Traditional Japan: Kyoto and Takayama

edited on Feb 10th, 2012


[This is the second of a series of three posts on Japan. An introductory one can be found here. A third one on Tokyo is here.]

A Shinto shrine in Takayama

Beware, reader: 70% of a traveller’s tale tells what’s inside the speaker, and just 30% accounts for what he really saw outside. Also, for a gaijin (foreigner) is quite hard to get a neat idea of Japan in a handful of days, lost as he is between jet lag, neon signs, monks, awesome nature, tempura, and bullet trains. But I’ll try my best, starting from the first two cities I saw there.

When you arrive in Kyoto, you hardly believe it is the cradle of Japan’s religion. The huge brand new train station is the one you would expect to find in Tokyo, and the clumsy suburbs around it makes you think of some Yakuza movie settled in Osaka. 

But in fact, it is: Kyoto is for Japanese religion what Rome is for Catholicism. To a Western, it is the greatest possible encounter with classical Japan: it is the former capital of a country that holds tradition and formality in the highest esteem, and rituals are far more preserved and relevant in here than in Tokyo. And still, the first things you see of it are its modern sides: as you move away from the station, you will meet a downtown bustling with life and surrounded by skyscrapers, then the tiny roads and flashy neon signs of the night district of Gion, till you end right in front of the wide open spaces of the sacred area of Higashiyama. Here you can find uncountable Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines (for most Japanese are both Buddhist and Shintoists). Monks and believers come and go, paying no attention to tourists, and you will find yourself trying to decode their rituals and absorb the peacefulness and sacredness of the place. Often those religious buildings are gathered in big complexes, together with Zen gardens. Now, Zen gardens are better explained through pictures (never seen one ? try this), but if one is required to define them, I would say they are gardens where empty spaces and objects exchange their usual role – the former are more important than the latter, and really shape the garden (if you find this definition obscure and meaningless, try some Zen quotation, such as “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”). Even though a huge number of those temples and gardens are located all around the city, even in the most modern areas, Higashiyama has some quite impressive ones, together with paved roads between stone-made private houses, parks, and a relaxed atmosphere. This is something one cannot miss in Kyoto.

I also enjoyed the Manga museum – which is actually more of a library than a real museum: I am not into Manga at all, but it was interesting to understand the huge influence they have on Japanese culture. Everywhere in the city you will find people of all ages and social status lost in their comics, which mostly deal with love or fantasy story. At first, I was surprised by the deep attention their readers pay to them, compared to the seemingly childish style of the drawings – with overemphasized expressions and kitsch pictures. But now I think this exaggeration is part of Japan culture, and it takes a while for a Western to get used to that.  For instance, I found a similar exaggerated style in Japanese tv shows.

Takayama is a medium size city (< 100.000 inhabitants) in central Honsu, which is the area between Kyoto and Tokyo. It lies up in the mountains, surrounded by higher mountains, and covered with snow. I came here because I wanted to see some not-so-big and not-so-touristic town in Japan (and I succeeded only partly, for I was told that quite some western come here and it is a touristic place in fact) and nature. The downtown is a bunch of small roads, with traditional wooden houses and shops selling ceramics handmade in the countryside. It is touristic in a good way, meaning that you find goods tourists buy (pottery, souvenir, etc.) but no plastic crap and “I love Takayama” shirt. All around those shops, life is quiet but present: children going to school in shorts (despite the cold!) , fish market crowded with old ladies, and nobody paying attention to the new gaijin that came to town. I especially enjoyed climbing up the hills which surround the city, and enjoy the view of the snow-covered valley from there. Also, the road from Takayama to Tokyo passes between gorges and peeks, next to woods and half-frozen lakes, and if you happen to get stuck in a snowstorm (as I was) but comfortably sitting in a warm bus (as I was), you really enjoy the trip.

Let me conclude this post with a couple of tips for a traveller in Japan: experience the Onsen (traditional baths), better if in the countryside, in a very cold, snowy day, and with a nice view. Japanese food is awesome. I only knew sushi and sashimi, while it is much more various: noodles, many kinds of meat, vegetables, etc. You get never bored, and rarely disappointed. Try as much of it as you can: prices are quite good when compared to Europe.

Learn some basic food words and at least once get out of the tourist paths: go to some restaurant that has no English menu or plastic food sample (yes, they use them, a lot!) in the window. If you’re unlucky, you will make yourself understood somehow, and have dinner as always. But if you are lucky, some other customer will help you out with the menu, even if in a broken english. He won’t miss the chance to chat with a gaijin and you will spend a nice dinner (this happened to me more than once). In fact, I found Japanese people particularly nice. As heritage of a rigid social system, they are very formal and (even too) helpful at work, and restrained by a deep shyness which seems to be as common as sake there. But once the ice is broken, they become quite informal and reveal all their genuine curiosity for western culture and habits, making the conversation quite enjoyable. To us, Japan is a remote land, whose tradition and culture charm us, partly because we do not fully understand them. To many of the people I met there, the rest of the world is what Japan is to us.