photo of a geisha

October 3, 2005

A Unguided Tour of Kyoto

Filed under: EAC News — aaron @ 9:14 pm

A Guided Unguided Tour
An East Asia Center Essay on Kyoto, Japan
by James Doolittle

The weekend following my debut in Japan flowed through seamless transitions of sightseeing and a taste of Kyoto’s night scene. Upon arrival on Thursday night, Zaak Kersteter and I made our way down to where Imadegawa Dori crosses the Kamo river, and headed south for a while until hitting a giant mall-like market downtown. Most of the stores were closed by the time we got there, but the people were still parading about en mass—or so I thought. At that early point in my Japan adventure, I lacked the knowledge of how massive the crowds can be.

There was little in terms of entertainment, aside from people watching and walking down the back alleys to discover what I thought to be strip clubs or brothels, though they were probably normal clubs or hostess bars. Hair is a big deal down here, hair and fashion. From high to low fashion, the mall-culture of America was taken to new heights in Japan; people from all walks of life dress up, dress down to make their promenades to and from coffee shops, and to and from clubs and restaurants. Hipsters to businessmen, disenfranchised youth in army-green cargo-pants to high school girls in their Sailor-Moon mini-skirts, bums and derelicts, glamour-goth queens and punk kids—all of them out and about in the lingering madness of closing time.

I call it mall-culture, when people dress up to parade around—these people are shopping, but not for something to add to their style, not another t-shirt or bandana. They’re all shopping for accolades and tribute, they’re marching up and down the strip so they can show off their fashion-genius and pick up fresh tips, before they’re over-popularized. In America, teenagers do this all the time, they go hang out at the mall, and in Japan it’s the same event, only the Japanese seem to take everything America does to a more intense level—an overly broad generalization, I know, but while I cannot prove it fully, I have yet to find evidence in Japan to contradict this world view.

All along the strip, Zaak and I fit in—me with my California-hippie garb, and Zaak with his unique American-hardcore wear. I wear jeans, a hemp belt, and a faded t-shirt too small for my shoulders, complete with worn Birkenstocks to boot; Zaak brandishes his stylish remains of a Mohawk—his hair has grown since, and the sides of his head are no longer buzzed to a millimeter’s length—his hardware, eyebrow and lip piercings, and an all-black ensemble. He’s ornamented with a phone cord around his neck—the spirally, stretchy kind—and his customized Fossil watch attached to three inches of studded leather cuff.

Despite our outlandish fashion, we didn’t raise any eyes, get any glances, or win any hearts, much to our disappointment. We relied on the ubiquitous bright-flashing lights (see arcade on the left), t-shirts in nonsensical English, and mysterious Japanese signs to provide us our amusement for the evening.

The next day, Friday, Zaak and I navigated our way down to the Westin Hotel directly east of the Gion neighborhood. We were set to meet with his father, Bert Kerstetter, and try to convince him to take us to a nice restaurant for lunch. When we got to the hotel, however, the senior Kerstetter had different plans in mind: “What do you want to do today? Well, here’s the deal, and you’re going to go along with it whether you want to or not. I have a car and a driver who knows the sights in Kyoto. We’ll get in, he’ll take us around town, and show us the sights. What do you think?” We didn’t have a choice in the matter, though the promise of getting a professional tour of the city was exciting, at least, to me.

Subou-san, our driver, picked us up shortly thereafter, and we were underway with our tour, and immediately the little details caught my attention—something I notice happening all the time in Japan: The black taxi’s interior was a comfortable, padded grey, and its air conditioning was a pleasant contrast to Kyoto’s unbearable heat and humidity. I was particularly impressed with the door-diversity: the way the driver closes the left rear door—he manipulates a mechanical arm to pull the door closed. Zaak’s door could only be opened from the outside, so the driver had to get the door for him, and Bert’s door was just an ordinary, run of the mill door, like the driver’s. It’s a taxi like that that runs home the never-failing perception that, here, in Japan, they think of everything.

Subou-san first took us to Gosho (right), the Imperial Palace, located at Imadegawa and Marutamachi. The Palace’s park is the size of six city-blocks, two blocks long, and three blocks wide—an impressive lay-out, though the architecture leaves much to be desired. Frankly, I was disappointed with the palace; the home of an emperor, I thought, should be grand an intimidating, culturally rich and thickly decorated. Don’t get me wrong, here—the palace was indeed more impressive than most of the nicer shrines, temples, and homes around Kyoto, but lacked the flamboyant flare of other imperial capitals I have visited.

The difference between Japan’s palace-culture and the Western palace culture reflects religious differences between the two worlds. Contrary to Gosho’s modest mostly wooden structure, France’s Versailles has a nice array of extravagant gold moldings, high ceilings, impressive artwork, luxurious beds, all manners of silk couches, wooden desks, and velvet curtains. The ceremony hall of the Dalmabahce Palace in Istanbul, one of the three ottoman palaces in the city, sports an impressive two-ton crystal chandelier so dense, the mid-section looks black. The two Western palaces are all about impressing statesmen, dignitaries, high-ranking officials, whereas Gosho has a plain look to it, which is, I have learned, Japan’s elegance: simplicity.

In regard to religious ideology, Western Christianity is plagued with similar superficialities: from modern day American televangelism programs with flashy music guests and a preacher in a designer suit to the medieval Cathedrals in Europe, with their enormous ceremony halls and stained glass windows. It seems the West has a fetish for impressing, where as the East has more modesty: Zen Buddhism promotes individual, internal change. Very little emphasis is put on the exterior world in this religion, and the Imperial Palace manifests that distinction.

By the time the tour was over, it was three. We were sweating bullets. We bought ice-cream cones at the gift shop before making our way over to the parking lot, where Subou-san waited with the air-conditioned car, a sort of Mecca to us on that hot day. Subou-san had not come with us on the tour because he was a Japanese national, and nationals, to visit the Imperial Palace, must send in a formal application months before their intended appointment for at the palace. All I had to do was flash some ID and write down my passport number.

We then made our way to the next site on the list—Nijo Castle—and reluctantly exited the cool confines of the vehicle into the sweltering Kyoto mid-day heat. The shogun once lived here, and its architecture, lay out, and artifacts were much more engaging than those of the Gosho palace. Intricate woodcarvings made up part of some of the walls in the interior of the building, and its sumie ink paintings were quite impressive. But for all the art and architectural richness this place had to offer, the coolest thing the castle had to offer were its floors (a view from beneath above): ordinary planked wooden floors to the eye, the floor operated as a rudimentary alarm system, alerting the guards of alien presence with nightingale chirping sounds. How is it possible for a plank to chirp like a nightingale? Well, the floor, as I mentioned earlier, is comprised of planks; the bottom side of which have little wooden ridges carved out of them. The ridges are cased with metal, and flat flexible pieces of metal are positioned against the metal casing. When one applies pressure to the plank, it gives a little, and the metal casing pushes down on the flat, flexible pieces of metal, and makes a soft scraping sound.

The harem section of the castle, where no man, other than the shogun, was allowed to enter, harbored an interesting array of mannequins made to resemble what the Shogun’s wives might have looked like. In the bedroom, there were five closets on the right-hand side of the room, which five elite guardsmen sat inside, waiting to defend the shogun with their lives should an assassin make it into the chambers. The five-closet defense system was used in the Shogun’s formal audience hall, probably in case a secret assassin managed to make an appointment with the Shogun. For whatever reason, Subou-san assured us that the guards were rarely used as the defenses of the castle were so powerful.

The castle was surrounded by a moat and fifty-foot wall (right). Whenever I looked at the some odd sixty feet between the end of the street and beginning of the wall, I thought to myself, “Some ninja hundreds of years ago, stormed this castle and did it without getting wet, and without the use of a boat. I don’t know how he did it, or if it really happened, but I bet it has.” Beyond the moat and wall, there would be a heavy guard inside the compound, a guard whose number was increased for the period of time surrounding new moons, when everything is its blackest, when ninja and assassins would find it best to strike.

The defenses were so strong, in fact, that the real danger had little to do with ninja on moonless nights. As in most of Japan, because of the paper walls and wooden frames, fire was the real danger. The Shogun’s castle itself had burnt down two or three times over the centuries, and had been rebuilt again and again. A trend that, as the touring continued, I began see in most of the historical sights around Japan. All the major temples we visited had burnt down at least once and had immediately thereafter been reconstructed.

As fascinating as the castle was, it was time to move on at four-thirty. With most sights closing between five and five-thirty, we scrambled to get to our next location, the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan, Toji temple (left). The structure’s fifty-five meters tall—that’s 180 feet—and its central support is one long tree running from the temple’s base all the way up to the spire coming outside the top of the tree. Subou-san said it was the tallest wooden structure in the world, but that isn’t so—the Radio Tower Gliwice in Poland stands at 118 meters (373 feet), over twice the size of this tower. It could have been a misunderstanding and either way, it was the tallest wooden structure that I’ve ever seen in my life.

Closing time again reigned, and we were booted from the sight, very politely I should add—the blow horns throughout the temple complex said in Japanese (Sobou-san translated), “Please make your way to the exit, as we would like to end shortly.”

Bert wanted to stop by and take a look at a hotel his wife, Zaak’s mother, is considering staying at for a future visit, and left Zaak and I to walk around a huge Shinto shrine in Gion; we talked about the sport of Kendo, the art of Japanese sword fighting, discussed Akira Kurosawa films, and traded rumors about the Yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicate. During our walk around the shrine, I had no feelings other than an intense awe for how cool the situation was—growing up idealizing Eastern culture, martial arts, and Japanese feudalism, I found the casual stroll through the Shinto shrine the perfect embodiment of many of my life’s dreams.

Zaak and I had heard of a club called Whoopee’s, and that some American band was Zaak had heard was going to play there. The problem was neither of us had any idea where the place was, and, since the show was to start at 8pm, we had given up hope and conceded to Bert’s request that we accompany him for a fancy dinner, which lead to the discovery of further Japanese genius, and further proof that they do, indeed, think of everything in this country.

Bert wanted us to have a traditional Japanese meal, so we made a reservation for an upscale place in the Gion neighborhood for seven-thirty—because we’d been sweating all day, and because the reservation was for a couple hours from then, we went back to the hotel to freshen up. We showered, and Bert forced these Hawaiian shirts on us, a step up in class from our dingy t-shirts. After showering, Zaak noticed that the mirror was only partly fogged over—I investigated with him, and we discovered that the center section of the mirror had some sort of anti-condensation device preventing it from getting fogged over from a hot shower. I touched the mirror—it was heated. Why, I wonder, has this trend not picked up in hotels elsewhere in the world? It could be that I haven’t had the opportunity to stay at a hotel with such luxuries, and that they do exist everywhere, but that remains to be seen.

The meal was impressive if not entirely delicious. I ate every part of all twelve courses put before me (course four to the right), though my dining mates didn’t share the same enthusiasm. Some of the dishes were very strange, some of the flavors very foreign, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. Particularly enjoyable was a soup served in a kind of teapot—you were supposed to pour the broth into a bowl, and then fish out some of the mushrooms inside the pot. The meal was full of all sorts of mysterious things of this nature, and without cultural reference points, the evening became an awkward mess of cultural incompetence.

When we were on our way back to the hotel after the meal, Zaak spotted it—Whoopee’s, in purple neon lighting—and there was a crowd at the scene. We returned to the hotel to get our bikes, and then peddled over to the show. We parked and walked in, through the thin film of cigarette-smoke masking the entrance, down the what seemed to be the dirtiest stairs in all of Kyoto, and into a thick, smoky cloud of deafening music and zombie-youth (left). We got in for free, but only because the money-takers thought we were part of the American band.

The concert was all right—two of the bands were horrible, and one of them stood out as decent, but like punk shows in America, it was just a lot of noise—although, I nearly fell asleep twice because of the exhausting day. It was time for us to go home to our Taiwa-so dorms and crash. Tomorrow would be another taxing day.

By eleven, Zaak and I had made it all the way across town, again making that bike ride to the Westin for the third time in two days. We met Bert in the lobby and headed off on our trip with Sobou-san as our guide. Today’s destination: Nara, the even older capital—before Kyoto became the capital in the late eighth century. There were two main historical sights to see that day, of them Todaiji-temple the most impressive.

The car ride out was long and lazy. A few bamboo forests and uncountable rice fields made the scenery a dull green, monotonous and repetitive. While we rode, Bert talked and talked about Hurricane Katrina, and the impact it will yield on the immediate future of the United States. The news was a bit sobering, if not unwanted—in traveling, one of the delights is getting out of the super-ego we grow up with, and leaving the news behind is an opportunity to channel focus elsewhere.

Getting out was, as always, the hard part. The luxury of the air-conditioned vehicle was missed upon exposing ourselves to the even hotter temperature of Nara. We lingered in a park outside the temple for a few minutes’ distraction—there are vendors here who will sell cookies for you to feed to the deer. Sobou-san bought two packs and handed us one. The deer went into a frenzy (left). At first polite and cute as they nibbled away at the cookies from Zaak’s hand, they began to grab and bite at his hands, his shirt, and his pants.

Todaiji-temple was magnificent; its rich courtyard could easily have contained three Ultimate Frisbee fields with possible room for a forth. Inside the temple was one of the largest statues of Buddha I’d ever seen (though not the largest—that’s in Bohdgaya, India), sitting proud, half robed in half lotus. All wooden, and all carved from hand, the more impressive features in this temple were the guardians of the four directions, and of them the god of the West (right). He looks down on tourists, protecting the west side of the temple with angry eyes, as they snap photo after photo of him.

The temple is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world, and it is indeed massive. Sixteen uncut trees with six-foot diameters make up the support for the Buddha hall—so large, a block of one of them is sectioned out to offer a real-life diagram demonstrating the size of these pillars. Children and slim adults crawl on their bellies through the gap that remains in the pillar, Sobou-san tells us, to make a wish—like when you through change into a fountain.

Back at the car, and not a moment too soon, I try to keep from pressing my back against the clean cloth interior—covered in sweat, I cool off by shaking my shirt away from my chest. We make our way back to Kyoto in the pleasant air-conditioning, with a stop off at Horyuji-temple, “Japan’s First World Cultural Heritage.”

The brochure claims Horyuji as the oldest wooden structure ever created, though you wouldn’t be able to tell. The temple complex served for a long time as a university, a platform for spreading Buddhism in Japan. With a five story pagoda standing tall at 35 meters (115 feet) in the center of the main courtyard, the temple is divided into seventeen sections. The number is a little overwhelming, especially if you like to really take in each building; however, if you only had twenty-minutes to view the temple, the Inner Sanctuary, Great Lecture Hall, and Hall of Visions are well worth your time. I wouldn’t list this sight in the essential, must-see-to-experience-Japan list, but it did have a certain charm. Its buildings supported by Roman-styled columns of wood blocks carved to be narrower at the top than the base, the temple is rich in architectural diversity. The Hall of Visions holds unique design, as it is one of the very few octagonal sanctuaries ever build.

Unfortunately, in the heat and daze of the day, I neglected to bring my camera along to document the experience, so there are no pictures for this sight.

During the ride home, the repetition of the same green scenery lulled me to sleep along with the smooth rolling of the car. Instead of going back to the hotel, Bert had us dropped off at our dorms, and set us free from obligation for the night. Utilizing the Friends World East Asian Center Student Handbook, Zaak and I made our way across town, again, to hunt down the Falafel Garden, a small Israeli restaurant with hummus dishes and, of course, falafel. After devouring our respective victals, Zaak and I made the slow business of departing. We were going to go to a club that night, one we found from the Lonely Planet Guide, called “Metro.”

To kill time before the club opened, we went back downtown, to all the flashing lights, to all of the mall-folk, and this time most of the stores were still open. We wandered around. Found a bookstore that had a comprehensive selection of English books on its top floor. We searched for more entertainment, but found little. We went back home because the club wouldn’t open until eleven, and wouldn’t be “happening” until after midnight. On our way back, we ate at Falafel garden again—twice in the same night—and while eating, Zaak and I cooked up more plans. Among them, we found the mutual desire to visit a bathhouse.

Here’s where my first experience of a sento comes into play—a sento is a kind of Japanese bath house used as more of a social construct rather than a place to get clean. Zaak and I went to the sento with two bars of soap, one for each of us, walked in, and paid our 350-yen. It’s around ten by now, and the woman taking our money is trying to tell us that it’s going to close at eleven, but we can’t understand her because of a resistance to understanding someone from another culture—was she speaking English, telling us that it was going to close at eleven? I don’t remember. I do know upon reflecting on her wild gesticulation, her gestures toward the clock, that it should have been obvious to us.

We entered, soap in hand, only to realize that towels were not, as I had hoped, provided. Another woman, this one much older, walked into the men’s changing room—there are naked men all over, laughing at me and Zaak and our fundamental misunderstanding of the function of the sento—and this same old woman is standing there, showing us what to do, in front of all these naked men!

We followed her instructions, put our clothes into a basket, and then she realized we did not bring towels. She went out of the room for a minute, time for my beat-red face to chill out—I must have looked as finished as the guys coming out of the hot, steamy room with their hot, read faces. The old woman came back to us with these two hand-towels, and sent us into the bathing chamber.

Inside a sento, the edge of the room is lined with footstools and mirrors, above the knee-level countertops.. The whole thing looked like some sort of over-cute play-makeup set a girl in primary school would beg her parents to by her for Christmas. Each little stool was set up in front of a showerhead and a faucet. There were three knobs for the controls: one for the water pressure, one for the heat, and one which determined whether the water would come out of the faucet or the showerhead.

So there I was, getting the hang of sitting on the little stool and soaping up underneath a steady flow of water from the showerhead, the mechanics of which I had expertly assimilated through experimentation—and then the lady came in again, this time into the bathing area! She told me to go over to a tall shower to the left, and rinse off there. Not seeming to mind my nakedness, she turned on the water for me and made the temperature just a hair below boiling.

When she left, and the soap was off me, I got into the tub. The bubbles flowed, and heat worked its way through my sore quadriceps—bike riding is an activity I’ve only recently begun here in Japan—and I was in heaven. Soon thereafter, Zaak and I left the spa, used our tiny hand towels to dry off, and made our way—clothed—back, for the fourth time in two days, downtown.

Metro is located on the eastern bank of the Kamo River, just a little south of MarutamachiDori. The club features world music, hip-hop, and often features DJ’s depending on the night. We knew how to get there, and we knew what it was about, but Zaak and I didn’t make it that far. On our way south after crossing the river at Imadegawa Dori, we headed south for Marutamachi Dori when something else caught our attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw fire flying around in circles as a dark figure manipulated them. I had seen university students up and down the shore all evening lighting fire-crackers, but this was the first I had seen of actual fire. I stopped, pointed—Zaak saw it. “Fire-dancing,” I said. “Poi,” he said. And we made our way over to the shore.

By the time we got there, the fire was out, but they were continuing with the poi using glow sticks—this piqued our interest not only because fire-dancing is ridiculously cool, but also because both Zaak and I studied it in Varanasi a year ago. Zaak kept up with it, and is quite proficient—with a staff; the people down by the river were doing poi, a method of juggling burning balls of Kevlar suspended on chains.

After a few moments of standing awkwardly to the side, two girls from the group came up and introduced themselves. Their English was excellent, and they had both been to America on several occasions. They were celebrating the end of summer before they all separated for the rest of the year. Drinking chu-hais, and trading travel stories, the evening went on with the beautiful techno cadence supplied by the iPod stereo system providing the beat for the fire-dancers.

We said goodbye early, and made our way back across town, the summer heat diluted by the morning fog. We said our first sayonara, laughing the whole way home. This first taste of Japan was probably my most intense experience of it, with round-the-clock-touring, and it has me ever hungry for more.

That night, I got in just after three in the morning, tucked myself in on my futon by discarding all my clothes and adorning not even a sheet while the crickets began their morning chirps. Dreams flowed down from the night’s sky through the tin roof of my domicile, down the pull-chord of my yellowed hanging light, blanketing me in safe slumbers.

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