I had lived in only a few months ago. It seems like more time has passed since then. At the time, I had a routine. Wake up, get dressed, go to work, come home, cook dinner, take a shower, go to sleep. I rarely stopped to realize that I lived in such a perfect house, as decrepit and rodent-infested as it was.

This morning, I woke up early by no fault of mine; the other girl in my room was noisily packing her bags. As Japan is now in its rainy season, many of the flowers at Heian Shrine are in bloom. On a whim, I decided to visit. Again, I walked along the edge of the Sosui canal. Again, the sun shined brilliantly behind the eastern mountains. Again, I washed my hands at the shrine and heard the gravel crunch under my feet. I paid my admission and looked around the garden, the irises and lotuses in full bloom, the hydrangeas just past their prime. It only struck me on the return to my guesthouse how things had come full circle in such an unexpected, unplanned way.

Now, as I begin canceling my credit cards and making arrangement for my pension refund, I remember my life in Japan as beautiful and hazy, like a 1940s movie star during her close-up scene. I can remember only the good, and the bad seems as inconsequential as a mosquito bite. Endings can do that, I suppose. I have a lot of regrets, too. Why didn’t I appreciate it more? Why did I choose to stay in a job that wasn’t right for me, not once, but two times? Could I have done something differently to make it work?

I hope that this is merely a “Kyoto, see you later,” and not “goodbye.” Not because I love Kyoto and could probably be happy living here for the rest of my life. But, because there are temples left to visit, markets to shop at, festivals to attend, cafes to try. I feel like I didn’t do Kyoto justice the first two times. And they say that the third time is a charm.


Meiji Mura

June 20, 2007

What happens when Japanese cities and prefectures decide they don’t want their historical buildings anymore?

They get sent to an orphanage. No, really. They get dismantled piece by piece and sent to Meiji Mura, in Aichi prefecture, about 1.5 hours away from Shin’s house in eastern Nagoya. For those who are behind on their modern Japanese history, the Meiji era lasted from 1868 to 1919. It was a time when Japan completely flip-flopped from a dying feudal system to a country scrambling to modernize or face the consequences of colonialism, as many of its Asian neighbors already had. Brick buildings, steam engines, Western furniture and dress, and curry rice took the country by storm, and Japan prospered.

Japan is a country that resists change. But, when the pressure’s on, Japan is a country that can change as fast as a chameleon. What happened during the Meiji era would happen again once or twice more in the 20th century. Somewhere along the line, those stately brick buildings, those stone hotels, those Japanese tea houses, those steel bridges went out of vogue. Cities and prefectures see their maintenance as a budget-eating nuisance. Many of them are designated as Important Cultural Properties, which makes their upkeep even more expensive. These buildings are timepieces, but they’re a burden.

That’s where Meiji Mura comes in. Run by the Meitetsu Group, the same Goliath that owns department stores anddsc03162.jpg railroads, Meiji Mura does not bill itself as a theme park, although its grounds are on that scale. It is a museum, for buildings, paintings, utensils, china, machines, lighthouses, lamp posts, and many other relics of the Meiji era. Admission is a staggering 1600 yen, or 2200 yen if you include the all-day transportation pass that allows you to ride on an actual steam engine, a trolley, and the very cute maroon buses that run around the park.

Not knowing what to expect, I envisioned a Meiji-era Disney World. I thought there would be a mandatory character show (Admiral Perry and His Singing Black Ships!) or overpriced ice cream cones shaped like a corseted lady. I envisioned souvenir shops and obnoxious loud-speaker ads and jingles. But, no. This place really was like a museum. The quiet was broken in places by atmospheric classical music. Commercialism was kept low-key, perhaps almost too low-key; walking around in the heat, I found myself craving a few more vending machines and snack bars.

Along with your garden variety gimmicks like dressing up in gowns of the era and taking a 19th century style photos, the museum featured one of the most original schemes that I’ve ever seen. At the Uji Yamada post office, formerly outside of Ise Shrine, Japan’s most important shrine, currently one of the showpieces of the museum, visitors can mail letters and packages, and also access their postal savings accounts. In addition, they can also write a postcard to themselves, which the Meiji Mura post office keeps for ten years and then mails back to them.  At Meiji Mura, they obviously like the whole time capsule theme.

dsc03127.jpgThe museum showcased a wide variety of buildings, really enabling me to get a picture of what a typical Meiji Era street might have looked like. Three kinds of churches – from a soaring cathedral to a house of worship that looked more like a barn, sake breweries, private residences – both Japanese and Western, hospitals, schools, post offices, prisons. Even buildings that Japanese emigrants to Hawaii, Brazil, and Seattle lived in, all of the era, of course. Most of the kanji in the museum was written in the childlike font of that time, and backwards from right to left, rather than the opposite in use currently.

Perhaps most astonishing to me was the amount of important buildings in this “orphanage.” The former lobby of the dsc03123.jpgTeikoku Hotel in Tokyo, still one of Japan’s most famous hotels, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself. Decorated with stone, brick, and terracotta facades, the lobby, with its low ceilings, has a dark, cavernous feel, certainly not the style for hotel lobbies these days. Apparently, the Teikoku had intended to completely destroy the old lobby, until conservationists at Meiji Mura stepped in. Two other buildings that knocked me off my socks were the former houses of Japanese literary demagogues Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki, and Koizumi Yakumo. For those that don’t know, Natsume Soseki is such an influential figure in modern Japanese history that he was on the 1000 yen bill. Coincidentally, he and Mori shared the same house, although not at the same time. Meiji Mura also holds the residence of Koizumi Yakumo, known otherwise as Lafcadio Hearn, Japanophile Numero Uno, who not only wrote books about Japan in English, but became famous throughout Japan for his short horror stories and drawings.

dsc03160.jpgI left Meiji Mura with mixed feelings. On the one hand, this museum serves an invaluable purpose in gathering and preserving buildings from one of Japan’s most dynamic and exciting eras. On the other hand, I kept wondering “Why wouldn’t the local authorities want these buildings? Can’t they see the value in having this kind of architecture lining their streets?”

Like cars, cameras, kimono, and Louis Vuitton bags, no one wants used buildings. Meiji Mura houses the fortunate ones. How many others must have met their final resting place in a junk yard somewhere, casualties of a country obsessed with the shiny and new?

Japanese food is healthy, one of the great myths of this country.

From macrobiotics to The Okinawa Diet Plan, Japanese food is billed as the food that will save your life. Seaweed, fish, soy products, rice, green tea, how many times have we heard of the benefits of consuming these?

At the same time, the Japanese have many startling eating habits that are downright unhealthy.

First, there is no concept of lean or low fat here. While there may be ten different brands of milk on the shelf, perhaps only one of those will be a low fat version. Skim? Don’t make me laugh. Japanese people also eat eggs with abandon. An omelette for breakfast, an egg scrambled into stir-fry, sliced beef dipped in raw egg. There are eggs everywhere! Then there’s the meat. When first learning how to cook chicken, my mom always told me to make sure I cut off all of the fat. Try that here and you’d be cutting for hours. Steaks come lined with half an inch of fat on them. Sliced beef and pork for stir-fries and hotpots consist of mostly fat. And prized Kobe beef, which can run up to $100 for 100 grams (3.5 ounces), makes me nauseous, since there’s so much fat marbled in the flesh.

Second, the Japanese love deep frying. Whereas this form of cooking has become taboo in the States because of its high fat content, the love for dunking things in gallons of hot oil still burns strong in the Land of Rising Cholesterol. Fried chicken, fried pork cutlet, fried oysters, fried tofu, these are especially common menus for children and workers subjected to company cafeterias.

Third, high sodium content. Did you know that, compared to the West, the Japanese have a lower incidence rate for nearly all cancers, except stomach cancer? One of the leading causes of stomach cancer, it is believed, is a diet high in sodium, which the Japanese get plenty of in soy sauce and miso. See here for more info. They tend also to prefer tea over water, which I’m sure doesn’t help in rehydrating.

Fourth, surprisingly, it’s very difficult to eat vegetables unless you make a concerted effort to. In a typical bowl of udon, the only greenery might be a spoonful of green onions or a couple pieces of seaweed. In the US, a sushi set might come with a salad, but this is a convention created to appeal to Western tastes. In Japan, sushi is fish and rice, with maybe a bowl of egg custard to clean the palate. The hamburger you ate for lunch might have come with a leaf of lettuce. A side salad can be constituted as three pieces of iceberg lettuce, some cabbage shavings, and two slices of red onion. And everyone knows the stereotype of how expensive Japanese fruit is. The prohibitive costs of eating fruits and vegetables – both in restaurants and at home – can often make frozen potstickers and croquettes easier on the wallet, not to mention easier to prepare.

Fifth, the Japanese love mayonnaise. As salad dressing, on pizza, on pasta, on omelettes. There are even certain people called mayoraa, a creative Japanese fusion of the words “mayonnaise” and the suffix “er” (i.e. a player being someone who plays, etc.). A mayoraa is not just someone who likes mayonnaise, but who puts its on everything, even on top of white rice. Puke!

Sixth, the Japanese obsess over sweets like I have never before seen. We Americans can hold our own in the doughnut and ice cream department, but the Japanese covet cake, pastries, bread, and chocolates, as demonstrated by walking into any convenience or department store. All-you-can-eat cake buffets are a staple in most nice Japanese hotels and women flock there like, well, kids to a candy store.

Now, many Americans might be asking, if all I eat is fat-free bran crackers and the Japanese are over there pigging out, why is it that we get all of the negative publicity? Why aren’t the Japanese as fat as we are? Simple. They eat less and exercise more. After living in Japan and seeing what most people eat on a day-to-day basis, I’m more convinced than ever the “secret” to staying thin is portion control and exercise. An example: when I first came to Japan, I went to an Italian restaurant called Capricciosa, where I was served a miniscule calzone which I gobbled down in five minutes. Now, five years later, when I go to that very same restaurant, I usually can’t finish my meal. The actual portion size hasn’t changed, but the size of my stomach has. Mind you, a serving of pasta at Capricciosa is about one-third the size of a serving of pasta at The Cheesecake Factory.

In certain slices of the Japanese population, the over sixty crowd, for example, it is still very common to eat a traditional, healthy Japanese diet and get daily exercise. These are the people who live until 113. But give the Japanese one more generation and their life-spans will probably decrease. Give them two generations and who knows? They may even get as fat as Americans.


June 6, 2007

During my time in Southeast Asia, three non-Southeast Asian countries always loomed large in the background, like the shadow of a passing cloud.

One was India. As the birthplace of Buddhism, the religion, architecture, and even food of the region often harks back to this cultural giant. Especially in Thailand and Cambodia, India constantly whispered its influence.

The second was China. Again, religion – Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucist – food, language, architecture. In every country we visited, but especially in Chinese “centers” like Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, we couldn’t escape the colossal influence that this giant has had over all of its neighbors.

But, if India and China are Southeast Asia’s past, it is Japan, the third shadow-country, that Southeast Asia looks to in the present. In Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, there was anime, manga, sushi, ramen, Hello Kitty, Japanese fashions, Japanese make-up, Japanese everything. Made in Japan signs proudly stood outside of trendy stores, and boutiques and nail salons featured Japanese magazines, even though most of clientele were locals who could only look at the pictures.

At the time, this was all very amusing. But, being back in Japan, I admit that I’m now looking at everything with a new appreciation, too.

When I left for Southeast Asia in January, I was burnt out on Japan. Everything about this country annoyed me. Everything was plastic, cheesy, and ugly. Everything was expensive. People were polite only on the surface. But, travel provides perspective. I remember walking on the humid, garbage-lined streets of Phnom Penh, longing for “ugly” Japan, where on a bad day, there may be a few cigarette butts strewn on the sidewalk. After one too many greasy, spicy, peppery meals, I craved the simplicity of udon or rice and miso soup. The Japanese food in Southeast Asia rarely satisfied. It was always missing something. A Japanese waitress or shop clerk would never laugh at the customer. If a guest was checking into a hotel, they wouldn’t wait until the commerical break of the soap opera they were watching to acknowledge your presence. I admit, I was getting tired of Southeast Asia manners.

Although I’ve only been back in Japan for a few days, I realize I’m a much happier person than when I left. For all of its faults, Japan is clean and well organized. Its politicians and government officials are somewhat efficient and, to a certain extent, honest. While the press may practice self-censorship, if I decided to criticize the prime minister or royal family, I could without fear of being throw in prison. I can fill up my water bottle at any faucet and eat food without regretting it the next morning. Most important, I can walk into a bank and open an account, ask about a letter I got regarding my payments to the National Pension, make an airline reservation, explain how I want my hair cut at the salon, request my salad dressing on the side, and, in general, live my life here normally because I speak the language and know the culture.

Travel is great, of course. But, there really is no place like Japan.

Maple leaf frenzy has begun in Kyoto. The buses are jam-packed, the streets are choked with enormous tour buses, and the flag-guided mass tours shuffle from temple to temple with the same city-published tourist maps in their hands. Ha, tourists.

I love the autumn foliage and hate the crowds. Every year, I search for that spot – not necessarily perfect, but at least not swarming with tourists striking their peace-sign poses for a photo in front of every maple tree in the temple precint.

To this end, today, I ventured up to Koetsuji (光悦寺), a temple in the north of Kyoto. Fact: it doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday afternoon, when most people should be at work, if there’s a red leaf around, the tour buses and taxi cabs will find it. And so they did.

Although it could have been worse. In fact, given the usual circumstances – narrow streets, collosal tour buses, hoards of yapping grannies, the growl of an electric chainsaw constantly in the background of the temple – the trip was downright pleasant.

The afternoon was yellow and lush in that way that November afternoons are. Around the temple, there was only one souvenier shop and one discreet cafe – a very quiet scene for Kyoto. We took the Kyoto City Kita1 bus (北1) to Koetsuji, and as most people getting off, headed straight for the temple. We, however, strolled behind the determined group and were rewarded by stumbling upon a small, newish-looking, and deserted temple, Enjoji (圓成寺). Repeat: deserted. Do you know how rare this is? A deserted temple in Kyoto during peak maple leaf season? Like going to Disney World and there being no one in line for Space Mountain. There wasn’t even a staff member at the front entrance so we got in for free. A deserted, free temple! One downside: there was a big sign at the front saying No Photography. I suppose since the temple was deserted, I could have taken as many pictures as I wanted, but I’ve lived in Japan for too long and have become too “honest” (or, afraid of getting caught.) Anyway, there were vivid red and yellow maples, all in their peak, their twisting roots covered in a carpet of green moss. Towards the back of the temple trickled a “waterfall” (although it really just looked like a broken pipe.) A 9 out of 10 on the Perfect-o-Meter, but for the cacophany of construction sounds coming from the nearby parking lot. Ah well.

On to Koetsuji. The temple had a few stunning, maroon trees, but otherwise was pretty average as far as fall colors. Of course, there were the people: retirees, taxi drivers-cum-tour guides, triplets of middle-aged women. We caught a glimpse of a maiko in full regalia, also. But this being Kyoto, you’re supposed to be ho-hum about those kinds of things. One great thing about Koetsuji: the scenery. No buildings, no powerlines, just mountains, or “borrowed scenery” in Japanese gardening terms. Before it was a temple, Koetsuji was an artist’s retreat and it still retains that atmosphere: contained and serene.Koetsuji

Next, because we were there already, we decided to pop on over to Genkoan (原光庵), a very standard temple, with a sub-par garden, and higher admission than Koetsuji (400 yen, rather than Koetsuji’s 300.) I was about to throw a hissy-fit until I looked up. Genkoan, apparently, is famous for a few things: its unusually shaped windows (it’s shaped like a circle! gasp!!) and its “blood ceiling.” Yes, a blood ceiling. And yes, if you look up, you will definitely see the stains of splattered blood and, gorier yet, a footprint in blood!! My boyfriend surmised that the blood got up there by being sprayed as someone got sliced through with a sword. But the footprint?!

Footprint in blood

I asked the lady at the ticket counter and she explained:

Back in the day, when someone committed seppuku (i.e. slashing your stomach open in a ritual suicide), they would leave the blood stains on the floorboards to commemorate that person. But, by leaving the floorboards on the floor, everyday traffic would wear away the blood stains. Therefore, the floor was ripped out and put up into the ceiling, leaving a very visceral memorial of the gory death through the ages. A creepy feeling. Especially the footprint. It’s hard to imagine those distant, belly-slicing samurai as real people. But there was the blood over my head to prove otherwise.