Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sayonara Season

Today's the last day I'll be guaranteed internet access. Tomorrow, on the 20th, they throw the switch and plunge me back into the dark ages, where I'll wallow for a week before I return to the States. I'll make an effort to get to the internet cafe and check my mail every so often, but I'll be severely limited in my ability to write back. Last time I was in a netcafe, they had blocked Gmail entirely.

Last weekend was the Gion Matsuri, the biggest festival in the year in Kyoto. It was a big, three-day party that culminated in a parade Monday morning- which, despite torrential rain, was a heck of a thing to see. Ancient four-story tall floats ridden by flute-and-drum bands dragged by strangely cheery strongmen, maiko and geisha every three feet, music and rain and chaos... it was pretty cool. For fear of destroying my camera, I took no pictures, but a friend who was more intrepid than I managed to snag a few, and I'll put them up as soon as she sends them to me.

School is winding down. Tomorrow is closing ceremonies, where I am expected to make a speech. Today is just sad- everything is "Andrew-sensei's last whatever it is", from my last time teaching a 1st-grade class to "Well, last time you'll climb these stairs, isn't it?" The teachers and students seem to be bound and determined to make this as painful and saccharine as possible. Had a kid ask me yesterday how to say "zettai muri" in English- "Completely Impossible"- just so he could tell me, in my own language, that he wouldn't let me go home. "Andoryu-sensei home go completely impossible." I'm not sure how I'm going to "go impossible", but it was cute at the time.

This may or may not be my last post from Japan- I'm sure I'll get at least one from the airport, and one or two from the hotel in South Korea (not, in retrospect, the wisest vacation plan, given current geopolitics, but whatcha gonna do?), but if I don't...

It's been a heck of a ride. Thanks for coming along.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Demon-Haunted Gate

Marge: Come on, Homer. Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.
Homer: That's not how I remember it!

The Simpsons, "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo"

It had to happen eventually. I've got a weakness for Japanese literature, film, and history- and as such anyplace that wraps the three up in one neat, tidy package is a can't-miss site. Even if it is just a post.

You could get the whole story of what the Rajomon is, and why it's important, from those three links above... but here's the short version.

The Rajomon was the old south gate of what used to be called "Heiankyo", the capital city of Japan that we call Kyoto now. It sat at the edge of the great wall that surrounded the city, and was flanked by two temples. One, I've been to before: Toji, the one with the big iconic pagoda. The other one, I'm not so sure exists anymore. The gate itself was a grand thing in the old days. Huge, golden-roofed, and awe-inspiring, it was the main entrance to the city for all travellers coming up from the temple city (and even older ex-capital), Nara. It was really only impressive in the "WOW THAT'S AWESOME" sense for a little while- it quickly became a place that you didn't want to be around at night. All the old folktales and warnings told to children populate the upper part of the gate with demons of all stripes, extending hooks down to snare the unwary. The short story says it was a body dump. This really doesn't make any sense unless you've seen a few big Japanese gates- they're really more like castle gates, with chambers above them. In temples, they usually house a small altar. In secular structures, they're places to post guards, fire arrows, dump oil and generally make things difficult for armies who want in.

This is really what the Rajomon OUGHT to look like,
up there in the distance past the "no vehicles" posts.
For reference, this is the main gate of Nanzenji, a big temple complex on the northeast side of Kyoto, at the beginning of the path yet further north (哲学の道, or the Philosopher's Walk) that leads to Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), the Silver Temple.

But the gate went bad- the reputation for demons, dead bodies, and strange disappearances aside, the city went and grew beyond the gate, and it was allowed to fall to ruin. There's nothing there now- just this post. So I got a map, and asked around, and found it. It's not too hard to find- it's on a corner between the old main street and one of the new main streets. Those of you planning a trip to Japan, it's a little behind the intersection of Senbon-doori and Kujo street.

It's a kid's park now. No demons, but there was this old lady walking her dog who thought I was a bit funny in the head to be hunting down a concrete post, but whatever. I hear there's a reconstruction of the North Gate, the Suzakumon, which might give me a better idea of what this thing looked like exactly... sans the see-saws.


From the Picture Collection: Let's Enjoy Sign Extravaganza!
Hint: "Men" means "Noodles". Like "raMEN". No, that doesn't really help, does it?

We offer intelligence, excitement and infinite dream.
Or coffee and stale toast.

Text at bottom: I work hard to make sweets up to the present, because I want to see many smiles. I wish my sweets will be the start of your smile.

I cannot make this stuff up.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Time to fess up

So, looks like it's come to be about that time. I've got three weeks left in Japan, every other day brings yet another person looking me gravely in the eyes and saying "Sayounara- if I don't see you ever again, have a good life", and I guess I have to admit both to myself and everyone out there in Blog Land that this story is pretty close to over.

I'll lose internet access on the 20th- so this is the beginning of my ten-day countdown.

Until then, here's what I've been up to recently:

I visited the Shrines at Ise two weeks ago, and I'm still waiting for my copy of the pictures. When I get them, I'll post them here, but until then:

Ise is The Main Shinto Shrine in Japan. It's composed of two shrines, really: the Outer Shrine, housing the goddess of food and industry, and the Inner Shrine, housing the Sun Goddess Herself. The site is so holy that to avoid impurity, they tear down and reconstruct from scratch all of the buildings every twenty years using only traditional no-nails interlocking beam-and-dowel construction, and the relics within are transferred to the brand-new buildings, at which point the old building is torn apart and the wood is given away to lesser shrines, so they can build their torii (shrine gates) out of the holy remains of the shrines.

You also can't actually SEE any of these shrines. They're surrounded by big, multilayered walls to keep the normal folks like you, me, and the general Japanese public far, far away from the holy items. The monks themselves haven't ever seen the holy relic that's enshrined in the Inner Shrine- the Holy Mirror of Amaterasu. They keep that one in a brocade bag, and when one bag starts to wear thin, they just wrap it up in another one. The guidebook snarkily mentions that these layers and layers of cloth wrapping "probably contain a sample of the best brocade work in Japan"- but we'll never, ever see it.

Even though I spent something like six hours on a train getting to and from a bunch of walled-up wooden buildings, the crowds of pilgrims, the cool minor shrines around the edges (hello, Wind God. How are you?) and the thought that the gods ACTUALLY PHYSICALLY LIVE in this place was well worth the whole deal. Very immediate faith, Shinto is... the Sun Goddess has a mailing address.

The next weekend (i.e. last weekend) I went the other direction entirely and saw a crazy-famous Buddhist temple in Uji- the Byodo-in. Byodo-in houses the "Phoenix Hall"- one of the most instantly recognizable temple buildings in Japan, as it's printed on the back of their 10-yen coin. Again, pictures are forthcoming, but in the meantime...

What struck me most about this temple was the fact that it, like almost all of the Buddhist temples in this country, was warm monochromatic brown wood. That's the color scheme, that's the way things go... but this one was old enough that it still showed faded paintings from back when Japanese Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism held the same design aesthetic. The whole place used to be filled with bright, crazy reds, greens, blues, and yellows, intricately painted statues of boddhisatvas, a golden Buddha sitting in the center of the hall... but now, it's just chips of paint embedded in the cedar, faded paintings on giant swinging panel doors, and a golden Buddha-Under-Reconstruction, with black lacquer showing through his layer of gold foil. The halo and pedestal of the big guy were still recieving their tender loving care, so they weren't up on display with the rest- and it gave the temple a very empty, austere, ghostlike feeling. There used to be colors, and music... now, there's just the one big bell, and faded paint exposed directly to the outdoors. The temple rests in the middle of a pond, built on a foundation of smooth stones- it looks like it could be floating- and the two phoenixes on the roof stare at each other quizzically, like they were wondering what the heck happened to the interior design team.

Don't get me wrong- it was beautiful- but it was beautiful in the same way a graveyard can be beautiful. Sad and sunbleached.

In desperate need of a pick-me-up, yesterday was an Osaka Extravanganza- science museum, National Gallery of Art, and some great Mexican food at one of the two Mexican restaurants in the entire Kansai region. As I understand it, there are two in Osaka, a few in Tokyo, and none anywhere else. When will the Japanese nation recognize the simple beauty of a burrito served from a drive-through window?