Monday, January 10, 2005

Kyoto

New Year in Japan. One visits the local Shinto shrine to ward away the evil spirits and make a wish for the next year. At Meiji-Jingi Shrine in Tokyo I join three million others to throw my coin in the box, clap my hands to call the gods, ring the bell just in case they haven’t heard, make a quick wish and prayer, tie my wish written on a piece of paper or a wooden votive tablet to a tree. Then go and buy amulets, souvenirs, food and drink at the nearby stalls. Some of the shrines even provide buckets of sake, the holy Japanese drink. Many girls put on their kimono, and some of their partners even wear Samurai dress. The shrines are decked out in lanterns and flags. Each shrine will be dedicated to its own particular deity. At many of the Shinto shrines one sees the effigies of the chubby badger god, Takuni, and the fox god of money and business, Kitsune, whose shrines are popular in the New Year as many companies bring their staff to pray for a prosperous year.

Shinto has grown out of an awe for natural manifestations, each of which has their god, and many shrines have been erected in places where these manifestations took place, often on mountains and hillsides. These myths have been given a peculiarly Japanese character. No religious texts exist, and one cannot convert to Shinto. When Izanagi-no-Mikito and Izanami-no-Mikito stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, they dipped the Heavenly Jewelled Spear into the ocean. Brine dipped from the spear and created the island of Onogoro-jima, where the two were married. Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan and its deities. When Izanagi died he purified himself into a stream and created the deity of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from who the Imperial family was supposed to descend.

The vagueness and flexibility of Shinto was used to create the myth of the racial superiority of the Japanese amidst the growing industrialization and militarization of Japan from the late 19th century to the Second World War, and the deification of the Emperor added on to Shinto and used to produce obedient and patriotic subjects. Only in this period did Buddhism, which has peacefully co-existed in Japan since early times, suffer a certain repression. Since Shinto was disestablished after the war it has taken a back seat. Many Japanese pay no more than lip service to Shinto and do no more than attend important festivals. At a local shrine in Tokyo Kussun called the friendly priest, the owner of the shrine, to have his photo taken with me. When the priest dies, his son will inherit the shrine.

Butt I must leave Tokyo, and I catch the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. No big deal here in Japan. Buy your 100 dollar ticket at the machine as if it were a one dollar metro ticket, and stand up in the unreserved class if there’s no room. On board the smell of rice and soy sauce as families picnic on their return from Tokyo or visit relations in Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. Families in Japan are small, 1.29 children per couple, and New Year is one of the few visiting times.

We eat posh boxed lunches, like the rest of the carriage. Mt Fuji, now topped with snow, is on my left, a girl in kimono, maybe an apprentice geisha returning to Gion, opposite. But no, she gets off at Nagoya.

In Kyoto we climb up the Path of Enlightenment at the Choinin Shrine. The sky clouds over. A muggy January day suddenly chills. We enter a cemetery, tombs, slim wooden memorial tablets. The city is below us.

Crows hover above,
Bamboo sways in the graveyard,
Winter snow returns.

The first snowflake falls,
Crows circle, the sky darkens,
Forty-nine winters.

We descend into the city to see how Kyoto trades on Japaneseness. It was the home to the Japanese Imperial family from 794 to 1868, though, from 1600 to 1867, power was exercised by the shoguns in Tokyo. A city which exudes and trades on refinement. Shop windows are streamlined and delicate, with one lone item, a small dish, or a sweet. A closed door with paper shojo windows tells us those goods are not for all. But this sense of tradition accommodates the modern, as Japan always does: the girls in kimono are dependent on their mobile phones; the waiter wearing traditional serving dress in the restaurant communicates to the kitchen by cordless headset radio; and the insurance office clerk sitting on his heels is working at the latest Sony Vaio.

The gold-covered Kinkuji Temple glistens in the weak morning sun; it was burnt down in 1950 by a trainee Buddhist monk, and like so many “ancient” buildings in Japan, what we have is a reconstruction. Yukio Mishima used the incident for his famous novel, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Its Cinderella sister, two-tier wooden Ginkuji Silver Pavilion (but there is no silver) looks over a famous Zen garden. A five-foot cone of sand with the point sliced off, a garden of raked sand, surrounded by the larger garden of trees, stones, moss and water. Sit in the tea pavilion and contemplate the shapes into which the sand is raked, the dark wooden two-tier pavilion, the miniature pine trees and the bare cherry blossom trees, listen to the water running, see the garden blends into Mount Daimonjiyama beyond.

I leave the Ginkiji and pass through the tacky tourist shops, turn into the Philosophers’ path, following a stream which brings fresh water from the hills. I stop for coffee and cake, admire the bare cherry trees and think of spring and the blossom. I watch the locals walking their collies and Japanese akitas and listen to the songs of Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet, for even in the most Japanese city of all the foreign is easily accommodated.


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