Rei's Japan Trip 2003


November 2003

| Personal | Current Japanese Society and Culture | Impressions of Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, etc.) |

Photo Index
(includes further commentary)


For the most part I stayed with my uncle (mother's younger brother) and his family, in the sorta cramped, 2 story house my mother's family built after World War II had destroyed almost all of that part of Tokyo. My uncle and aunt are kind, generous, humorous, and devote themselves to their guests. The same can be said for all my aunts and uncles, which is saying something. I also stayed briefly with one of my maternal aunts (and yakked with her husband til 3 in the morning while drinking sake), stayed overnight at a hot springs bath hotel near Nagano with some of my maternal great aunts and great uncles and families, visited one of my paternal uncles in Mito, went sightseeing in Kyoto (and chatted with a Buddhist abbot there), and also chatted briefly with a an author/entrepeneur/animation house co-founder whom I first met about a month ago in the US.

Current Japanese Society and Culture

Splintering Families and Society?

high school students waiting for their train to come in (:-P) My understanding of current Japanese society is that it is becoming increasingly fractured and shallow. What I mean is that many families are splintered, more people are divorcing and willing to admit it, and relationships (home, work, social) are increasingly shallow and driven by pleasure and materialism.

While these sound negative, in some ways they are (and I was surprised when I was shown this by Mr. Toshio Okada) actually positive. Just as I don't think the 1960's cultural change in the US was all bad, and in fact grew out of flaws in American society, so it also seems these changes in Japan have resulted from a rebellion against too much rigidity and familial power. It used to be that families enforced compliance with family expectations and demands (e.g., needing family permission to marry a particular person), and we are all also familiar with the patriarchical model where men dominated and women obeyed. Some of the splintering and shifts in marriage trends and the like can be, I think, traced to a rebellion against these old, rigid, unbending traditions. And technology has certainly allowed people to get to know those with similar ideas and interests they might never otherwise have met (just as with many of us in the US) - hence broadening social contacts.

All that said, the fact still remains that families have been splintering, youth crime is on the rise, literacy is down, materialism is way up, and (as some have told me) a shocking 25% of high school girls are engaged in some kind of sexual trade activity, ranging from relatively innocent stuff to downright prostitution. Older people all over Japan express worry and concern about the young generation - and the young generation seems to mostly just want to go shopping (at least from what I have heard).

HOWEVER, I should note that I saw a TV documentary that also offered a ray of hope. The documentary followed a group of students who were working on a play about a horrific environmental tragedy from about 50 years ago - the Minamata mercury poisoning case, in which hundreds of people in a small town named Minamata developed moderate to severe neurological damage from consuming fish that contained mercury from industrial dumping. (Historic footage and photos show people and animals (such as cats that liked fish) experiencing uncontrollable body-wracking and incapacitating spasms and tremors. A severely brain-damaged young woman is held lovingly in a posed family photo, her eyes rolled back into her head, her expression slack and oblivious. Many of these people would live their whole lives severely mentally damaged, deranged, or otherwise incapacitated by the poisoning - some are still alive today.) The students who were preparing the play visited Minamata and were deeply touched as they struggled with learning about and trying to convey the human story of the Minamata tragedy. The earnestness in their efforts to teach others and also to honor the victims and their families was in itself moving - and to me a sign of hope about the status of Japan's young people.

Crime and Declining Japanese Society?

The media has made a fuss about the rising crime rates. Special emphasis seemed to be placed on crimes by young people. One recent scam involves a male voice calling on the phone and saying "ore, ore" ("It's me, it's me") and saying he's in trouble and needing cash - hence bilking worried but gullible parents of lots of money.

Another recent problem is the rise in crimes committed by foreignors. In one recent news story, an entire innocent family, including children, was murdered by an Asian (non-Japanese) gang seeking money. (However, it's known that some Japanese do aid the foreign criminal organizations, as I think was the case with this particular tragedy.)

However, all that said, I saw many, many bicycles parked here and there (or in massive numbers at train stations) - and not a single one was locked down. (Don't try this in Boston!)

Moreover, TV news, although it seemed to mention the occasional murder or other crime, simply did not contain anywhere near the same order of magnitude of violent crime reports that American TV news might.

And lastly, although the Japanese economy is said to be way down, and that many Japanese are unemployed and that jobs are moving overseas (to mainland Asia and India), most shops and storefronts appeared to be open, and the department stores were still bustling - at least, compared to my most recent stroll through a particular suburban Boston-area mall.

As much as Japan is said to be declining, in many ways it's still doing well.

Side Culture/Tech Note: The Bathrom Quandry

electronic toilet seat for saleGo into almost any Japanese house and look in the bathroom (mind you, the door is almost always closed, because it's not considered polite to leave the door open even if the room is vacant). The toilet seat will probably be one of the hyper modern, heated jobs, probably with the control panel offering a variety of hygienic water spray options with touch controls for temperature, pressure, and positioning. Coming back to US bathrooms afterwards feels almost like a step backward in time.

Some Japanese trains, train stations and restaurants provide other modern options: recordings of water sounds to mask bathroom noises at the touch of a button(!), disinfectants for the toilet seat, and special sensors for flushing the toilet.

And yet ... go into other bathrooms - in shops, stores, restaurants, and along roads and in train stations, and you'll find the old traditional seat-less situation, in addition to not-very-clean floors. Some of the ritziest department stores still seem to have 75% old-style seatless bathrooms. Some say they are more hygienic, but the Western-style toilet seat areas seem to get eager lines of people who'd just rather not deal with the traditional alternative.

Irrelevant side note: most Japanese households use a system of heating water directly at the kitchen sink or shower and/or bath via gas water heaters. Also, a number of modern sinks (such as those at hotels) allow one to set the temperature separately from turning the water on or off - allowing one to turn on/off the water without having to reset the temperature every time. I think both of these technologies are useful for saving both energy and water. Worth thinking about?

Random Cultural Notes

Impressions of Japan


My photos of Tokyo
Tokyo is an intriguing mix of very modern tech mixed with tradition. The people walking around downtown Tokyo are generally dressed in suits (the men) or other fashionable and expensive outfits (the women), but every once in a while you might spot a woman in a kimono waiting for a train. Traditional houses are interspersed with new apartment complexes; small drab shopfronts are interspersed among shiny lighted storefronts. Pots upon pots of plants line the street in front of some houses and storefronts, a small reminder of the graceful and well-pruned walled gardens common in the suburbs. Speaking of streets, narrow roads open up into multi-lane Tokyo thoroughfares, where clean, shiny cars - some ultra narrow and compact, others venturing up into the Toyota Camry size range - buzz along emitting exhaust fumes that, despite being polluting, somehow still manage to smell a lot less nasty than what you might find in the American Midwest. The train stations are sparklingly modern, and still cleaner and brighter and shinier than most train stations I've seen in the US (such as Boston, New York, DC); and more, they buzz with excitement, possibly due to the polite, refined voices (some prerecorded, others not) that constantly fill the air with announcements for and about trains.

My photos related to Tokyo shopping
Expensive, opulent, multistory department stores offer the latest in fashionable clothing along with a dazzling array of gleaming and prettily arranged foods, ranging from sparkling fresh seafood, to Japanese rice condiments, to HUGE, picture-perfect specimens of apples, persimmons, grapes, and whatever else is in season. Other multistory shops cater to electronics buffs and camera nuts, or bookworms. Recorded messages politely, prettily, cheerfully, but REPETITIVELY remind shoppers to be careful at every escalator. Still, elsewhere in Tokyo there are the traditional, crowded open shopfront markets where savvy shoppers come to get seafood, preserves, vegetables, fruit, household items, and the like, and where vendors cry loudly and enthusiastically "welcome, welcome" - in contrast to the soft, polite versions murmured in the stuffier modern stores.

Perhaps most strikingly Japanese are the shrines interspersed here and there among the other buildings. Shinto shrines - sometimes as large as a house, sometimes as small as a dollhouse - crop up in unexpected places: between houses, or across from a gas station, or on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. The Buddhist temples range from large to gargantuan, and some reside in the heart of Tokyo. The more popular temples (e.g., the huge Asakusa temple) feature not just various buildings for visitors and monks, but also rows of small souvenir and trinket/toy shops, in addition to offering "omikuji" sellers (a sort of fortune-telling similar to drawing lots), areas for burning incense, water for ritual purification, plenty of photo ops, and so on.

And perhaps the most disturbing place I visited in Japan was the Tokyo Forum (maybe the Tokyo International Forum?) - an adjunct to the Tokyo Eki train station, I believe. Built of steel and glass, its very presence seemed to subjugate Nature and humanity into mere facets of a mechanical existence. In other words, when I entered the building, I felt like a cog in some monstrous futuristic machine. The trees planted next to the Forum seemed like mere biological components of an otherwise inorganic entity. Heck, the steel bathrooms seemed sterile both literally (a good thing) but also emotionally/socially (not so good). As someone who has commented on Japanese animation, I just had to think: Is this mechanical entity in part an outgrowth of the futuristic anime movies, or are the futuristic anime movies reacting to things like this?


My Photos of Nagano and its environs
Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is a bustling city nestled in an otherwise fairly rural valley. On the outskirts are interspersed clusters of houses, orchards, vineyards, fields, and great views of tree-covered mountains (sometimes shrouded in clouds). Near Nagano are various towns with a large number of hot spring hotels. Although some hot spring hotels are Western (i.e., Western-style chairs, tables, beds), it seems that many retain traditional Japanese style rooms (tatami floor, low table, roll-out futon beds) and serve intricate, multicourse Japanese meals (though a recent such meal included a tiny morsel of elegant apple pie as an opener).

The houses I saw seemed to mix Western with Japanese elegantly. Two-story, spacious(!), and clean, they feature gleaming wooden entrance halls (always with the place to take off shoes and put on in-house slippers), shiny modern kitchens, a thoroughly Western dining room with table and chairs, but also traditional tatami living rooms for lounging around on the tatami floor around a low table and perhaps sipping tea and snacking on something tasty. Traditional tatami bedrooms with futons are apparently on the decline, however, so I'm guessing the bedrooms these days might have Western-style beds.

Historic sites near Nagano include the popular and very large Zenkoji temple, an extensive manor house/museum that belonged to and documents the politically powerful Tanaka family (Tanaka Honke Museum in Suzaka), and a museum in Obuse devoted to works by Hokusai, the painter who made that famous painting of a huge ocean wave arching over a boat, and who made a series of "manga" sketches in the early 1800's.

My photos of the Tanake Honke Museum Garden

Mito and Environs

Mito as far as I remember it resembles suburban America, though more crowded, less spacious, and almost always having the traditional stone wall around each house's yard (with meticulously pruned trees peeking over the top). As far as I remember from a previous trip to Japan, it's fairly close to a sea port, and is near a bustling fish market where very, very fresh fish and shellfish (etc.) are sold along with various dried fish and other preserved seafood.

Within a couple hours' drive from Mito is not only Tokyo, but also large swaths of relatively undeveloped land. Tiny villages are nestled amidst neatly arranged fields, and trees and towering bamboo cover hillsides and mountains. From my previous (1999) trip to Japan, I also remember seeing shrines and temples scattered here and there on hills and along the road. My favorite from that previous visit was the Unganji Buddhist temple, whose beautiful garden offered what seemed like "perfect" views from every possible angle (the bushes, trees, and plants were all arranged very precisely so that everything worked in harmony and looked intriguing and perfect no matter where one walked), and where a box at the main temple building offered photocopies of wise teachings written in traditional calligraphy for a nominal donation fee. (On this web site, the author(s) describes Unganji as having something "very special"; it is a real temple, "not a tourist attraction"; this could actually be felt as they crossed over the stream to enter the temple grounds. Yes, I would have to agree!)


Kyoto is another mixture of old and new ... with some of the very newest, and some of the very oldest, on a big, big scale.

On the new side, Kyoto has one of the biggest, shiniest, and ritziest train stations outside Tokyo Station's massive underground shopping mall experience. The Kyoto Eki (train station) is only about 5-6 years old, and it includes a vast array of small stores (ranging from gift shops, food shops, to convenience stores), a Disney movie theater, a "Tezuka Osamu" shop/theatre/library, one large ritzy Isetandepartment store that I THINK includes 11 or so floors (there is an area where escalator after escalator descend in more or less one long slope), multiple areas of dining ranging from McDonald's and other cheap fast places (1st floor, near the Shinkansen speed trains), to high class dining (11th floor, above the mall) - and oh yes, trains: everything ranging from the subway, to the local commuter rail(s), to Shinkansen speed rail access. Since it was November, the train station's vast glass foyer (many stories tall) also featured a gigantic lit-up Christmas tree that towered over an open dining section. Hall after hall, platform after platform, shop after shop. (Osaka city, nearby, has its own mega train station, though not QUITE on the same scale.) I have since heard that some people vehemently hate the Kyoto Eki, which, given its overwhelming commercialism and, uh, sheer glitz and size, is not surprising. Still, it was less dehumanizing than the Tokyo International Forum, even though I could possibly fairly describe it as a cathedral to commerce.

My general photos of Kyoto
On the old side is the tourist/scholar appeal of this city: the Shinto shrines (2000+, according to a clueful Kyoto-native taxi driver), Buddhist temples (1600+, according to same taxi driver, and apparently many still with active monks/priests), and forts and castles and palaces. The earliest surviving temple building within the city itself is the Soubon Shakado, built around 1300, according to the clueful taxi driver (but which I didn't see). And of course many other temples have burned down and been rebuilt. These old wooden temples and such are scattered throughout the city (a majority seem to be in the northern half), among the shops, restaurants, houses, and hillsides of Kyoto. Thankfully, Kyoto seems to have a self-imposed limitation on building heights, so the occasional 5-story pagoda tower really stands out, and historic temples do not have to compete with tall buildings (even if their garden views have been altered somewhat). (There are also other temples near Kyoto but not in the city itself, including the nearly millennium-old Byodoin temple that is featured on the back of the 10-yen coin, and the Houkaiji (said by the taxi driver to have been built around 1050).)

The buildings are on grounds that range from large to spacious, and most feature gardens that have sculpted trees, strategically placed rocks, and ponds or small lakes. Some temples use rocks and/or gravel to create stone representations of waterfalls and rivers - more on this later.

Nijoujou (Nijo-jo)
The castle where the shogunate ruled Japan for many years til the mid 1800's includes not just a complex of buildings, but also a stone wall and water-filled moat (complete with koi!), a vast garden of trees and shrubs and rocks, as well as a restaurant, tea house, and open-air shops. The primary castle building features huge tatami rooms and huge shoji doors painted by famous artists. One wall features a carved wooden decoration (above the doors) well over 8 feet wide that features a peacock motif on one side, and a flower motif on the other - impressive if you realize the wood is carved in 3 dimensions, with lots of open spaces carved right through the wood. The hallway floors (which go around the outside, and are lined with sliding shoji doors to the gardens) are all "nightingale floors" - the wooden planks are built with specialized noise-making devices so that anyone walking on the floor causes it to emit pleasant, bird-like squeaks and chirps. A troop of people walking around sounds like a chorus of birds - hence making a sneak attack at night very difficult. Some of the standalone walls of the castle compound - like other such historic walls - apparently also served as storage, with large storerooms built right into them.

The kitchen building is detached, I believe, and it has huge wooden beams crossing the ceiling to make it sturdy and secure, not to mention very thick wood supporting the ceiling. Off in one back room wall of the kitchen is an old graffiti sketch of a horse head. Ah, people.

One Buddhist temple building was unusually long, the width of a small city block perhaps, because it houses 1000 (1001?) unique statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon (all carved in wood and gilded in gold and arranged on a series of tiers), along with a giant central statue of the Buddha, and various Japanese Buddhist deity statues (including some that disturbed me, but I need to do my theological research on them). This very long temple building was also used for archery competitions (bows and arrows are on display too). On the same grounds was a fountain that legend says was built after a monk hundreds of years ago saw a dream in which he was told where to dig to find an underground spring. The water of the fountain is said to cure nighttime crying in small children.

Guide to Buddhist and Shinto deities and another useful Beginner's Guide for Buddhist sculpture.

Kiyomizu is a vast complex of buildings high on the hillside, with a bustling market street leading up to its gates. Plus, it has a waterfall whose water is said to bring health. This website has a lot of nice daylight pictures of it, and this site has a lot of description also.

I also had the rare privilege of entering the base of one of the 5-story pagoda - at Toji (East Temple). Normally such towers are closed to public, but this fall, the Toji gojuunotou (5-story) tower was open on the ground floor. (I wish I could show the interior to the Asheron's Call 1 architect who made the Sho pagoda an open structure (hi Pete :P).) In reality, this pagoda is build with a central, square cross-section, massive wooden beam that extends straight up through the center. On the first floor, a platform around the central beam features various Buddhist statues, and a narrow ladder-like set of stairs extends diagonally up to a trapdoor in the ceiling.

Located near but not in Kyoto, the Byodoin (pictured on the Japanese 10 Yen coin) was build roughly a millennium ago (founded in 1052), originally as a resort or villa. It has a central structure and two opposing wings, one "male" and one "female" (the "female" is slightly smaller apparently than the "male"). It was converted into a Buddhist temple, and a large gold-covered Buddha sits in the center of the structure (in the "Phoenix Hall"), its face directly visible to those across the pond through a window in the wooden slatting that partially obscures the front opening of the temple. Some of the faded remains of nearly millennium-old paintings can be seen inside the Phoenix Hall, and there are replicas of some famous wall-sculptures of various Buddhas floating on clouds. Amusingly, on one wall is a bit of graffiti from the fairly recent Edo era (but still well over 100 years ago at least).

The Byodoin has a museum off to the side (built partially underground to not impact the landscape), and which houses art and replica art of some of the paintings and sculptures found inside the Byodoin. One of the most striking set of paintings show the Buddha and his retinue descending to Earth to greet the souls of faithful believers after their deaths.

More about the Byodoin here, information and pictures here, and a virtual version of it is here.

Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji
Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is a very uh ... noticeable temple, for it is covered in gold leaf. (Here's a description.) Kinkakuji was burnt down by an arsonist back in 1950, but was (like most temples in Japan) rebuilt. Kinkakuji inspired the construction of Ginkakuji back in the 1400's; and though Ginkakuji is named after silver, is NOT gleaming in metal, unlike its inspiration. Ginakakuji does have some spectacular photo opps, despite not being all glittery like its predecessor.

sunshine through maple leaves at RyoanjiEver see pictures of the Zen garden with the rocks surrounded by raked sand/gravel? Play with the toy "Zen Garden" kits with rocks and sand? That's part of Ryoanji temple, a complex of buildings in a rectangular parcel of land that includes a small lake (replete with some waterfowl and small heron-like birds), a wooded path, wisterias trained on gigantic horizontal wooden trellises (a common feature to many temples), and an expensive tofu restaurant.

But of all the temples in Kyoto, my favorite was a small temple called Dai-Sen-In (the name has to do with a "great hermit"), one of many temples in a single, vast, rectangular parcel of land devoted to Zen Buddhim (Daitokuji) that contains many other temples of other Zen Buddhist sects (set up like private mansions arranged in a subdivision or walled community). I think Daisenin was founded around 1509 and was the first temple in the Daitokuji compound after the destruction of the Onin wars. (In fact, its beams and pillars are very small and thin compared to the massive timbers in many other buildings, apparently because there were no big trees available at the time.) The Daisenin temple is a little place with a Zen stone garden that goes around the primary rectangular temple building. Gravel, representing water (and also a human lifetime, I think) starts amidst high rocks that represent the mountains of China (and each of which represents things like a Buddhist deity, or a crane of joy, or a turtle of disappointment, etc.). The gravel river then runs in two directions around the temple, growing broader as it goes, and encountering fewer rocks. At one point is passes under a window that represents the point at which a person starts really questioning what life is about, and so on. The fewer rocks represent a person casting away worldly thoughts, desires, and worries (but remember each rock has its own meaning as well, in multiple layers). At last, the gravel water collects in front of the temple itself, in an open ocean (alternate pictures here) that represents Enlightenment - with no more rocks, no more distractions, just open vastness and peace. (There are two mounds of gravel here also that represent salt and purification, placed in front of the abbot's meditation area - I didn't quite understand this.)

For history buffs, it's well worth noting that the 7th abbot of this temple was Takuan, who was the teachor and mentor of a certain swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi. You've probably heard of Musashi in some way, shape, or form - he was a famous swordsman who wrote A Book of 5 Rings, and who was so good with the sword he stopped using a metal sword and switched to a wooden one. Fantasy game players the world over have picked up his name. Yes, he actually stayed at this temple. Other historic personages visited the temple as well, such as Sen-no-Rikyu, "father of Japanese tea," and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (Oh, and this temple has nightingale floors too.)

BUT these are not the primary reason I liked this temple. The real distinguishing feature of this temple is that you get to meet real live Buddhist monks(?) who live here, including one young guy who gives tours and tells jokes. The abbot himself, Soen Ozeki, an energetic 72 year old with a ready grin and a great sense of humor, sits at a table laden with books, calligraphy wall hangings, prayer beads, and other items for sale. He's the author of those books and the calligraphy, and used to appear on Japanese TV. He'll happily crack jokes with visitors and pose with them for pictures, and will personally autograph any paper or book purchases. His enthusiasm is contagious, and my biggest gripe is he was constantly busy and didn't have time to talk very much.

Anyone who makes a purchase can write their name on a slip of paper in order to have the resident monks pray for their health the next morning. And prayer and meditation are also big parts of the monks' life at the temple (not just herding around tourists); the abbot's central meditation area, in fact, has no tatami mat at all on the hard wooden floor, to give the proper austere discipline as befits a serious abbot's meditations.

This was the only temple among the 9 or so I visited in Kyoto where the Buddhist monks actually seemed to go out of their way to talk with visitors (as a note, the Daisenin temple does not have a congregation, so it must rely on donations and visitor purchases for its maintenance). The atmosphere at this little temple was far more personal and friendly than at the bigger, vaster, richer or more famous temples choked with gold statues and busloads of tourists. (And many other temples simply don't allow visitors at all!) To me, it was truly the best part of historic Kyoto. (I can imagine it might all seem crassly commercial for an abbot to be signing autographs, but this really is the temple's primary source of money, and the abbot and the volunteer(?) staff are working to support themselves.) (P.S. Visitors are technically not allowed to photograph the temple grounds, so, well, I'm borrowing these other photos off the 'net by linking to them.)

Anyway, if you visit only a few temples in Japan, and you care more about spiritual atmosphere than grandeur and golden statues, consider Daisenin and Unganji. Just my opinion!

(If you do visit Kyoto, please note the English explanations and translations are sadly few and far between, but it's still a fascinating experience and a chance to visit the historic treasures of another country and culture. Plan to visit at most about 4-5 temples per day, given travel time and the fact most places close at 5pm (and some, like the Toji complex, close at 4pm).)

My photos of Nijoujou (Nijo-jo), Sanjuusangendo, and Kiyomizu
My photos of Tenryuuji and Ryoanji
My photos of Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji, Byodoin, Toji, and Daisenin


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Text copyright 2003 Eri Izawa except where otherwise noted.