OYOP: Culture & Tradition in Takayama & Kyoto, Japan.
It is the close of our second week in Japan, and the cultural wonders continue to impress me. We left Tokyo and headed 300 miles away to the city of Kyoto. Despite being known as the cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto would still be another large, modern city with metros, buses, and skyscrapers, so we made a 2-day stop along the way to the small town of Takayama in the Japanese alps region to immerse in the history and culture of small town Japan.
Takayama was exactly the picturesque small town experience I’d hoped for, and its cool breeze from the higher altitude and views of the Japanese alps were a lovely bonus. All of the homes and shops were small, wooden traditional style buildings with distinctly upturned rooftops. The town has been able to maintain its original charm without being overlapped or replaced by modern buildings as in the larger cities.Also refreshing, the entire town was walkable with crossings over old bridges across scenic rivers, on forest paths, through colorful Japense maple gardens, by rice fields, and through the grounds of several shrines and temples with zen gardens. We ate the local hida beef specialities at the daily morning market and walked through old traditional homes. It was a weekend getaway town for many locals and the perfect stop between Tokyo and Kyoto for our trip. We then spent 5 delightful days in Kyoto. With over 2,000 temples and shrines combined, there is no shortage of sightseeing in the city. My favorite aspect of Kyoto was that despite being large and modern, there were several areas that you could escape to and feel like you’d stepped into a small scale version of a town like Takayama. We saw some of the most notable temples and shrines, walked through bamboo forests, and explored various neighborhoods. We continued to relish in the delights of conveyor belt sushi, ramen, and hot bath onsens because we could not pack up any of these in our backpacks when we leave Japan. Along with days of sightseeing and nights of delicious food and local sake, here are some other interesting cultural experiences we had in Japan:
The Enchanting Geisha
The white-painted faces and colorful kimono dresses of geisha almost certainly come to mind when conjuring up images of centuries’ old traditional Japanese culture. Geisha and maiko (young geishas in training) are highly skilled entertainers, specializing in traditional Japanese song and dance, who perform tea ceremonies and high-class events in Japan, the majority in Kyoto. Today, there are estimated to be only about a thousand geisha left in Japan, and I got the idea from seeing a front-page news article on the addition of 3 new geishas, that these announcements are rare. I naively thought that upon arrival in Kyoto, I would see geisha dancing in the streets or soliciting photos with tourists. But the chance of sighting a geisha is not at all guaranteed like it is to see tango in Argentina or to snap a photo with someone in colorfully weaved cloaks in the Andes region. In fact, even just catching a glimpse of a real geisha is a rarity, and a request for photos in the streets is off limits. We also learned that to attend an event with geisha hosts or entertainment such as a tea ceremony or dinner is a costly, and sometimes exclusive affair.
Fortunately, we were in Kyoto during the one month of the year, May, when geisha performances take place 3 times daily at a local theater. I did not know what to expect, but for US $23 per person on the day of the show, we bought seats to the hour and a half long show. Since my Japanese is limited to “hello”, “thank you”, and “sorry”, inevitably most of the story line was lost in translation. I did gather that it was a two-part play, one drama and one comedy, with an orchestra of traditional Japense music, acting and dancing, all performed by the most mysterious and alluring girls and women who are maiko and geisha today. The entire spectacle was visually stunning with shimmering, multi-colored kimonos, beautiful pastel painted backdrops of rural Japan and intricate set pieces of traditional homes and temples. This show was certainly one of the highlights and unique cultural experiences of the trip to Kyoto.
A Spiritual Hike Up Mount Kurama
With all of the temple and shrine sight-seeing in Kyoto, you can imagine why I wanted to get out of the city for a day trip to see… well, more temples and shrines. The small town of Kurama is just a 45 minute metro ride from Kyoto. The journey itself is a pleasant ride through small towns of old Japanese homes and countryside views. In the last ten minutes as you near the the final stop of Kurama, the train chugs along a narrow path cut through forests of Japanese maple trees and tall cedars, approaching the beautiful Mount Kurama that we would climb to reach the Kurama-dera temple at the mountain’s peak. The serene and picturesque path uphill is found in the middle of the forest. It is a series of old, stone staircases lined with Japanese-style lampposts and passes by gentle streams, waterfalls, and small shrines tucked into hillsides and among trees. You encounter very few other people, which allows you to fully appreciate the nature and the peaceful air of this mountainside spiritual path as it was meant to be experienced. This is a stark contrast to visiting shoulder to shoulder packed temples in Kyoto, where loud and packed crowds rush in and out to take photos.We took a rest at the mountaintop to take in the crisp, fresh air and the tranquility of the forest. As we rested, we met a British man and learned he and his wife made this spiritual journey to Mount Kurama because the mountaintop, where we met them, is the place where Mikao Usui, the founder of the spiritual practice of Reiki, meditated for 21 days and first received Reiki energy. His wife was a Reiki master and wanted to make this trip for her 50th birthday. I had just learned about Reiki for the first time during my yoga teacher training and hadn’t a clue that I would soon be in the birthplace of it all. We continued walking onto the small town of Kibune, another charming town with narrow streets and open-air tea houses built on wooden platforms over streams and lined with red and white paper lanterns. We ended the day at the Kurama onsen, a natural outdoor hot springs overlooking the forest in the mountain valley. The trip is a glorious way to get out of the crowds in the city and see the Japan countryside and shrines as you imagine they felt hundreds of years ago.
Japanese Macaque Snow Monkeys
The South American portion of our trip was unexpectedly full of spotting monkeys in the wild. Since we left, I thought my newfound monkey-watching hobby was going to be put on hold, but I was pleasantly surprised in Kyoto to have the chance to get up close and personal with the Japanese Macaque Snow Monkey. All I previously knew about this monkey species is that in the winter time, they can be spotted bathing in the natural hot springs in northern Japan. Even the monkeys here know how to appreciate a good hot bath! What I learned is that they are a species native to Japan and the northernmost living non-human primates in the world. At the Arashiyama Monkey Park in Kyoto, where nearly 150 of these monkeys live in the wild, you can take a steep 30 minute walk through the forest to see more than a dozen monkeys at a time roaming around the small path and park where people are allowed to visit. There is also an indoor area where you can feed snacks to the monkeys. It’s interesting to be “in the cage” while the monkeys are outside.I’m not a huge fan of human feeding of wild animals, but this troop of monkeys also eat in the wild. They are named and studied by local researchers, who claim their practices and feeding helps with the research. At any rate, the monkeys didn’t otherwise interact with or climb people (as George the nearly domesticated red howler did to us in Puerto Maldonado, Peru on Christmas last year), so I felt reassured about their status as being natural and wild. Most excitedly, it was Spring, the season when baby monkeys are born so we saw some mamas carrying around tiny baby monkeys on their chests as they roamed the park and back into the forest. We have a little over one week left in Japan, and I suspect this will be one of the more difficult cultures to leave behind.