Kyoto and Kanazawa are cities of small discoveries, not all of which make sense to outsiders, observes Michael Gebicki
IAM eating a chrysanthemum leaf that has been fried in a light batter, tempura style, presented to me as a garnish on a bowl of noodles. The chrysanthemum leaf is not going to take the culinary world by storm. It tastes of almost nothing, yet its symbolism is significant. In a single mouthful, it sums up the astonishing peculiarity and the downright weirdness that is Japan.
Japan is not easy. The traveller here must pay an admission price to the polite and refined world of tea ceremonies and temples. I must learn to buckle my feet into contortionist positions beneath the dinner table, be sure to make little bows, remember when to take off my shoes, learn subtleties of manner and style that are totally foreign. But the reward is renewal. In Japan I am a traveller reborn, let loose in the world for a first adventure. Everything is shiny and everything is new.
From the time I wake to a warmed toilet seat that also doubles as a bidet until the moment I lay my head on a pillow — buckwheat on one side and what feels like marbles on the other — I am surprised and entertained by this land of delicious paradoxes.
The day begins with a visit to the Kamigamo-jinja Shinto shrine in Kyoto, and if you’re shopping around for a religion at the moment, can I direct your attention to Shinto? Let me hasten to add that Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism all offer perfectly good and admirable templates for living your life but Shinto, the original religion of Japan before it was usurped by Buddhism, brings fun to faith.
‘‘ We have more than 400 ceremonies every year,’’ says the priest who shows me around and, right on cue, a dozen Shinto priests file past in billowing robes, on their way to clap hands in unison and bow before one of the many hundreds of deities that make up the Shinto pantheon.
If you like dressing up in outlandish costumes with puffy sleeves and funny hats, whacking big drums, knotting paper wishes on to pine branches and worshipping springs, random rocks and trees, Shinto may just be your cup of (green) tea.
It was in Kyoto that the Zen garden took shape and one of the best places to see this miracle of Japanese refinement is at the city’s Myoshinji Temple, also one of the crucibles of Japanese Zen Buddhism, founded in 1337. Myoshinji is a complex of temple compounds, a suburb within the city, and since admission is free locals use it to steal a private moment with a lover, walk the dog or take a shortcut to school. One of the hazards of Myoshinji is emerging from a temple in a state of transcendental bliss and getting splattered by a speeding cyclist. But its gardens are a delight, built around a cascading stream that topples over rocks and ends at a large pond where fat carp waggle their tails lazily around a tea pavilion. In keeping with the pared-down simplicity of Zen thought, there are no flowering plants but, even so, in the full burnished glory of its autumn splendour, this is a scene that brings a sigh to the lips.
To the monks who live within the temple, it’s not all sighs and winsome scenery. The monk who shows me around has just returned from a training session that lasted several months. At one stage he had to stay awake for a week, mostly in a state of meditation. Any monk who shows signs of dropping off during meditation gets a whack on the shoulders from the stick of mercy, a long, flat plank of wood. This seems entirely reasonable to him. You can’t reach enlightenment if you are sleepy, is his explanation. At the end of his training, he walked more than 600km back to Kyoto wearing straw sandals.
At the conclusion of my tour, he takes me to see a scroll painting, apparently a copy of the earliest brush painting completed in Japan. It shows a man holding a gourd and looking at a large fish swimming in a river.
This is an illustration of a Buddhist koan, the paradoxical Q & A session between a teacher and an acolyte intended to short-circuit the rational thought process. In this case, the man on the bank is hungry and it’s a big fish-small gourd conundrum.
Pondering a koan is deeply satisfying — the sound of one hand clapping — or slightly less interesting than watching a new browser download via a dial-up modem.
The next stop is Kanazawa and, although it is smack on the Sea of Japan, the city has a fierce winter climate that requires an unusual horticultural technique known as yukitsuri. Many of the city’s trees have been encouraged to develop the extravagantly elongated limbs favoured by Japanese gardeners. Come winter and those limbs would break under the sheer weight of snow, so a bamboo pole several metres taller than the tree is inserted into the ground. Ropes suspended from the top of the pole are tied around each of the boughs, providing vital support during snowstorms.
Especially in the city’s famed Kenrokuen (Garden of the Six Sublimities), the sight of maypole-like yukitsuri is one of the unintentionally poetic moments that Japan provides in abundance. In another, in what was once the samurai quarter of the city, flared bamboo covers are erected to act like a skirt, protecting the moss growing on the lower part of house walls from snow. (This is the nation that has no compunction about slaughtering whales, remember.)
The ryokan or traditional inn is an experience not to be missed. How else will you discover joyful delights such as sleeping on the floor with a pillow about the size of a wadded napkin, not to mention strolling around in a fulllength cotton yukata (robe) feeling like Hugh Hefner, which is pretty much what happens when you set foot inside a ryokan.
There are strict rules that apply in a ryokan , even to the tying of the koshihimo , the waist sash that preserves one’s modesty when wearing a yukata . After explaining this carefully, my hostess kindly offers to undress me. Even for a tall, svelte and charismatic man of the world, this is not an offer that comes every day. For me it’s completely unknown and I experience a zestful, Hefner-like rush of exhilaration, but there are just enough oxygenated red blood cells left in my head for good sense to prevail, so I politely decline and shoo her from my boudoir.
My next stop is Takayama, a city of considerable charm and grace hoisted amid the splendours of the Northern Alps, but here I partake of a culinary adventure that I feel obliged to warn you about: a sinister breakfast product that goes by the name of natto . Made from fermented soy beans, natto consists of small brown pellets floating in a gooey paste, which forms strings as you try to hoist it into your mouth. The smell is distinctive and the taste is not easily forgotten. Natto is the Vegemite of Japan. You don’t have to be born here to like it, but unless you were, chances are you won’t.
Back in Kyoto at the end of the trip, I set out for a night stroll around the Gion district, the charming old quarter of the city. Since Arthur Golden’s bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha was turned into a movie, an evening of geisha spotting in the back streets of Gion has become essential to any tour of Kyoto. The tiny square with the willow-lined stream, the little bridge and the Temple of Literature that formed the nucleus for much of Golden’s novel can be found on the north side of Shijo-dori, west of Hanamikoji-dori.
It’s an area of delectable charm, enhanced at night by the little vignettes that present themselves in the restaurant windows that overlook the stream. Tonight I am walking behind a small, elderly man who is collecting drink cans and bits of loose paper with a pair of long tongs and putting them in a sack.
The streets of Japan are scrupulously clean, but I am impressed afresh with the civic-mindedness of the average Japanese citizen.
What a society, I am thinking, what fine collective spirit, what an example for us all. I’m still smiling my approval at his back as he reaches Kawabatadori and crosses. I’m catching up as we reach the bridge over the Kamo River and, as I pass, he turns to smile at me while simultaneously reaching out to drop his sack into the river.
Even for Japan, this was a surprising moment, and I realise that although I may eat tofu and sleep happily on a futon, though I may one day write a passable haiku or even develop a taste for natto , I will never really come within a cooee of understanding the land of the rising sun. Michael Gebicki was a guest of the Japan National Tourist Organisation.
Japan Airlines operates flights to Japan from Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne: www.jal.com. The main tour operator for Australian travellers in Japan is Jalpak, which sells good-value Japan Rail Passes: www.jalpak.com.au. In Japan, JTB is the main operator of tours in English: www.jtbgmt.com/sunrisetour. More: (02) 9510 0100 or (03) 8623 0000.
www.jnto.go.jp Japan unfolded: TheIncidental Tourist — Page 5
Paths to peace: Clockwise from left, colour comes from leaves in Japanese gardens, such as the one at Natadera Temple in Komatsu, near Kanazawa; a boy in traditional dress; Shinto priests; and a temple stall in Kyoto