Tokyo, Kyoto & Nara (Part 2)
June 15-21, 2001

>>Asia Journal -- Tokyo, Kyoto & Nara Part2 (6/15/01 - 6/21/01)
-- Kyoto & Nara
-- A Note from Kyoto
-- A Strange Mix of Contradictions
-- Final Thoughts

-- Kyoto & Nara

the next morning, i loaded up my medium sized backpack and laptop, left my bigger bag behind at my hotel, and headed for the metro. it was a good thing i was a little early, because i hadn't realized that the shinkansen bullet train that left for Kyoto wasn't leaving out of Shinjuku station. so i had to take the subway to the Tokyo central station to get to my train. i wasn't sure when the next train would leave, so i was glad i made it.

travelling at over 300kph (about 180mph) the nozomi shinkansen is the fastest bullet train in japan, and as far as i know, the fastest train in the world. it almost felt just a little too fast. it was great that we could get to Kyoto in half the time it would take a normal train. but it gave me a headache trying to look out the windows for more than an extended period of time, especially when closely passing by neighboring buildings, through tunnels, and by electrical or telephone poles. which was about most of the time! it was all a blur really, and difficult to take pictures. but it was also comfortable and very fast.

arriving in Kyoto, there were hundreds of students sitting on the floor of the main terminal, taking up most of the floor in the wide corridor. then again, was that anything new? through my time thus far, there always seemed to be a large number of students everywhere, dressed in their blue and white uniforms, with cute hello kitty backpacks and clip-on stuffed animals.

from the station, i took a short taxi trip to the ryokan that i had reserved. Ryokan are traditional japanese guest houses. And mine, with about 10 rooms in the main building, was small and quaint. Inside, there was a shoe rack and two bins of slippers. after checking in with the elderly manager who spoke very good english, i walked up the wooden stairs to my room. the room was small and barren, but comfortable, and had a great "terrace" window that looked out over the small bicycle alley in front. in one corner was a folded bed mat, a towel, and a thin japanese robe. in the other was a small television, and a low coffee table with a thermos of hot water, a mirror, and a telephone. there were two showers and bathrooms that the 10 rooms shared. and two types of toilets -- traditional asian squat holes, and 2 western toilets. i had used the squats before, and it was a lot of work and a feat of balance, so i was glad that they had both.

like tokyo, kyoto was full of little bicycle alleys. but outside of the center, most of the buildings were only a story or two high. it felt less like an old imperial capital, and more like a small college town. so, like the elder ladies at the tourist information center, who were extremely helpful and spoke pretty good english, people were everywhere gracious and helpful.

throughout my travels in asia thus far, i was everywhere struck by a sense of political change. and japan was no different. as this was an election time in Japan, there were posters of Junichiro Koizumi everywhere, even some larger than life posters. and in the news i read, it was often so interesting to be seeing a non-American political contest from the "inside", and to be hearing about more local issues and a struggle over a different national identity.

over the next two days i bicycled around the city, toured several ancient palaces and temples, and enjoyed the relative quiet. I managed to catch glimpses of a few maikos and geisha in Gion, took several strolls by the river, and did a lot of window shopping at little boutiques in the older more scenic parts of the city. My second day, i signed up for a bus tour that drove out to Nara, about an hour away, and saw more temples and palaces. the quiet countryside, without the rush and hubbub of the crowded cities, seemed much more what Japan was about. and while shinjuku and tokyo were formidable in their intensity, i enjoyed the peaceful life of simple contentment that seemed to be kyoto.

-- Note From Kyoto

[a few moments of reality, written while i was in kyoto...]

i am sitting in my small room overlooking the street in a small, wood built, ryokan (a traditional japanese style guest house) in kyoto, listening to the rain as it pours down mercilessly -- pouring, subsiding, and pouring again. i wonder how i am going to get gyoza and tatsuta a-ge (japanese fried chicken) without getting soaked like i did this afternoon on my bike. i am waiting for a little easing.

maybe it is the 'travel' mindset, but i have been slowly getting more behind in my updates. and now that i have my digital video to think about, there is additional post-editing of my hours of video trying to find some half decent pictures to post.

i think i really need a few days between each destination to collect my thoughts and get prepared for the next trip. one afternoon in HK was just not enough, even after being up all night trying to catch up on emails, not to speak of writing, image editing, and html coding! when i said i was going to try and work all night, a friend who i am staying with gave me an incredulous look and replied, 'aren't you supposed to be taking a break?'.

as it is, it is often so difficult to pull myself back and commit time to actively write and reflect. i usually feel that i would rather instead make new discoveries and collect new experiences. writing effectively requires some semblance of total concentration and a focused mental zone. which can't be done for 15 minutes here and there.

sometimes, i am so exhausted that i think i am not working hard enough in shooting and exploring. in cambodia, i did a dismal 40 rolls. [i wonder whether that was because of the country or because of me.] in tokyo, from fatigue i think, i have been getting up around 10am (as opposed to 6 or 7am), really missing half the day by the time i get rolling around noon.

also, not speaking or reading the language here, my first day i felt lost and very helpless. most things have been ridiculously expensive like a 5 minute cab ride for $10, or $10/hour for an internet connection. especially when i am taking a few hours to get through my email.

after the last few days, i think i have been getting a better feel for things, even though i still bumble through everything from train tickets to ordering ramen. tellingly, perhaps, i have been to mcdonalds three times in four days. not japanese, but definitely cheaper than that $80 shabu shabu dinner i had. and at least i can read the menu more easily at mcdonalds.

but the rain is easing now, so maybe i will venture out to get some food.

-- A Strange Mix of Contradictions

while most of china and other parts of asia seemed so survivalist (mostly from necessity), post modern japan (and especially tokyo) seemed a little lost for its soul -- almost mournful, too fast, too consumed. tokyo seemed a strange mix of contradictions in style and substance.

first, although generally everything was pretty expensive, there were other things that were surprisingly inexpensive. taxis, restaurants, clothes, internet were expensive. yet trains, tailored custom suits, and some leather goods were actually not that expensive. and while my first attempt to eat shabu shabu cost about $80, i found another place in the middle of shinjuku that had shabu shabu for $12, and all you could eat for $23!

second, there were the conservative looking businessmen in dark suits and briefcases, docile and subservient geisha, the wild looking young teenage girls with fishnet stockings short skirts and orange hair, schoolchildren in their blue and white uniforms, the hello kitties and cute anime characters everywhere -- were they illusions or realities of a deeper culture?

it was as late as 1853 that japan was forcibly opened to foreigners by an American Navy fleet. and japan still seemed a society of ingrained culture and tradition. while i was there, i read an interesting article (which unfortunately i can't find now) that discussed how the social environment often made it very difficult for many modern japanese artists to make a living at home, leading to an exodus of talent. as the artist Mariko Mori, now in New York, explained in an interview , "I was looking for freedom. . . . Japan is a unified society which does not allow for individualism. . . . In Japan people try not to behave outside of common standards. You are constantly reminded not to step out of line. I did not accept that. . . . I was compelled to escape as soon as possible."

having a unified and traditional society had many benefits, perhaps making Japan previously such a force of efficiency, mass production, and gadgetry, with social order and one of the lowest crime rates in the world. but having such a conservative society also contributed to its inability to combat corruption or to reform its own economy to a changing world, and its having one of the world's highest suicide rates. conceptually, i could understand a societal choice for traditional conservatism and unity.

what i didn't understand was how you could have such a conservative conformist society that also seemed to value and accept the kawaii culture as well. "kawaii" means cute -- little school girl uniforms, puffy leg warmers, pig tails, and hello kitty. kawaii was lolita pop -- like kahimi kari, who i had seen in New York singing in a childish voice that sounded regressively blissful. but kawaii also seemed to mean fishnet stockings, short skirts, orange hair, and a certain outward adolescent sexuality. school girls were acceptable, and docile and cute were acceptable. but what about the sexual fetishism that seemed a darker yet accepted part of kawaii?

how did you explain a society that was allegedly the world's main source of child pornography; where massage parlors and love hotels seemed everywhere (even in less urban areas); where adult films were everywhere advertised featuring girls in school uniforms, kinky S&M, and being tied up; where a small but significant percentage of school girls had a practice of part time prostitution for spending money (a practice called enjo kosai , or "compensated dating"); and where stores and vending machines trafficked in little girls' soiled underwear! i only realized about half of that while i was there. only after returning and speaking to friends about this entry (who were japanese, had lived in japan, or were asia-philes), did i start to realize the full scale of these practices -- perhaps still a minority, but meaningfully significant.

when i asked these friends how such a conservative society could also seem to be so accepting of the full extent of the kawaii culture, i got a mix of not too conclusive answers. but a few had answers that together made sense -- that perhaps the socially authoritarian environment effected a culture of submission, but also a culture of insecurity, fear of expression, and sexual inferiority. and the token submission of some (young girls) together with the inferiority compexes of others (conservative older men) led to this strange arrangement of convenience. As a Time magazine article argued, "The common explanation for Japan's tolerance of child porn is that the country is run by a clique of old men with little sensitivity toward women and children. . . . [but] There's another theory for the obsession with pedophilia: that Japanese men feel threatened by adult women. 'Many men are incapable of relating to adult women on an equal stance.'"

the conservative social environment meant that the crime rate was one of the world's lowest. but it also meant that some of the most popular new phones were those that would ring with cute anime graphics that would tell you "Gambatte kudasai!", meaning "Keep your chin up!".

it was an environment that hindered even its men from being individually assertive, that made them afraid of their peers and their own sexual performance. an environment that made it acceptable to be a cute school girl, to accept authority, and yet also to be precociously sexual and powerful. An environment (despite makeshift romantic meeting places like the make-out deck above Shinjuku station), where lack of personal space or living with one's parents led to an overwhelming demand for love hotels -- which also made it incredibly easy for anyone to make secret rendezvous. and finally, an environment that compelled its youth to rebelliously invent their identities, seemingly apart from a conservative veneer, but necessarily within that same conservative context.

while there, i felt like i was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. and i was. now, i felt like i was getting it a little. i really needed a guide and interpreter. a few months would probably not have been enough. i think you had to speak the language, or you had to be japanese to be able to really feel and understand it all.

-- Final Thoughts

despite my inability to fully grasp the seeming social contradictions and conservative mindset, there was so much that i loved about japan -- japanese gadgets, japanese food, japanese service, japanese movies & anime, the japanese aesthetic.

at Isetan, i had the priviledge of meeting the woodblock print master Munenori Makino and his daughter Fuurinmaru. together they had a body of work that was beautiful in its apparent simplicity, even though i realized how much work went into even just one of their prints (including some 15-30 individually carved blocks and colors).

most of my time in Japan, there was rain, rain, and more rain. umbrellas were everywhere -- umbrella signs, umbrella stands, and even plastic umbrella bag dispensers (to keep the wetness inside). but i liked rain. and it helped to frame that beautiful sense of mournfulness that i felt. just like the inexpensive hotel where i was staying. the walls were not too thick, and one night the couple in the next room over were really getting it on.

my only regret was that i wasn't able to go to the all night trance clubs and discos of roppongi. too far away and expensive to come back by taxi. and i was much too tired to try and stay out all night. but with everything else i saw and experienced, i was content to appreciate the aesthetic beauty that was everywhere and uniquely japan.

Japan images -- [Part 3] [Part 4]

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