Would you believe it if I said a deer came up to me and nuzzled my left pocket looking for food?
Would you believe that a shoal of large colorful fish ate from my hands as I knelt by the reeds next to a pond?
We were in Kyoto.
(There are deer herds around our house in Maryland, occasionally foraging on my lawn. But they bolt as soon as I am in their line of sight).
We arrived at Kyoto from Tokyo on a Shinkansen (Bullet Train). As we sat in a restaurant car sipping wine from a steady stem glass on a rock steady table, the digital speed indicator attached to the transparent ceiling sometimes read a blistering 320 km/hr (equivalent to 200 miles per hour). I actually saw cows and pastures that were a blur as we passed.
The missus booked a Ryokan (a japanese hotel) for us. Our room was minimalistic, bereft of any furniture except for a phone on a low stool. On the floor was a stark tatami mat. The internal walls were made of translucent (almost opaque) white paper in polished wooden frames. The walls would slide back to form an entrance to the room. At night, soft silk mattresses and pillows tumbled out from closets.
Our attached bathroom was futuristic. The toilet had feather touch buttons (next to it) which released cold and warm water at low and high velocity as well as warm and cold air for the benefit of the ever grateful (and well sanitized) tushies. There was also a fragrance button.
Breakfast was served in our room on a low flat wooden table. First came tea in simple white bowls. After a while came baked red salmon and seaweed along with fine porcelain chopsticks on flat white rectangular china, served with curtsies and smiles. We curtsied back as best as we could sitting cross legged on the floor.
The traditions and serenity survive here by side with Shinkansens. Kyoto’s contrast with the speed and efficiency of a high tech society surrounding it, is striking.
In the hubbub of most cities of Japan I rarely saw Kimonos being worn. Japanese couples get married typically in churches wearing gowns and jackets. Kyoto is an oasis in the midst of modernization.
We visited a chockfull of Shinto Shrines and Imperial Palaces from the Samurai era, saw the Geishas in Gion with their white painted faces, traditional hairstyles and flowing kimonos. We did not meet a Geisha lady but one can if one wishes to:
The missus arranged for us to experience a Kabuki theatre performance at Gion corner. The itinerary included several traditional performing arts: the tea ceremony, Ikebena flower arrangement, Koto (Japanese harp) performance, Gagaku (court dance), Kyogen (humorous play), Maio dance and Bunraku (involving puppets), along with Kabuki (stylized traditional dance form).
I should have had a lot of sake prior to the theatre visit. The music was plain and pentatonic, the plays predictable and the humor slapstick. I don’t mean to offend any culture but just reflect the perspective of an outsider. Foreigners are fondly (NOT) known to the natives as Gaijin.
My comments on the Kabuki theatre above do not apply by any stretch to the Tea Ceremony or Ikebena or in general to Geishas. They require decades if not generations of preparation.
In Tokyo, little children holding hands were apparently going to school by themselves. I asked my Japanese host how this was possible. (I would not encounter such a scene in New York, for example). He replied that the crime factor was low in Japan but didn’t have an explanation.
Later we chatted on this topic again. I remarked that theft does not occur in Saudi Arabia probably because hands are chopped off. I pondered again, what the reason could be for the lack of petty crime.
My friend thought for a while and said that perhaps the reason was the homogeneity of Japanese society and the deep cultural shame factor. If a criminal is apprehended, not only is he socially ostracized, his entire family and ancestors get a touch of the smear.
Note to self: Careful now, the Yakuza are a thriving bunch.
Much against my will, my dear wife dragged me into a dungeon (below street level) in Ropongi, the night life district in Tokyo at 1am one evening. (Morning)? She was the resident expert, working (as a research scientist) in Japan for over a year, while I was visiting her between jobs.
A band was playing and a crooner was crooning Ella Fitzgerald songs. The scotch was stiff and I began to settle in. Actually I was mesmerized. There was a pianist, a guitarist, a drummer and a singer on stage. All except the drummer had their eyes closed and appeared lost in their own world.
The performance ended at 3am and I could not hold myself back. I don’t think I was suffering from inebriation, just from pure adulation. I walked up to the singer and remarked that I truly enjoyed her voice and the depth of her performance. She looked me up and down and measured me with her eyes. “You!” she exclaimed, “You have not been here before!” Then she looked at my wife and said, “You have.” My wife had been to that bar with male colleagues but our singer was not going to mention that.
Ueno Park entrance was the venue where young rebels gathered in the evening. Goths gyrated on the sidewalk to loud music without making eye contact with anybody. I couldn’t help wondering if the young lady goth would send her head and limbs flying in different directions as a result of the recurring sharp twists and jerks she executed.
A few yards away, a young Japanese woman shrouded in white with a loudspeaker mic at her lips kept repeating angrily, “NO NEED EMPEROR!”
The Tokyo police kept a low profile and appeared to be nowhere in sight.
Akhiabara is the neighborhood for electronic appliances. Each tall building is a store by itself and different floors have different displays (e.g. one floor had laptops only, another floor displayed just cameras). Occasionally the stores sent attractive and somewhat scantily clad young ladies out in groups to the sidewalk in front to pout and parade around to perhaps attract customers.
What caught my attention (I know what you’re thinking) is that the gadgets on display and for sale were years ahead of those available in most other countries. (I was a veteran of 47th street in Manhattan). My spouse successfully stopped me from buying a pre-pentium laptop for thousands of dollars, that I was drooling over. (You really have to get your mind out of the gutter now, I was dead serious). Later when I came to my (buyer's remorse free) senses, I realized that that laptop would have caused me a lot of trouble without local customer support.
Some of the tiny cameras on display at Akhiabara had remote controls that you could click from afar to take pictures. Perhaps I should have returned to the park, joined the protester and yelled, "NO NEED SELFIE STICKS!"
One evening we had a Shabu-Shabu dinner near Ginza. All we were served (and delighted in) were thin slices of raw Kobe beef and a bowl of broth with nori (edible seaweed) floating in it, along with slender green veggies on the side. The setting was spartan but elegant and exquisite to the point that the waitress wore white gloves. She bent down and taught us to whisper "Shabu Shabu," as we peeled off a slice of raw beef and used our right hand to wave it in the broth before having it. The taste and the experience stayed with me. I’ve wandered the world and tried this dish at many locales but none came close to the corner of Ginza.
Also mentionable is the fact that we did not tip the waitress. She would probably be insulted if we did.
My wife's boss treated us at a fancy Indian restaurant at Ginza where unfortunately the cuisine was plain. Over dinner I mentioned that there were certain Japanese steakhouses in the US that put on a show at the table with flames and knives. Our host was aghast that these restaurants branded themselves as Japanese.
We got off the Shinkansen at the station and hopped on to a taxi. Believe it or not the taxi driver was wearing white gloves. I whipped my camera out to video this ride. We were staying at a dinky hotel and gave the driver, who spoke broken English (way better than my non-existant Japanese), the name and address. And off we went on our merry way.
I was making sure I videoed the white gloves on the steering wheel against the fleeting Osaka backdrop, and at the same time making small talk with the driver. Suddenly he stopped the taxi. Through the lens I saw him reach out his hand, grab the mechanical meter in front of the windshield and yank it to an off position, so that it would not register a higher fare than what was on it. He explained that he should have found our hotel by now and was very sorry that he had not located it yet. (This event predated mobile devices). He stopped the taxi at a number of spots, queried pedestrians and finally got us to our hotel. After he put down our suitcases, he would not accept any money over what his meter showed and bowed when refusing a tip.
(Mini clash of cultures - It reminded me of a scene I witnessed at a restaurant in La Jolla, a pretty town in CA. A blonde pony tailed male waiter was going out of his way to please a Japanese customer and was quite perplexed when the customer departed without leaving a tip).
The radiation has cleared out. People bustle around leading normal lives.
There is an eternal flame where Enola Gay dropped the Atom Bomb (66,000 people were killed, 69,000 injured). The flame is surrounded by colorful origami. I couldn’t believe I was actually there; my mood was somber. Looking up I saw a shell of a dome atop a building. The dome has been left the way it was after the bomb dropped, with its lattice exposed.
There is a Peace Museum at this location. Some of the displays inside are graphic, and I was reliving August 6, 1945 vicariously through the visuals. However a few Japanese kids were running around the museum and I watched them frolic. Although I did not feel like speaking, I did ask a local gentleman about the kids, wondering if they knew where they were. The gentleman sensed my sentiments and said modern Japanese generations may not quite grasp the significance of the past.