something about kyoto and tokyo

31 12 2007

You can read to no end about all the places I visited during winter vacation. Go on google or wikitravel or just about any other website and you’re bound to stumble upon account after account of what each temple, shrine and festival is like. If you’re looking for that information, not to be rude, go somewhere else.

I started to write about all these places, and even about my impressions of them, but it was really boring, to be honest. Boring to write, boring to read, boring to think about. I’m not a talented enough writer to truly capture even the most fascinating places Zach and I visited. My pictures can only go so far. So. If you really want to know details about a place, your best bet is to read other people’s works, or even better, visit them yourself. If you want to know about the thoughts they inspired in me, this is your cup of tea. Or maybe a pot of tea. I’m wordy.

I’m a man of contradictions! I’m going to give a quick one-liner about a few of my favorites so you 1) know what my favorites were, and 2) aren’t totally lost when I talk about them. So, without further ado, the list of favorites and one line about them:

三十三間堂 (sanjuusangendou, 33 ken temple; one ken is 1.818m): This temple houses an army of 1,000 statues of the Buddhist deity Kan’non behind other Buddhist and Shinto deities in a long hall outside which a yearly 弓道 (kyuudo, traditional Japanese archery) competition is held during the 成人式 (seijinshiki, coming of age ceremony).

知恩院寺 (chion’indera): this temple houses Japan’s largest gate and bell, which takes 19 people to ring.

伏見稲荷神社 (fushimi inari jinja): This shrine has over 10,000 鳥居 (torii, the archetypal gates leading to Shinto shrines) crossing a walkway going through a lushly forested mountainside.

三年坂 and 二年坂 (san’nen zaka and ninenzaka, three and two years’ slope, respectively—gets its name from the superstition that if you fall on this walk, you will die within three or two years, respectively): A pleasant stone-paved walk lined with small shops, geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) rushing to make appointments, and rickshaws; the walk goes from 清水寺 (kiyomizudera) to chion’indera.

秋葉原 (Akihabara): The electronics and otaku (more on this later) center of Tokyo.

渋谷 (Shibuya): Home to records for busiest crosswalk and (possibly) most neon signs per capita.

新宿 (Shinjuku): A Tokyo ward with the busiest train station in the world. It’s damn busy.

As a fairly clear indication of my thoughts on the two cities’ differences, note that Kyoto’s list of sites I liked is mostly temples and shrines, and that of Tokyo is a list of neighborhoods.

So what’s the major difference? There are parts of each city that could have been copied directly from the other one. The major difference is that interspersed among the myriad buildings in Kyoto are a ton of cultural assets that are less prevalent in Tokyo. By the time I left Kyoto, I wasn’t surprised to see a shrine in between a restaurant and hostess bar; if I saw the same in Tokyo, I would be surprised.

Tokyo is literally endless. From the tops of both Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building no matter where you look, you can’t see an end to the city except for large natural barriers like a mountain range or the Pacific Ocean. As far as the eye can see there are buildings upon buildings upon buildings. And the craziest thing about it for me was thinking about how in each and every one of those buildings there are people; people living their normal day-to-day lives in this massive urban sprawl. One of my favorite parts of being in Tokyo compared to other cities was seeing people shopping for groceries rather than omiyage. Being in Tokyo felt more “real,” instead of visiting a Japan-themed Disney park.

Kyoto has a population of around 10,000,000 people, and on average 40,000,000 visitors every year. No wonder then, that it felt like I was bumping into more foreigners per minute than the total number living in the entirety of Hokkaido. That being said, once you wander off the beaten path a little, the city becomes much more palatable.

Sure, I went to all these shrines and temples and walks and neighborhoods, saw a geisha (who asked us to take a picture with her—weird!), played pachinko, etc. etc., but I wonder in retrospect what the goal of tourism is or should be. Some of the sights were so amazing to see that you couldn’t conceivably capture its essence in any other form than direct experience, but for others a picture would do. What is it that people (or even just me) are looking for when they travel? Did I experience Kyoto life? Did I feel Tokyo? Or did I just see them? I suppose this all goes along with the active/passive tourism questions I raised earlier. Can you actively experience a city by passively exploring it? What makes a city, it’s people or it’s infrastructure?

For example Akihabara without its unique (this is euphemistic) people would simply be a bunch of Best Buys, CompUSAs and Circuit Cities (would it be Citys?) lined up next to each other. The people turn electronics row into otaku central. Sure, the otaku are drawn there in part by the businesses that are there, but I imagine the relationship is reciprocal; something about chickens and eggs comes to mind. What are they? The word originates from the Japanese word お宅 (o-taku), a polite way to say “one’s house,” making an inference to the lack of social skills they have. Originally encompassing only people who were talented or obsessed with technology, the word’s meaning has grown to include the myriad people obsessed, and I mean OBSESSED, with anime and manga (a little SAT analogy for you: anime : cartoons :: manga : comic books).

I was a little disturbed when I first entered one of the department stores in Akihabara. Almost every store—except the store that only sold toy guns and porn—was full of people perusing the most accurately made figurines, the coolest new videos, the shiniest foil cards. Spending entire paychecks on collectibles. Videos they can’t open. Cards they won’t use. Toys they love too much to sell. Think of Steve Carrell in 40 Year-Old Virgin, but real, en masse and wearing costumes on the street. In my convoluted thought processes it reminds me of celebrity gossip. Why do people focus the majority of their free waking hours devoted to things outside of their life, or in the case of the otaku, outside of reality? Likewise, why play Guitar Hero when you can learn the real thing? Some of the people (these are not kids) playing video games have such amazing memory, dexterity and reflexes that it’s a wonder they aren’t doing more amazing things with their lives. Why not take those UFO catching skills and do laparoscopic surgery? Why not use those crazy-ass Beatmania fingers and become a concert pianist? Why not take your ability to memorize every line in every episode of Shin-Chan and become an actor? I just can’t comprehend what in someone’s life pushes him or her down this path.

This is where you have the best chance to run into (usually) fat expats who live their lives the same way. I think, most notably, of the comic book shop owner from The Simpsons and the Warlock, Kevin Smith’s character from Live Free or Die Hard. For these guys (and girls), Akihabara is Mecca. So many times, I just wanted to scream “GET A LIFE,” but living in Japan has taught me patience, so I’m doing it now instead. Much more publicly. And brazenly. Maybe I haven’t learned so much after all.

On the other hand, it’s cool that it’s okay in this society to do that. To paraphrase a friend, Tokyo is the only place where, if you wear the most atrocious fashion with conviction, you can pull it off. In the same city where it’s still fashionable to wear your kimono to festivals, you can also dress like Dragonball Z characters and get hugs from random people on the streets for it.

Just as a brief aside, I am talking about people for whom this is a life-consuming obsession, not a hobby. I like video games. I like computers. I like some anime. I also know how to interact socially and certainly do not live inside a fantasy world all the time (though living in Japan, one has to wonder).

Let’s get out of Akihabara, hop on the Yamanote line and head to Tokyo station, home of my new favorite thing, the 新幹線 (shinkansen, bullet train of doom). The shinkansen is probably the reason Japan’s GNC (Gross National Cool) is so remarkably high. This thing travels at 300km/h (186mph) and feels like you’re gliding on air. You’ve got loads of leg space, food and drink service, power outlets in many seats, and absolutely impeccable punctuality. Most importantly, the distance covered by an 8-hour drive takes 3 hours. Osaka and Kyoto are 50 minutes by regular rail, and 12 minutes by on the Shinkansen nozomi super-express line. Fucking sweet. Pardon the French.

Runner-up on the new-favorite-things list is the modern Japanese toilet. (I still think that using a traditional Japanese toilet is every foreigner’s true initiation to Japan.) I saw the most advanced one in 小樽 (Otaru, just north of Sapporo), at a restaurant previously only known for its juggling act to be reckoned with. The toilet seat was heated, and when you sat down it played the sound of running water so people couldn’t hear you and you couldn’t hear them. What’s more, it had a built-in radio for the same purpose. The seat’s heat and water pressure was fully adjustable. Water pressure?! For what, you ask? The bidet and (feminine) spray, duh! For the environmentally conscious You could also use a big or a small flush to conserve water, or alternatively obliterate whatever foul thing you left behind. Most importantly, the toilet stands up and gives you a hug when you finish wiping. Technology!

To be fair, a Chinese toilet that takes things one step further has recently debuted.

If you ever want to feel like you’re in one of the Japanese TV shows that were rumored to cause epileptic fits among its viewers, just step into—heck, step near one—a pachinko parlor (the game is like a slot machine, but with silver balls as currency—I honestly don’t understand it even after a lengthy explanation from one of the employees). There are more flashing lights, bells, whistles, buzzers, bouncing balls and scantily clad cartoons than you can imagine. I, personally, couldn’t imagine sitting in there for more than a few minutes (maybe it was the bitterness from losing my money) without going nuts. Japanese pachinko fans, even so, not only go there for hours on end, but also wait on the street for parlors to open in the morning and get kicked out last thing at night. I wouldn’t be surprised if people sleep outside, just to maximize their “productivity.”

Up there with the missing pension funds and declining birthrate, the crowds of people gathering outside pachinko parlors first thing in the morning is partially a result of the NEET problem. NEET, coined by the Brits, is an acronym for “Not in Employment, Education or Training, and all too accurately describes the 20-somethings in Japan. It used to be that high school and college graduates would immediately join the workforce and work with one company until retirement. Now, between the inverted population pyramid, and the prevalence of NEETs in their 20-somethings, the workforce is facing some serious strain, and leading to lots of articles in newspapers postulating whether robots could feasibly make up for the lack of laborers. Why, though? Why is it more common for graduates to move from short-term job to short-term job? Why is it not uncommon for a 30+ year old to still live at home with his or her parents?

It’s a mystery! My friend is working on a Fulbright Grant to find answers, but I thought it worth pointing out something that is an essential component of the current state of Japanese society.

PICTURES (click to enlarge):

actors’ names

the names of actors currently performing kabuki in kyoto

barrels of rice

barrels of rice. for some reason this isn’t turned the right direction. imagine it 90 degrees clockwise.

little balls

little balls adorning a buddha near kiyomizudera

buddha balls

a zoomed out view of the same thing


burning incense at kiyomizudera

the giant balcony

the giant balcony of kiyomizudera


sannenzaka–said by some to be the most beautiful street in kyoto

our new friend

our new geisha/maiko friend.

19 ropes

most of the 19 ropes to ring chion’indera‘s bell


unimpressed with pachinko losses

rainy day at sanjuusangendou

sanjuusangendou. it was rainy.

best picture

probably my favorite picture from Japan. taken at sanjuusangendou

some of the thousand

more Kannons than the Civil War.


a bigger version of all the posts I saw this summer on my random hikes. taken at nanzenji


anyone ask for juxtaposition?

some torii

zach and petey with some of the 10,000 torii at fushimi inari

endless tokyo

the city with no end. taken from the special observation deck of the Tokyo Tower.




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