Thursday, June 21, 2007


Earlier this year, in March, I traveled to Japan to see my brother. It was phenomenal!

Japan shares a likeness to the west, but is another world. It was my first non-western experience. I loved the architecture, the mix of the old and new, and so much more. Japan has such a distinct smell, a sweet smell. On my first night my brother Alan took me to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto -- a perfect way to begin the trip, as so much in Japan is tied to or somehow related to the tea ceremony and its environs and practices. The tea was a rich, bright green; thick in flavor, consistency, and hue.

Before I left, I had read that the tatami mat has played an important role in shaping the scale of Japanese architecture. Turns out that it's true: the room where we had tea ceremony, for example, was totally scaled to the tatami mat! The floor had eight tatami mats creating a square, and each of the walls was scaled to four tatami mats standing upright in width and one and a third tatami mats in height. What amazed me further was that the subdivided detailing on the walls -- the wooden framing and bars on the screens and the space between them -- was also broken down in smaller scale based on the mat's original size. Japan is a lesson in scale.

My brother lives in Hirakata, which is right between Osaka and Kyoto. Hirakata, a city of 400,000, is considered countryside but by my American eyes looked like a city. I was struck by the many farms and garden-plots located throughout the residential neighborhoods of Hirakata. Such an arrangement would make a pretty good planning model: designing neighborhoods with small garden and farmland plots every five or so blocks. And then, why not have the homeowners, upon purchasing or renting a neighborhood property, also automatically purchase or rent a parcel of the garden and farmland, and even place this in homeownership contracts?

I learned that most of the homes in the new developments are also purchased prior to their completion; the result is neighborhoods of people who know each other even before they move in. Extended families all move in near each other, and people buy into a community. My brother said many of the elderly tend the gardens -- where they grow the ubiquitous but varied "mountain vegetables" among other things. The grandfather of the family whom my brother lives with (who lives just a block away) grew many of the vegetables we ate for dinner.

My brother and I were in Kyoto for a few nights, then took the shinkansen bullet train to Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture), then went by bus through the Japanese Alps (a snowy fantasy landscape more beautiful than a dream can render) to the small mountain town of Takyama (where we slept at a Buddhist temple youth hostel and ate at a 200 year old restaurant with amazing food, among other things), then took trains to Toyota to visit my brother's friend who is a Mormon missionary (and made friends with other missionaries from Brazil and Hawaii; one of the Brazilians grew up in a squatter city and we had very interesting conversations), and then traveled back to Hirakata, and took day trips to Osaka and Kobe -- each extremely fascinating -- and spent the last night in Kyoto.

We stayed at Ryokans in Kyoto and explored various parts of the city. The new downtown and entertainment district, Gion (the old entertainment district) and Kiyomizudera (absolutely fantastic temple complex!) at night, and Arashiyama, a beautiful part of north-western Kyoto with a river and hills of maple and cherry blossom trees, and a bamboo forest adjacent to cemeteries that we wandered through. When we were in Gion on my second night, there was a pre- Sakura (cherry blossom) festival where the entire old town was lit up -- stunning old alleyways, pagoda temples with many roofs, many people, beautiful arrangements of flowers -- animated existence. We also saw various other temples, jinjas, and gardens in the city that we discovered and stumbled upon. During the pre- Sakura festival with Gion lit up, we wandered through alleyways where many people, mostly men, had set up their cameras on tripods and stood photographing the alleyway from one angle over and over again. We also stumbled across a "noh" play being performed during the festival. As my brother described, a "noh" play recants over about five hours an experience that took about five minutes.

In Osaka there are covered streets full of shops and restaurants. (Such streets are also in Kyoto but not as large, and they are apparently even larger in Tokyo). These malls, or rather, gargantuan arcades, made me think of Italian arcades, yet they are an entirely distinct form and function under their own rules. Extending for miles, to look into one of these streets flooded with thousands of people, stores, lights, sounds, colors, smells, is to peer into the depth of a perspectival vanishing point. We wandered around the "namba walk" area (which is an enormous underground mall) and outside on many streets packed with a bewildering array of high-rises, neon signs, electronics shops, and girls and boys with eccentric fashion tastes.

Alan I went to Kobe with a couple of his American friends (one who was travelling with us from that point on) and two gorgeous and really friendly Japanese girls. I could sense the western planning, post-earthquake influence: the downtown area by the waterfront felt like San Francisco in scale and street-to-building proportions. As monumental reminder, there's a chunk of earthquake-destroyed harbor still resting by the water nearby the "Harborland" development; it really hits home the intensity of the quake: horribly huge and disastrous. Post-disaster reconstruction strategy was also evident, it appeared, in commercial development. I suspect it was used as a mechanism to pay for reconstruction: Harborland is a fascinating complex of very large malls and hotels, connected by walkways that span over streets, many fancy stores, and even an ironic protestant church (with tennis courts next to it) placed in between it all. The same night we were in Kobe we trekked into Osaka for Kareoke and caught a very packed, very last train on our way back to Hirakata.

Food definitely had an impact on my experience in Japan -- a story in itself. There are so many kinds. I tried "nato" over breakfast in Matsumoto while the family of my brothers' friend looked on. Nato is fermenting soybeans. Can't say I enjoyed nato, but glad I tried it. Matsumoto is amazing by the way, with mountains that fill half the sky and sit on either side of a long valley. My brother and I also were taken to a wasabi farm in Matsumoto -- Shinsyu azumino daio wasabi farm -- gorgeous, a blue-sky day, light twinkling on the surface of water streaming through rows of green wasabi roots planted in grey gravel, set within what was like a river -- it was like something out of an anime! We tried wasabi ice-cream and wasabi juice! Matsumoto also has an amazing 400 year old, original castle that's spectacular in beauty and might.

While we were in Takayama, we ate breakfast at a little Japanese restaurant recommended to us by the Buddhist monk who ran the youth hostel. Traditional breakfasts are usually composed of a little egg (a block of scrambled-egg-like substance called Tamago), a little fish, mountain vegetables, pickled vegetables, a bowl of rice, miso soup, and green tea. When my brother gave our order, the middle-aged stout woman at the restaurant smiled and asked us if we wanted to have raw egg over our rice -- this was translated by my brother. (my brother did all the translating!) I said no way, I did not want raw egg! But my brother decided he wanted it. Alan ate raw egg over raw beef once before about a year ago, so he figured he could do it again... well... so, Alan is eating the raw egg poured over his rice, and he cringes and I ask him, how it was. "Horrible," he replied but he continued to eat the whole bowl of rice.

After seeing some amazing traditional Japanese architecture later that day, we were about to miss our train to Nagoya (to head to Toyota) because we had spent so much time exploring the architecture. Alan ran to the train station while I simply walked fast. When we arrived at the station we had missed the train and Alan was complaining of aches all of his body and a sense of dizzyness.

In Toyota we stayed with an English student of Alan's friend who is a Mormon missionary (they teach English). Over an amazing dinner prepared for us and the Mormons, Alan let's us know that he thinks he's going to pass-out and heads to the bathroom. To make a long-story short, he's in terrible shape, and once we finally get back to Hirakata a day and a half later, we go to the hospital (another story) and Alan learns that he has contracted an intestinal virus! He gets medicine and isn't supposed to eat anything other than rice (and Sake), and that day we also head out for a day trip to Kobe.

I should note that I might have picked something up from him, or something else, because from the point on after Alan got sick, I ate almost nothing. I lost my appetite completely. This had some consequences... more stories... it was really something and strange. I'd never lost my appetite like that before. By the way, the next morning after Alan became sick, we met up with the Mormons at the train station and went with them to get lunch... at a donut shop called Mr. Donut. Not only was I not hungry but the donuts really turned me off... and I couldn't muster the appetite... there were a lot of wild donut flavors, such as curry-filled donuts!

And there was also the gates of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, which pose the fundamental questions of existence: What is space? What is time? What is the purpose of life? A gate means a change in space, it is a threshold and a boundary. What is inside/outside? What is before/after? In Shinto, a sacred space could be on either side of the gate. The gates, when lined up in repetition, one after the other, create a path.

One comes to ask, what is this path? As each gate is paid for by different companies (their names engraved on the pillars in Japanese), a great irony emerges in light of the religious context: it appears as if the religion wants you to think there is only one path, as this is so with the gates. And as long as people keep sponsoring and paying for the gates, there will be one path for us to walk within!

My brother and I walked within the gates' path for quite some time, halfway up the mountain. Light slid in-between the pillars of the gated passage. Looking out from within the passage, there is a forested landscape, visible but inacessible. What is outside the gates' path? What is the space beyond? Visible but unknown, real but untouchable, assumed but unclear. Each gate alone is one moment. Each gate is one frame. Each gate frames the moment. Time does not exist from within a single gate. A path gains the element of time. The procession of gates transforms the space of the gates into a path. When the procession of gates is long enough to arouse time in space, then space flows, and is animated, into the path. The path -- articulated at Fushimi Inari -- is a manifestation of time itself rendered in space.

I love the main train station in Kyoto -- Kyoto station is a brilliant design with a soaring atrium at its heart, pulsating with the rhythms of people pattering across many patterns of paths from trains to shops within the station, a giant mall, up and down escalators, stairs and walkways, and out into the street. One of the most beautiful things about the atrium is that you can climb either side of it, sending your body into a fantastic state, one caught between a consciousness of being in physical reality and a perplexing sense of unreality -- a virtuality -- brought on be the sheer scale and animation of everything within!

I fell in love with the structure as it hurled me through architectural contortions in depth and density, form and reflections, light and color, and movement up into the heavens. On one side there's a very long staircase that climbs to the top of the grand building. Upon arriving at the zenith, one finds a "happy terrace" (a play on words because of the literal translation from Japanese) with magnificent views sending radiance throughout Kyoto, a city of age, power, transformation, and landscape. By the windows there are also plaques featuring architect Hiroshi Hara's statement for the building. At the top, one finds a reflection back upon the landscape in which we came.

There were many things that I couldn't have predicted, nor did I have expectations about. There is a huge abundance of traditional-style architectural elements applied to residential buildings -- this I did not anticipate and took me by surprise -- comparable to the dominance of ranch-style single-family homes in the USA.

Japan is animated, as in brought to life! So many things I truly loved, and a fair amount of things that repelled me. It is an absolutely amazing world. My brother's sensai says that Japan is the dumping ground of Asia for cultural influence -- new things, such as architecture, are brought there and integrated, absorbed, but they do not dissolve the traditions and that which is Japanese. The simultaneity of difference in the world -- across here and there -- is like the simultaneity of many places, of many people, and of night and day.

On my last night I watched a "shadow of light" cast itself on a wall within our room at the Kyoto ryokan we stayed in. A "light shadow" cast upon a canvas of darkness, the opposite of a shadow of darkness cast out of light during the day -- it was beautiful. I would like to return.

If it were not for being with my brother who is mostly fluent in Japanese, I'd have been completely lost. A great bonding experience between me and my brother. My brother went to great lengths to immerse me in the culture -- it was lifechanging!

(c) M. Waxman, May 2007

No comments: