These are the things which draw the visitors to Kyoto. I’ll take a break from the descriptive stuff and just set out some photos based on sets of similar sights – with brief explanations. Enjoy.
Shrines – radiant vermilion offset with white, animal statues and distinctive torii (gates). Kyoto’s Shinto shrines stand out from the Buddhist temples as the sacred worship sites of Japan’s ancient and indigenous spiritual belief. Note that jinja is Japanese for shrine.
Temples – adorned with wonderful statues, carvings, ponds, art and amazing gardens, Kyoto’s Buddhist temples have long histories tangled up in political power struggles between the various schools of Buddhism and their powerful, secular patrons.
Gardens – no space on this page, see next entry.
Cross the Kamagawa River on Shijo street and the blazing lights of the downtown arcades quickly give way to the wooden houses and dark alleys of an older city. The neighbourhood of Gion in eastern Kyoto is home to the city’s historic entertainment district, an elegant collection of traditional machiya houses, neighbourhood shrines and venerable old restaurants serving some of Kyoto’s finest food and entertainment.
In the Edo period Gion was a district of earthly pleasures celebrated as ‘ukiyo’ or the ‘floating world.’ A vibrant, seductive escape, a world of sake and brothels, teahouses and theatre, girls and geisha. But don’t mistake Gion for a glorified red light strip. Granted, the sexual element is there on the edges, but the Gion of today retains the charm without the sleaze – traditional, beautiful and in its own way much more seductive.
Gion must be walked at night, when the streets are darker than elsewhere in Kyoto. I wandered, only a soft light glowing from the paper lanterns hanging in doorways like round yellow moons. A kitchen-hand in white meandered by on a bicycle, riding one handed with a wooden box of food in the other; the sudden, inexplicable smell of incense wafted by, replaced abruptly by raw ginger; invisible diners whispered secret conversations, just out of reach behind paper screens; a kimono-clad hostess clopped past in her wooden sandals before disappearing behind a private door.
I followed the Shirikawa canal down a row of old restaurants. Their large, latticed windows blazed out over the churning water with modern images of that vanished, floating world. Men in suits dining in private rooms, white-clad waiters bowing and bobbing silently from room to room. Outside on the street black-clad drivers idled in black sedans, waiting for their bosses inside. I began to imagine what words were being said in those private rooms, and what deals being done by those wealthy, powerful men, when I saw a geisha sitting among them.
I stopped, transfixed, in the middle of the road. Her hair was perfectly arrayed above her pale make-up, her kimono a burnished meld of orange and bronze. She inclined her head gently, artfully, listening and laughing, the quiet centrepiece of the evening. I lingered on the cobblestones in the darkness of the street, absorbed by this vision through the latticed window. I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo; I felt like a hunter trespassing in the royal woods – ‘Touch me not, for Caesar’s I am, and wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’
I hurried on my wandering way, feeling entranced and alienated all at once. This peculiar feeling would visit me again and again during my brief stay in Kyoto. Tradition, beauty, privacy and privilege, they all meet in these secretive wooden streets, drawing in you in with sublime, vanishing glimpses of the floating world. Glimpses, nothing more.
It should be noted that for modern day geisha, the terms geiko and maiko(apprentice geiko), from the Kyoto dialect, are preferred. The word geisha connotes prostitution, which true geisha most certainly do not engage in.
Kyoto exists in your head long before you see any shrines or gardens. It’s there long before you walk down a cobbled street past a gleaming convenience store and into a row of old wooden houses. It’s there in your imagination even as the concrete and neon cast Tokyo-like shadows onto everything and you wonder if this is the right place. And it stays in your head long after you leave.
The city is flat, the streets arrayed in tight squares cut through with canals, stretching away on three sides up to the green mountains beyond. It’s a place that favours exploration on foot, or bicycle, and a great many of the locals ride everywhere. Office workers in suits and ties, the so-called salarymen, cycle to their jobs, and young hipsters manage to text and ride deftly through the crowds.
There’s no denying that Kyoto has all the usual ugliness that comes with rapidly urbanised cities. But while in places like Beijing or Tokyo you have to hunt for traces of history and beauty, in Kyoto it pops up everywhere you go. Quite simply, Kyoto is blessed with an overwhelming concentration of shrines, temples, traditional houses and gardens unrivalled anywhere in Asia. And they are more than just museum pieces. In Kyoto the traditions of old Japan are not simply preserved but still practiced, giving the city’s thoroughly modern inhabitants both an outward aesthetic and a cultural pulse as they live within the city.
I had the privilege of spending four nights in Kyoto, walking the streets everyday from early morning til evening, gorging myself on as much of the city as I could get, and though it filled me up, I know I didn’t see half what Kyoto has to offer. I’m going to write a few entries about the place, as it would be impossible to cram everything into a single piece. But I saw everything that defines the romanticised image of classical Japan – moss-covered gardens, red shrine gates in the forest, dark bamboo groves, silent zen rock gardens and geisha walking hurriedly down the cobbled stones of the hanamachi at night. But Kyoto is not just a collection of romanticised images. It’s in your head long before you get there, but the real thing is so much calmer, clearer and more beautiful than that.
An admission: despite my fascination with all things Asian, and a mandate to get under the skin of the places I visit, despite the fact that it’s a big part of both Korean and Japanese culture, and despite my intense curiosity, I have never shown my face – or bum – in a public bath house. It’s not that I don’t want to, I guess I’ve just never had the balls.
The bath house wasn’t that hard to find, a local neighbourhood sento nestled in a neat Asakusa back-alley just off the main road, and I was foot-sore and weary from a day of sightseeing under Japan’s merciless summer sun. As timid as a geisha, I walked past casually three times before building up the courage to slip past the steady stream of customers, step inside and place my shoes and socks in a locker. I was 10% naked already.
Not knowing what to do is the hardest part, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to be confronted by a vending machine. Employing the ancient tourist trick, I lingered, watched others, and copied them. I paid for entry, a rented towel, shampoo and a mini bar of soap – the latter presumably non-returnable – and the machine spat out a series of tiny tickets. My paper passports to bubbling bath house bliss. I traded them in for bathing goods at the front desk, a wooden cubicle with a wizened old woman inside – was she really so old, or just prematurely wrinkled from all the hot water?
Inside the changing rooms I was faced with the greatest test – get your gear off and work out what to do next. I was lost in a room full of lockers and naked, middle-aged men, all Japanese. My locker key didn’t seem to match any of the lockers here, so I stood looking confused (another tourist trick, I swear) until a very helpful young guy pointed me in the right direction. Being Japanese, he bobbed his head in earnest as he spoke; being naked, his privates did the same.
I took my clothes off as slowly and deliberately as a man on death row eats his last meal, only without pausing to savour anything – trust me, there wasn’t much to savour. And I strode off into the baths, as naked as the day I was born, only hairier, and with a plastic locker key strapped around my ankle. I felt every one of my 191 centimetres as I hit the showers; I felt everyone politely not looking-but looking at me. Physically, culturally, I was more out of place than I think I’ve ever been. I was not so much a fish out of water, as a buffalo in an aquarium.
Again I copied my neighbours and sat down on a bucket over a low showerhead and washed myself very thoroughly from head to toe – public baths are for relaxation not hygeine, and jumping in unclean is a grevious sin. After that, I took the final step and lowered myself awkwardly into the tiled vats of steaming, bubbling water and sweating, relaxing men.
Unlike many bath houses, this sento doesn’t just boil tap water for the baths, it actually pumps onsen – hot spring – water straight from under ground. The water was rich, brown-tinged and incredibly refreshing, with a mineral-infused bite that really soaked through you. After half an hour I was a quivering mass of pink, naked contentment when a yakuza gangster sauntered past, head shaved clean and a mural of tattoos spreading across his back. Such was the soothing effects of the water, I barely even registered his presence.
I finished with a cold shower, which I was told gets the circulation going – it sure as hell does. I drifted back into the street at sundown, my eyes glazed and my body floating away. The feeling wore off with every step, but it’s a feeling I’ll certainly experience again very soon.
Back to normal Korean stuff as of next update – just moved house and I’m loving the change. Will not miss my sad old housemate at all.
Young girls in elaborate goth, maid and schoolgirl costumes advertising cafes, throngs of teenage boys and not a few old men engrossed in the latest video game or comic, blazing cartoon advertising along the skyscrapers and a constant electronic buzz in your ears – this place exists and it’s called Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronic, anime, manga and all-things-nerd emporium and sensory overload combined. But that doesn’t really begin to explain the place.
Akihabara has a little bit of everything that makes Tokyo a place unlike any other. This is the place you go to buy electronics of all sorts, where you can go to a cafe and hire a cat for an hour and play with it while you drink your coffee. This is the place where high school nerds will queue for hours alongside 40 year-old husbands to buy special release trading cards or photos of some new girl group. This is the place where pachinko parlours and game arcades molest your senses with lights, smoke and a wall of electronic noise. This is the place where technology and obsession meet geek culture and fall desperately, briefly in love, and then go home alone to their tiny grey apartments. Of all the bizarre excesses of Akihabara’s strange subculture, I was heading for one of the strangest – a maid cafe.
Here’s the business model: open a cafe on the 7th floor of a commercial tower in Akihabara; staff it with outgoing 19 to 20 year old Japanese girls dressed in impossibly cute pink maid outfits; keep a few of the prettiest girls out on the street with placards to draw in the geeky male customers wishing to indulge in weird yet innocent fantasy.
Let me preface this by saying I would never go here without a female Japanese friend accompanying me, which made me feel more like a detached observer than a part of the scene. As soon as the crappy steel elevator opens you enter a world of bright pink, the waitress maids welcoming you in sing-song Japanese. You sit down and a maid serves you a menu, addressing you by name and ‘master’ as you fill out an order form. The choices are expensive set menus including drinks, dessert, food, and your choice of either playing a board game with a maid for small prizes, or a photo of you with a maid of your choice.
The customers were more fascinating than the maids. Aside from a few tourists and curious types, most of the patrons were lone Japanese guys, sitting quietly and scarcely interacting with the maids, reading a book or playing a videogame quietly. These unique specimens are otaku – members of a peculiar subset of Japanese nerd subculture, they are mostly young men with a passion for manga, anime and videogames, but socially they are something like exiles or recluses, and many of them spend most of their time at home avoiding the world. In fact, the word otaku actually derives from a word meaning ‘your house’ and although I only just made the connection when writing this, the maid cafe I went to was called @home cafe. Actually, otaku really just means anyone with a strong passion for something, and is rather harmless. The guys in the maid cafe fit the classic Akihabara otaku stereotype, but there are many others. Hell, I could be considered a Korea otaku!
The guys in the cafe looked a lonely bunch, and they seemed to find some degree of community from hanging out, either in groups or alone, at a place like this. I wonder how much of this Akihabara maid cafe stuff is just posing and nonsense, and how much of it is a genuine community.
It was all fascinating and fairly innocent fun, but the whole thing raised a lot of darker questions. What kind of person would actually come here regularly? And clearly many of the customers were regulars. What bizarre fantasy-need do these maids fulfill? Cute is the name of the game, but underneath the absurd costumes these girls are totally normal Japanese girls, mostly university students working part-time. But behind the playful innocence of the whole thing there is an obvious unspoken darkness. There is a pseudo-sexual element to the cafe experience – in the mind of the customer rather than the maid, who just does this for a job, gets changed and catches the subway home. But do the customers always know how the lines of fantasy are drawn? The house rules of the cafe best sum up these unspoken issues:
Don’t ask the maids personal questions.
Don’t touch the maids physically.
No maid is allowed to leave the cafe with a customer.
Like they say, it’s all fun and games, until someone gets hurt. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating, only in Japan experience. On the way home I noticed a maid leaving another cafe and heading home, looking very exhausted in her pink costume. Passing another maid in a black and white school-girl outfit, they nodded tiredly at each other, alternate fantasy universe workers changing shifts. It felt like catching a fleeting glimpse of modern day geisha. And that feeling too, was pure fantasy.
Coming straight from Seoul, the first thing you notice about Tokyo is clean, straight streets and balconies. Real balconies, not the boxy, suicide-proof window closets you get in Korea. Gliding in to Asakusa on the metro I saw a continuous stream of neatly ordered apartment blocks, concrete river canals and bicycles everywhere. The city gives a great initial impression of carefully designed urbanity, and while that’s not always the case, it certainly is a defining feature of the city.
My accommodation in the old working class district of Asakusa – formerly the ‘low town’ of the old Edo era city – was a hostel based in a traditional wooden house called a ryokan. That meant creaking floorboards, lots of dark wood, thin paper-covered walls (but not made of paper) and sleeping on a tatami covered floor, all of which was very comfortable, with a decent air-conditioning system. The guy running the hostel, an energetic young Japanese man, kept speaking to me in Korean, since I came from Korea. A logical, yet flawed deduction. He later asked my slyly, ‘you weren’t born in Seoul, right?’
I put my bag down and set out in the hot summer afternoon – I had the better part of three days and nights to get inside Tokyo a little and jump around. I could feel every second whipping past me, taking opportunities with it. I did and saw a lot, and I’m satisfied that I managed to see a lot of Asakusa, central Tokyo/Ginza, and Ueno, plus more cursory glances into the bizarre worlds of Harajuku, Shinjuku, Odaiba, a few sun-washed hours in Yokohama, thirty minutes in wild evening Shibuya, plus catch ups with some old Japanese friends and former students, a former co-worker, Eiko-sensei, and of course, my sister. I need to thank all these people, especially Eiko, my lovely ex-students Jun, Nozomi and their friends, who gave me a wonderful first night welcome to Japan involving copious amounts of raw fish and some delicious sake (so much tastier than Korean soju).
Tokyo is probably the most visual city I have ever been in, and from start to finish the place bombards you with bright, bold colours, characters and text. It comes from very old traditions in the arts of printing, illustration and animation. Even the flyers hanging from the subway ceilings are a menagerie of design, and the streets of places like Shibuya crossing and Akihabara blaze with animated figures, screens and noise which rise vertically up the buildings. It feels nothing like Seoul’s bustling commercial neon or Hong Kong’s majestic, faded glory – Tokyo’s lights and colours are bold, clean and as new as the media and technologies they advertise.
I will break the trip down into a few interesting stories over the coming days, so for now I’ll finish up with a general impression of Tokyo and the people who live there. I hate travellers who blow through a massive town like Tokyo in three days and come back full of detailed assumptions and judgements about an ancient and complex people like the Japanese – so take my brief impressions with a grain of salt, a bowl of soy and a chunk of raw tuna.
Tokyo is packed to the glittering steel rafters with buildings and people, but densely and politely so in the most careful manner. In that regard it is unlike any Asian city I’ve ever been to. But Japan is less about rigid conformity than quiet uniformity. People can and do move to the beat of their own drum – witness the crazy young cats and their wild fashions, the radical architecture and the diverse art scene – but behind the drum beat is a deeper rhythm that keeps everyone, the young, the old, the rich and the crazy in tune. It’s a rhythm rich in harmony, manifesting itself in polite public behaviour, a deep respect for beauty and order, and a genuine desire to live freely and comfortably in a massive, rapidly moving metropolis. Every person I stopped in the street, young or old, went out of their way to help me, and often with decent English too. People criticise the Japanese for concealing their true emotions in a false display of two-faced politeness, but I encountered nothing but help and kindness from the whole damn populace.
Admittedly, the quietly observed rules that keep Japanese society flowing can grate on carefree skin sometimes, and I began to miss the rough, boisterous charm of Seoul, where Korean kindness is balanced with a blunt honesty and not a little rudeness. Nevertheless, Tokyo ranks up there as one of my favourite city experiences and I’m craving a few weeks to get out into the rest of the country, and sad that it may be a long time before I get to do so. Ah, travelling. You get the privilege of visiting another country, having a wonderful experience, and you come back complaining because you’re craving more. Typical.