In Praise of Tradition: The Ancient Customs of Kyoto

Compared to our bumpy arrival into China, getting settled in Kyoto was a piece of cake. We got checked in, rented bicycles, and set off on the first of many culinary adventures.
01_bikes

The bike-shop employee had recommended a place just up the street, and only after sitting down we realized we were at the Japanese equivalent of TGI Fridays.
02_mcdonalds

The food, ordered by iPad, was actually quite good overall. If this was Japanese fast food, we were even more excited to try the real thing!

As we continued on our mission to find a SIM card, we discovered that while biking culture is well-established in Kyoto, the bicycle infrastructure is not so great — there’s very little bike parking, parking violations are strictly enforced, and commonly bikes share the narrow sidewalks with pedestrians (neither of whom follow the rules).

Moving slower wasn’t so bad, since it gave us a better opportunity to observe the local environment and culture. The streets were impeccably clean. A few times, we saw businesspeople repeatedly bowing at departing colleagues until they were 5+ blocks away. And, there were lots of women walking around in full kimono (many of them presumably geishas or trainees called maikos).
img_20160707_153051

There were vending machines everywhere, selling everything from drinks to electronics — Japan has more vending machines per capita than any other country in the world.
10_vending_machines

This technophilia combines with the cultural norms of propriety, orderliness, and formality (see the welcome package at one of our Airbnbs)
IMG_20160710_181159-Rules

and results in many interesting examples of ‘Japan-ness’, like this Washlet, which comes with various cleansing water jets and a speaker to drown out any unseemly noises:
11_toilets

this locking umbrella stand:
03_umbrella

and somewhat surprisingly, a penchant for gambling on pachinko (we played but had no idea what we were doing).
12_lesser_known_pachinko

Throughout our stay in Kyoto, we gorged ourselves on fantastic Japanese food: from sushi,
IMG_20160710_103822-SushiSelfie

to a variety of ramen soups,
20_ramen

to gyoza so good we went twice,
21_gyoza_so_good_twice

to a Murasawa Sirloin Steak that tasted like a cross between a normal steak and a stick of butter (in a good way!).
22_wyagu_beef

As we paid the bill at the steak place, we spotted a map on the wall to a nearby snow monkey sanctuary, which was just up the hill to the west of the city.
25_monkey_closeup

Snow monkeys (or Japanese macaques) are the only monkey species native to Japan, and they’re well-known for swimming in hot springs during the cold winters. We got to feed them through a fence, and watched these adorable babies play-fighting until Jason had to drag Sarah away.
26_monkey_babies

One day, we got up early to attend a Zen meditation class held in a large temple complex.
IMG_20160707_101354-JasonMeditation

The class turned out to be awesome — in addition to leading us in meditations, the monk talked for a long time about mindfulness, Buddhism, and life. He was extremely eloquent and pragmatic, and surprised us with his cutting-edge knowledge of the neuroscience of meditation.
img_20160707_102627

Another day, we booked a traditional tea ceremony. Our host Masumi was dressed in traditional garb, and showed us the elaborate and stylized almost-dance for preparing and consuming the tea.
32_tea

The matcha tea was quite good,
33_tea_whisk

although we can’t say we were able to serve or consume it with the same effortless grace as our host.
34_holding_tea_wrong

(One of us is holding the teacup the wrong way — oops!)

The off-the-beaten-path website Atlas Obscura brought us by this unassuming mound at the end of an ordinary-looking city block.
60_ear_mountain

Under the grass and dirt lies a macabre secret: the ears and noses of tens of thousands of Korean soldiers killed by the Japanese military when Japan invaded Korea in the 1500s.

On a more positive note, we couldn’t leave Kyoto without visiting some of its famed temples, including the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji):
70_golden_temple

and the 13-centuries-old Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.
IMG_8425-InariEmpty2

Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of foxes, fertility, and agriculture.
IMG_8375-InariFox

The complex was gigantic, with thousands of Torii (orange gates that symbolize the transition between the sacred and the secular) winding up the hill, connecting dozens of shrine complexes topped with even more miniature Torii.
76_inari_small_ones

On our way out of Kyoto, we stopped at the nearby city of Nagoya (the home of Toyota and fourth-largest city in Japan). Our main reason for visiting was to catch the second day of the yearly Nagoya Sumo wrestling tournament. Here at the entrance to the tournament, hordes of attendees lined a red carpet walkway to ogle the celebrity-status wrestlers.
80_enter_sumo

Before the matches, the wrestlers all participated in an elaborate ceremony.
IMG_8448-AllSumos

Then, the matches began. Each match is more ritual than fighting: it begins with theatrical posturing,
81_sumo_dance

throwing salt into the ring, and often a series of psych-outs as the wrestlers try to delay the start of the wrestling to unnerve their opponents.
83_sumo_ready_sike

Finally, within seconds of them both placing their fists on the ground to start the match, it’s usually over — when either steps out of the ring or touches the ground with his body.

This match was on the longer side.

It was fascinating to watch, and while we didn’t really understand the strategy, we did find some very interesting facts online to help understand the gravity of the rituals. For example, sumo referees “carry knives on them as a symbol of their intent to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in the instance of a mistake.”

Jason even tried the sumo food (a stew called chankonabe), which they eat in large quantities to maintain their tremendous bodyweight — at least in recent decades. In the past, Sumo wrestlers were more trim and muscular.
85_sumo_food

Outside of Sumo, we found the people in Nagoya to be very friendly. At two different restaurants, Sarah left an old receipt on the table and the servers came running down the street after us to bring her (trash) receipt back. And while waiting for takeout one night, this Japanese man bought us beer and shared details about his life as a COBOL programmer.
90_cobol_guy

We said goodbye to the COBOL guy so we could pack for our next day’s trip to the Japanese Alps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *