Ghosts of Kyoto

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This past weekend we traveled down to Kyoto.  It is an absolutely ancient place, with human civilization having been established there as far back as 10,000BC.  The prosperous city that we see today is the modern-day version of Heian-Kyo (peace and tranquility capital), seat of the Imperial Court in 794.  It is absolutely full to the brim with culture–tourists are numerous.  Kyoto is magnificent because one can truly see so many different cultural aspects converging; the city itself was built as a scale replica of the Tang Dynasty’s capital, Chang’an.  I will do more features in this blog on Japanese history and the significance of the Chinese and Japanese relationship over time, but for now, just a brushing on Kyoto.  It is very Nihon-rashii (Japanese-like), and another interesting thing is that the people in the region speak Kansai-ben.   I recognized it instantly as I heard a few older gentlemen conversing in the train station.

What in the world is Kansan-ben? you might ask.  In Japanese, many different dialects are used; with the exception of the extreme north (Aomori, Akita) and Okinawa, most dialects do not largely differ.  The standard on television and the news, of course, is the Tokyo dialect, “Tadashii Nihongo.”  Kansai-ben changes some words and emotion-enhancers, and is super noticeable to Japanese people (and for some reason, really entertaining to them).  So Here is an example of standard vs. Kansai dialect:

Standard: “Hontou ni?” (Really?)

Kansai: “Honma ni?” (Really?)

Standard: “Kyo, hontou ni samui da ne.” (Today is really cold, isn’t it?)

Kansai: “Kyo, honma samui ya ne.” (Same meaning as above)

I don’t know why, but this sounds really funny to Japanese people.  Most big comedians are from the Kansai region.

Friday evening we tooled around Gion and were able to spy a few Geisha running here and there to appointments; sadly, as I frantically tried to snap photos with my camera, I didn’t realize I had turned it off and somehow couldn’t manage to turn it on.  My friend was able to steal a lovely photo; I’m honestly surprised we saw so many (2 or 3), considering there aren’t many left.

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We sung karaoke, walked around, visited a temple in the snow (too dark for good photos), and ate at a delicious ramen spot called Ippudo.  

The next day we headed out early so we could get in as many sights as possible, starting with the famed Fushimi-Inari shrine.  

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The shrine is dedicated to the deity, Inari, who is sometimes male, sometimes female.  Merchants pray to Inari for wealth; hence the famous “thousand torii gates” (they are dedicated by businesses and merchants).

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After we left the Shrine, we made our way toward Ryoanji Temple.  Ryoanji is known for its zen rock garden, which may imply a deeper meaning behind the arrangement of the garden.  You can read more about it–> here.

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Finally, after Ryoanji, we headed up to the Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion complex.

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Kinkaku-ji originally served as a villa for a wealthy statesman, and eventually was purchased by the Ashikaga Shogunate and transformed into the complex.  It has a somewhat odd history; in the 1950s a mentally unstable novice monk burned down the pavillon and unsuccessfully attempted suicide.  The structure that stands today is from 1955 (the original was not actually gold).  The gold was added to the current temple as a physical symbol of purification from any negative thoughts toward death.

Visiting Kyoto felt like going through an old photo album; I was there in 2005 with my classmates from Johoku High School on our class trip.  At first it seemed like an unfamiliar place, and then slowly, as I went to these same places–through the streets of Gion, in front of a school for young Geisha, walking on the cool wooden floors of the Ryoanji Temple, standing before Kinkaku-ji with the sunlight illuminating its golden walls, the memories came flooding back and it was familiar once more.  There is an imprint with everything we do; these ghosts that roam the streets remind us of who we once were and how far we have come.

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The Things that Happen In-Between

Today I met with a friend of mine who I haven’t seen in 7 years.  Back in 2005, I was an exchange student in Shizuoka, Japan through the American Field Service.  I was a high school senior, and having won a 6 week study abroad to Japan the previous summer, my parents decided it was a good investment to send me for a gap year.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life yet (what to study, where to go to university, etc), so a gap year seemed appropriate.  I would have to say that both my stays in Atsugi and Shizuoka were major milestones in my life.  I know a gap year is common in Europe, but it really isn’t in the States.  I think it gives young people a chance to really grow (living in a completely different culture doesn’t necessarily come easy) and to figure out what the next major decision might be.

I went to Shizuoka Johoku High School, which was originally a “Joshiko” or “All girls school.”  When I was an exchange student there they were transitioning to co-ed, which was most likely due to a decline in popularity of same-sex schools.  At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about attending a same-sex school, but as time went on I realized it was actually a really good thing (and it makes a lot of sense in Japan, where young men and young women rarely even eat lunch together in the same group; it’s much more gender-segregated here).  I have spent time in two universities; one all-female, the other predominantly male.  While my second university was larger, more prestigious, and landed me my current job, my first year at the all-female university had its own positives.  Women feel more comfortable engaging in dialogue with teachers and asking questions in all or predominantly female classes.  

Columbia University points out some key issues in co-ed classes–> HERE.

Anyway, my friend S and I talked about our lives, where we’ve gone and what has happened to us in the years that have passed.  It’s funny, I don’t feel like we’ve aged, except now our hair and clothes are styled much, much better and we’ve outgrown that certain teenage-awkwardness.  We both discussed careers, relationships, family, travel, mutual friends.  It was wonderful and I go back and think how lucky I was to have been able to study abroad and to have made friends with people who I can still talk to today from that experience.  When all comfortable barriers are taken away and suddenly you find yourself at a loss both linguistically and culturally, I think you are presented with the opportunity to truly see yourself–and to have others see you–without the rose-colored glasses of your own culture.

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Shizuoka, 2005.

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With S, 2013

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Chinoiserie

I have had a long-term love affair with Chinoiserie.  For those who are unfamiliar with this design style, it became popular in Europe mid-18th century.  The Asian design influences were incorporated into some other European styles and Chinoiserie was born.  I think of it as the European artist’s dream vision of Asian designs, and the European fascination with the “Oriental.”

Vivid colors paired with golds, asian florals, birds, and “Oriental landscapes,” fill designs on wallpapers, screens, furniture, porcelain, and lacquered items.

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One of the most exclusive wallpaper companies that specializes in Chinoiserie designs is de Gournay.  Top notch, hand painted panels are this company’s specialty; but be warned, each panel has a considerable cost.  I suppose I’m going to have to start saving up now!