In July of 2009 we went to Japan in conjunction with a meeting of the International Union of Physiologiical Sciences meeting in Kyoto. We flew a few days early to Osaka, spent a couple days there with a side trip to Nara and then went to Kyoto to attend the meeting as well as to explore the city. Afterward we took the train to visit some small towns: Takayama in the mountains and Nikko before returning to Tokyo for the flight home.
In the morning of the first full day we went to the Osaka Castle. We were lucky that by coincidence, there was also an annual festival known as the Tenjin Matsuri (天神祭, Festival of the Gods) on that date. There was an extensive parade consisting mostly of ornately decorated shrines carried by a team of people that snaked through the city. Everyone was dressed in traditional attire and in a celebratory mood. The shrines were so tall that as they parade along the street, several people run alongside with tall poles to push the electric wires up when the shrines pass by. There were also processions of dancers and musicians all adding to a festive atmosphere. The parade ends in the late afternoon after which many of the shrines are loaded onto boats that are then floated down the river with lights.
An old capital city of Japan famous for temples and historical monuments as well as a herd of tame deer that wander the grounds. We visited the Todai-ji, which contains a large Buddhist temple that reputedly has the largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world as well as extensive gardens and grounds with forests of stone lanterns. We also visited the Kasuga and Horiyu-ji temples nearby.
We spent 4 days in Kyoto and only scratched the surface of what that fascinating and beautiful city offered. Partly this was because I had to attend the meeting and give a talk to the conference. One night our host Prof. Ohmori invited us for dinner with his wife and the other American guest at a quaint little cafe in Ponto Cho. He had booked out the cafe so we were the only ones there and the unique dinner was served in courses with many unusual dishes of (mostly) raw fish. In some cases the fish were swimming just moments before they appeared on the table. Our host said that even native Japanese would have never had some of the dishes. Needless to say they were new to us!
The conference also had a reception that was very interesting. It was held at a saki brewery. So there were numerous kinds of saki for tasting as well as a large selection of fancy sushis.
Of course no visit to Kyoto would be complete without visits to the many magnificent temples and their associated gardens. We visited several of them. Especially impressive were the Nanzen-ji, Shoren-in and Ginkaku-ji (Silver) temple complexes. The other well-known one, the Golden temple, was under reconstruction. I especially enjoyed the magnificent gardens with charming ponds, waterfalls, bridges and goldfish. One could spend hours wandering the paths or sitting to enjoy the sublime views, but we didn’t have that luxury. We also visited Chion-in. Ryozen Kannon, Kiyomizu-dera, Sanjusangen-do, and Tenryu-ji Zen Temples.
On our last day in Kyoto we took the train to the western suburb of Arashiyama to visit the Iwatayama Monkey Park. This is an unusual park in that the Japanese macaques are freely roaming in the fenced-in park. At the top of the hill of the park there is an enclosed structure for tourists to go into while the monkeys are outside. There is food provided inside to feed the monkeys. So you have the unusual situation of the people caged up and the monkeys free to roam on the outside. As you walk the paths in the park, monkeys are dashing and playing all around in the trees and bushes. One gets the strong impression that you are visiting a natural monkey village.
One night while we were wandering around the Gion district, there was a parade that resembled that of the Tenjin Matsuri we saw in Osaka. Groups of men, all dressed alike in old traditional gowns, paraded through the streets. Some of the ‘uniforms’ looked like something one might wear in a karate match. Some were carrying what looked like long bamboo sticks tied together with a fire on one end. Others carried lanterns. The parade was centered around the large Yasaka shrine in that part of the city. We never did figure out what the parade was all about but there was a faint militaristic air with the marching.
We then took the train to Takayama (sometimes called Hida-Takayama to distinguish it from the many other towns of that name, a small town in the mountains, which has a famous well-preserved old town. a folk art museum and an open air folk village. The town has a heritage for woodworking derived from its mountainous location. In addition we were there on a weekend and there was some kind of street festival going on in the main street of the town. There were food stands, art booths, music, and a booth for a local radio station. It all made for a very festive atmosphere.
We observed something interesting on the train to Takayama from Kyoto. We had to change trains at a station en route to Takayama. At that station there was a large group (40-50) of early teenage school children who all boarded the train at once and sat in our compartment. They all wore the same uniform, presumably that of their school and they all had backpacks with books and journals. Some of them opened their books as soon as they got on the train and started studying while others joked and talked to their friends. What was unusual about this situation is that it was a Sunday late afternoon, early evening train on a summer day in July. We didn’t try to talk to any of the kids as they were all speaking Japanese of course. Presumably, though, they had gone to another city for a class or school on a Sunday morning in the summer. I don’t know many American kids that would be doing that in the summer.
Our final stop before going back to Tokyo to catch our flight back to the US was another small town which has a famous Shinto shrine Toshogu. It is said to be the most lavishly decorated shrine in the country. It is also noted for scenic countryside and the Nikko National Park.
Thoughts on Japan
Japan is a very interesting country to visit, particularly in contrast to the USA. It is a very orderly society, clean, polite to strangers, crime free (relatively), law-abiding, and economically well-off. A striking difference with the US is the lack of diversity: strict immigration laws make it very difficult for foreigners to move and find a job in the country. I had a discussion with a native who claimed that the uniformity was one of Japan’s greatest strengths while I argued that the immigrants to the US was what made the country the leading economy of the world. This dichotomy is particulary interesting given the immigration controversy around the world.
For a visitor Japan is a very easy country to negotiate except for the occasional language difficulties. We had numerous incidents of asking directions and having strangers go out of their way to direct us to the proper place. In one case this involved walking us several blocks. The society is very service oriented which is evident when you wander into any store. Every one is unfailingly polite and eager to help. A striking example of this came when we boarded our return flight in Tokyo on an American airline carrier. There was a disagreement between a flight attendant and a family about their seats and just the tone with which the flight attendant addressed the passengers made a jarring juxtaposition with our experience in Japanese stores. I whispered to Lil that we were back in the US now. Of course these comments come from a very small sample size.
Probably because of the itinerary that we chose, we saw a segment of the society that clearly values their unique history and traditional culture. Apparently people really enjoy donning old traditional dress and parade around the streets. The parades are nothing like anything one sees in the US with their large shrines. We did not spend any time in Tokyo so we missed most of the modern high tech component of the society that one reads about.