Sunday, December 28, 2008

Japan, Part 4: Wide-Eyed (and Blue-Haired) in Kyoto

This morning is Halloween, October 31, Japan time.

Crisp mountain air and hazy skies greet us as we arise. Buddhist mass begins bright and early at Shojoshin-in, and we attend the ceremony along with a small group of fellow gaijin.

The chapel/worship room (formal terminology escapes me) contrasts sharply with traditional Western worship halls: The compact space includes ceilings no higher than those in your average room in a typical private home. A single shade of deep flaming red lines the walls, and golden statues--Buddhist iconography, dragons, and other ornate statuary--occupy nearly every foot of floor space. The size and the striking two-toned hue of the room and its contents lend a surreal air to the space as the monks enter.

The two youngest of the monks sit opposite one another, chanting in a low, two-layered hum. The third, older but similarly shorn of hair and robed, sits further to the left and adds another layer to the lulling thrum of the prayers being chanted. Then an older woman attired in what looks like a grey business dress sits at the far right. She too begins chanting.

The pathway of sound they generate utterly hypnotizes: Repetitive, low, lulling, and oddly beautiful, their chants can't help but immerse an onlooker. My eyes involuntarily close--not from the boredom or drowsiness that frequently scuttled me during catholic masses as a kid, but from what's best described as a state of otherworldly zen. The rest of the world disappears in an infinity of beautifully thrumming Buddhist prayer and a blur of gold and red. Amazingly, none of the visitors break the spell by snapping photos or chattering during the service.

Before we realize it, an hour has gone by. Reluctantly, we leave this magical pocket universe for the central dining area, where we're treated to another phenomenal vegetarian meal.

After breakfast, Rita and I pack up our belongings and leave our bags in the checkout room as we take one final turn back through the Okunoin graveyards. This time we traverse much of the same area from the exterior of the park, walking just outside the graveyard's walls and fences until we cut back in about 2/3 of the way through. Much loveliness still greets us. Moths cling, nigh-invisible, to the stones that comprise the borders of the graveyard, and an exceptionally lanky spider dances across the rocks with deliberate and surprising grace. The dark body shored up by its long legs looks like a smooth and shiny polished black stone.

The shaded tranquility of the first two thirds of the Koyasan graveyards gives way to a more open and bright area of the park. A haiku shrine and several modern graves and memorials populate the park's extreme end. The trees and foliage display their most ravishing autumn colors, and brightly-colored gateways and structures accompany them. It's an appropriate coda to our exploration.

During the afternoon Rita and I make our way back to the hanare, passing through downtown Koyasan (its modest, tourist-friendly, picturesque layout feels a lot like the faux-Swiss-Alps ambience of Leavenworth, Washington) en route. Then we grab our bags, bid a most reluctant farewell to Shojoshin-in, and hop the bus back to the cablecar.

Our final destination for today will be a repeat, extended stop in Kyoto. Rita's booked a room in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese bed-and-breakfast) for three days, and we'll be touring several Buddhist temples throughout Kyoto proper. The superlative Japan Rail System whisks us from Koyasan to Osaka, then back to Kyoto. At Kyoto Station we hop a cab for our ryokan.

Our taxi traverses the streets and alleyways of downtown Kyoto, in a labyrinthian path to the ryokan. Soon we're taking nothing but alleys, and the stark atmosphere makes me feel like we're minor characters in a sixties-vintage yakuza flick.

The Oyado Ishicho ryokan sits inconspicuously in a clean but spare alley, hidden from the main drag just two blocks away. Right away, Rita's arrival is trumpeted with the fanfare of a foreign dignitary, as a huge personalized sign posted at the front glass door greets her.

A tiny Japanese woman--pepper dominating her short salt-and-pepper hair and sandalled and stocking'ed feet scurrying demurely under her kimono--rushes over to scoop up our luggage. Again, we've packed light, but our bags in toto must weigh at least half this woman's body weight. I reflexively reach down to try to wrest the heaviest pack from her, but this smiling warhorse of a lady will have none of it. She totes all three bags to the elevator unassisted, and leads us to our room.

A small, laminated booklet in English on ryokan etiquette in our small but comfortable room proves useful (even though we'd already done some homework back in the states). In addition to the required removal of shoes in the main portion of our lodgings, having our bedding (a futon) made nightly requires leaving your key at the front desk and specifying a specific time for bed-making. The booklet's humorous illustrations, replete with loutish westerners acting out the do's and don't's of things like public baths and when to tip (which is basically never) have Rita and I in stitches.

Once we settle in, Rita and I hit Kawaramachi-Dori (Kawaramachi Avenue), one of downtown Kyoto's main drags, on foot. The city proper displays the glorious schizophrenia inherent in many a Japanese metropolis--shiny modern shops and buildings co-exist amiably with rattletrap alleyways, down which everything from mom-and-pop restaurants to pachinko parlors to seedy nightclubs reside. Even the most ostensibly mundane sites--convenience stores, pharmacies--prove fascinating, thanks to the exotic filter of Japanese culture. The embryonic stages of a headcold have Rita a little logy, so we turn back around and head back into the ryokan.

My tired wife turns in for some shut-eye, and once she's settled and comfortable I head back out, solo. Both cameras stay back at the ryokan (a wise move in the long run--more on that later), so it's just me and my, um, photographic memory.

Music nerd that I am, I make my first stop at Jet-Set Records, a small vinyl purveyor on the fourth floor of an office building. It's a tiny but impeccably-stocked and cool little store. The bare white walls and shelves brim with vintage jazz, reggae, and disco records, and Cannonball Adderly blows fluidly in the background. Two guys--one a DJ type sporting a wool cap, the other an obvious jazzbo with a perfectly-tousled mop of black hair--man the counter and graciously help me search their shelves and database for choice Japanese rock. Most of their vintage vinyl is way out of my price range ($26 to $30 US), but I score a CD by Japanese pop/noise duet Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her for a cool 790 Yen (a little over $7 US).

Back along the main drag, several Halloween revellers weave amongst the locals, partying tourists, and commuters along Kawaramachi-Dori. Halloween has yet to be the cultural event in Japan that it is in the West, but I see quite a few teens in masks, and one or two in costume. All of these youths are blindingly beautiful (if Rita were here, we'd be playing 'J-Pop' until our arms bled), and so stylish that they look like they've stepped straight out of a manga. Willowy girls with slashes of red/brown hair and omnipresent wool caps, and their chiselled and immaculately-coiffed beaus, stroll the sidewalks like they've got personal stock in the asphalt. A point pondered: Do all Japanese emerge from childhood straight into fully-formed and gorgeous adulthood, without a single pubescent speedbump? Some of them stare at me like onlookers peering at a strange animal in a zoo. I chock up their gawking to my hirsute caucasian appearance and walk on.

The roar of several motorcycles emerges just behind me as I cross the intersection of Kawaramachi-Dori and Aneyakoji-Dori. I look up just in time to see eight hogs, each done up as some Japanese pop-culture/anime icon. The sinewy rider at the front sports an absurdly-festive helmet topped with a Doraemon cap, as he straddles his blue-and-white-striped cycle; a real-life Kamen Rider follows, insect-headed and riding a green-and-black bike; yet another wears the silver-and-red fighting colors of Ultraman, with a tricked-out bike to match; and so on. After drinking the surrealism of the scene in fully, I glance around to gauge reactions from the rest of the people on the street--they're all totally nonplussed.

It's around 9pm as I reach my personal Kawaramachi-Dori holy grail--the Kyoto Tower Records. Since Tower's dissolution, it's been re-christened Noise, but most of Tower's yellow-and-red signage stays in place. It's on the eighth floor of yet another tall office building, and I wind my way off the sidewalk and through its glass doors. The swarms of people on the pavement shrink as the glass elevator whisks me upward. Just as I exit the lift and reach the front door of the store, a smiling sylph of a counter-girl runs to me and blurts out, "Sorry! Closed! Come back tomorrow." She's as smilingly stubborn as our baggage carrier from earlier, so I turn and leave dejectedly.

Near the store entrance sits a pile of free in-store magazines. At least I won't leave empty-handed, I think as I sulkily pull one from the top of the heap. It takes me several seconds to realize that my right hand is completely covered in blue, apparently the byproduct of some wiseacre's crafty placement of some ink or dye amongst the periodical pile.

Suddenly I remember a large video arcade across the street that clattered and blipped its presence earlier. It's one of the few places open after 9 on Kawaramachi-Dori, and--thank God--it's got a public restroom. I run into the men's room and stake out space in front of the sink, scrubbing feverishly at my blue mitt like Macbeth gone Nerd.

At one point I reach into my jeans pocket, and pull my exploded blue pen...from within. Also wedged in said pocket: My comb--the comb I'd used in my hair earlier--and a couple-dozen Japanese coins--now also a sticky blue--of various denominations. I look up in horror at the bathroom mirror and note the sizeable blue streaks in my hair that charmingly match my cobalt-saturated right palm. No wonder I garnered so many stares from the locals--shambling, blue-haired, unshaven caucasians in ink-spattered hoodies don't exactly run a dime-a-dozen in Kyoto.

There's too much clean-up required for me to stick around in this public place scrubbing like a lunatic, so I exit the arcade and begin heading back to the ryokan. En route, thirst overcomes me and I duck into a 7-Eleven for a cold bottle of green tea. The counter-person's love of American tourists is surely cemented as I hand him a two sticky blue 100-yen coins to pay for the beverage.

My first night in Kyoto winds down with me hunched over the bathroom sink, scrubbing gobs of blue ink out of my hair, off of the two-or-three-dozen Japanese coins in my pocket, off of my right hand, and out of my jeans pocket. Midway through my Macbeth routine Rita awakens and chortles sympathetically at the spectacle of me in my underwear massaging blue coins in our ryokan sink at midnight.

Fortunately, she takes no pictures with which to blackmail my doofy blue tourist ass.

(The Kyoto at dusk photo can be found in this excellent Flickr photo book; the Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her CD cover and Doraemon pics are copyright their respective sources. All other photos by Rita Bellanca and Tony Kay, taken October 31, 2008.)

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