The last train to Asakusa

The last train to Asakusa

Falling in love with Japan is so easy.

Being there was so different from living in China. I’ve already written entries and entries about ways that China is often so hard to love – it’s in the obliviousness of people around me, the questionable rice triangle filling at FamilyMarts (I could have sworn the label said tuna, not baby paste), or the subway body-surfers. Even in Japan, the Chinese tourists stand out, like the gaggle of middle-aged women who used water from a sacred waterfall to fill their water bottles.

But Japan is different. I’ve been in Kyoto for a few days and I feel enraptured by smiling and bowing people around me. Kyoto is so wonderfully quiet. There are vending machines (selling warm drinks!) on every corner, and a certain regard for strangers (a polite, distant regard, because we are, after all, in Japan) that is missing in the Mainland.

We’ve spent our days going to see temples and bamboo forests (with a 160m straight hike up to see some baby monkeys!), trying to navigate the narrow streets, and being surrounded by girls dressed in yukatas, and sliding wooden doors. We’ve also been sleeping/eating/having dessert/generally spending a lot of time on the floor. I’ve been able to gather that Japanese people love the floor, and that tatami mats are not the most comfortable thing to sleep on.

One thing that I’ve absolutely loved about being in Kyoto is this sense of ritual – there’s a small thing you do before entering a temple that involves cleansing yourself in front of the sacred space. You take a wooden ladle from a stream and use your right hand to wash your left, then wash your right hand with your left, rinse your mouth, and then the ladle itself. Logistically, it doesn’t make much of a difference (I mean, we’re not really sure how clean the spring water is), but we’ve tried to do it each time we’ve entered anywhere sacred, partially out of respect and partially because, well, it keeps your hands clean. Kyoto is full of these little rituals. You’re constantly bowing (but then again we’re already doing that just by being in Japan). There are bells to ring, prayer jars to shake, large stones to mentally weigh and pick up, fountain water to spray on your cheeks, god and goddess heads to rub, and rocks to walk to blind-folded. Deep down, I don’t think I actually believe in any of that stuff, but I love doing these little things because it makes the space around you feel a little more holy, and a little more beautiful. And all of Japan is filled with these little rituals, so eventually you start thinking everything is sacred. And something about that is just so extraordinary.

Spin around three times, bow twice, and make a wish
Spin around three times, bow twice, and make a wish
Our first night, we slipped into a tiny bar where two salarymen were drinking standing up at a night bar (like the sign outside suggested). We bought sake (which the owner tried to serve to us in Japanese pint glasses) and a few beers (also in pint glasses), and the men at the bar bought us local Kyoto specialties: tamago marinated in bonito broth and fresh scallions, spicy tamago with fish roe, and japanese pickled umeboshi plums which were so sour and salty I could feel my cholesterol levels cry out the second I put it in my mouth. We looked like dunces trying to thank them in broken Japanese and toasting them as a sign of respect, but I think it was okay. It was a ritual in its own way.
Well, at least they're upfront about it
Well, at least they’re upfront about it

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