Of course I’ve been aware for most of my life of the obvious and iconic examples of Japanese culture: sumo, geishas, the food, the blue and white dinnerware, Mount Fuji, the gardens, kimonos, tea ceremonies, samurai, and sushi. Even so Japan was never at the top of my list of countries to visit because I thought the culture had been subsumed by chrome, glass, technology, industrialisation, and “modern life”, and I am most attracted to the exotic. I could not have been more wrong. The Japanese culture is alive and well and I’m humbled by my ignorance that I could have thought otherwise. Japan is still Japan. What was I expecting? I feel kind of embarrassed actually, and see now what is, and always has been, obvious. The Japanese people are still a product of their very ancient culture and live it every day. Only the Japanese could or would make a garden out of rocks; and have it be a thing of beauty.
The longer I am here the more the Japanese way seeps in, and I am in awe. The bowing, at times made fun of in the West, is so full of grace and polite respect. I am humbled by it, and find myself bowing back every time. This is not to say that everyone does it all the time. The teenager working in a convenience store is unlikely to give more than a nod of the head, and often barely even that. But then there are the times you get the full court bow and it’s so full of respect and acknowledgement that I’m bowled over by it.
Perhaps I’m projecting, but it seems to me that the Japanese, more than any other culture I’ve experienced, are raised to respect others; to respect their property, to respect their space, and to respect their right to be safe. It does mean a lot of following rules, but since, in such a crowded country the rules make sense everyone obeys them. I love that I feel safe enough here that I can go out alone at night.
Even in the crowded and insanely busy Tokyo metro stations there is an energy of purpose and grace. People move quickly, focused on their goal, but at the same time the feeling of respect for others is there. They always seem to be aware of their surroundings, and make sure to give others their space at the same time as claiming their own. Backpacks and other bags are kept tight to the body so as not to annoy others, the stand-only-on-the-left rule on the escalator is obeyed, as is the rule of no music or other noise in the trains. It occurs to me that they must be raised in this way, taught that all this is simply good manners.
Their love of order is apparent even in the most crowded places. Almost no one crosses at a red light even if there is no traffic around; I did see it a couple of times, but it is rare. People line up, and your place in line is always respected. They say thank you. A lot. And then they bow to you. The result is that I feel really seen, and it is completely disarming. Awareness of, and kindness towards others seems to be an expected standard for living. Still, I don’t want to paint too romantic a picture. In overhearing a man in the bar/restaurant of my hostel in Kyoto, I gather that fisherman and wharf workers are much the same here as in any other country; a pretty wild bunch. And a friend who has lived here for many years tells me that the people have a public persona and a private persona. I think this is universally true, but it seems to be more pronounced in Japan, and perhaps not unrelated, alcoholism is a significant problem.
There’s a great dichotomy in Japanese society. Despite the many rules that seem to keep everyone in line there still flourishes the most outrageous creativity. It seems to burst forth not despite the order in society but perhaps because of it. It is seen in the art of Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama; in the exotic creations of the generation of “Fruits” – teenagers who would hang around on weekends in the Harajuku area of Tokyo back in the 80’s and 90’s; and today in the Lolitas, and those that are into cosplay.
Yes, there is a lot of chrome and glass, modern technology and industrialisation, but there is great creativity and originality, and there are also rich traditions that live on and are deeply honoured to this day.
I was lucky enough to come across a traditional wedding party at the Ōkunitama Shrine in Fuchu City, in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
At the same shrine I attended the most extraordinary ancient festival – Kurayami Matsuri – held annually to provide new power to the gods, derived from an ancient ritual gathering of peasants and farmers. The Kurayami Festival is one of the most powerful local festivals I’ve attended and deserves it’s own post, but here are a couple of photos to get you curious.
I participated in another ritual, hundreds of years old, to bring good fortune to the area where my hostel is located in Tokyo.
I want to say that this is the Japan that excites me the most – these displays of iconic Japan pre-industrialisation, (the traditional dress and rituals) but I am equally excited by a society that produces such artists as Murakami and Kusama. Their work is so outrageous, and so Japanese.
In truth I’ve spent a total of two weeks here and know very little about the country’s history or culture. Woefully ignorant actually. So these are just my musings about what I’ve observed, and what I’ve been sensing as I experience Japan for the first time.
Travelling solo so far has been completely doable. The best thing I did was to have a guide for my first day in Tokyo to help me understand the metro and train system. With Osamu’s kind and thorough instruction I’ve been able to figure out how to get everywhere I’ve wanted to go. When needed I’ve always been able to find a local person with enough English, or a fellow tourist, to help me. The best word I’ve learned in Japanese is sumimasen. It means excuse me and can be used as an introduction to just about any conversation. So all my fears about the simple logistics of travel were unfounded. On the other hand I miss Don very much. I don’t really like travelling alone, but I’m getting used to it.
The eight days I spent in Tokyo were in turn exciting, exhausting, frustrating, intense, and occasionally peaceful. The crowds were legendary! There will be several posts to come about my time there. For the past two days I’ve been in rural Japan visiting a couple of UNESCO World Heritage villages, doing a little hiking, and soaking up the quiet of the countryside and the spring flowers. It has been a welcome respite after the frenzy of the city. More posts to come about that too. Japan is a revelation.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.