Japan: Geishas and Samurais

Buildings from the next century, ultra-speed trains, thousands and thousands of people. Buddhist temples, chopsticks, and shoes outside palaces. Japan: between tradition and today.


ICHI: ancient legends


Kyoto. On an island, in the middle of a lagoon, rests the Golden Pavilion. The color of the building is so bright the sun is not needed. That’s because the two upper floors are covered in gold. In Okinawa there is a palace, old residence where ancient emperors used to live; the wood construction is so simple you tempt to forget the car parking outside the gardens.


Maybe there’s nothing left of that antique regime of respect, I told myself once I got to Tokyo. Nevertheless, I went down on the escalators on the wrong side, I blocked the line of people who were in a rush, but nobody told me anything. When I realized my mistake, I said I was sorry to the man standing behind me, and he said “thank you” back at me.


Behind the modern buildings, with colorful spotlights and giant signs of the multinational brands, on gardens away from the street noise, pagodas, palaces, and temples are hidden.       

NI: Local friends


I met Hiro in Paris. We had a friend in common and out of coincidence, we went together both to Paris and later to Japan. When we got to Tokyo, Hiro was waiting for us with his big, bright smile, and a bag full of Japanese candy.


He is an acupuncturist, and his girlfriend, Kana, is a painter. We were not expecting her, as we didn’t even know Hero had a girlfriend! But to see them together, standing at the terminal, I thought: cliches do work. He was the classic picture of a Japanese man, not too tall, not too short, sympathetic enough, and very neat. Kana, on her side, was the perfect stereotype, her body, as most Asian bodies, was slim and long, and that night she was wearing a white feather coat that made her appearance look like a sylph. Long hair and warm smile, her English was so much better than my Japanese.


We made it to Shibuya station and Hiro told me: don’t get lost. So many people, it was hard to keep track. The only thing I could think of was: if I do get lost, all I would be able to do is go to a corner and cry.


SAN: Different cultures


The first metro that we took to Shibuya station was a clash of cultures. Beyond the fact that I blocked the whole escalator line (and if there would be a voice saying: “keep to the right”, I wouldn’t have understood it). The first clash came when I saw a woman leaving her purse on the grid above her seat. She didn’t even glance once to check on that purse.


Culture clash when walking through the first metro barrier, well, there was no barrier. “I can’t believe the goodwill of these people!”, was my first comment, but Kana turned to me and asked me to walk by the barrier without sliding the card. Then the barrier came out blocking my way. We do trust you, says the Japanese metro system, until you let us down.


And let’s not even begin to talk about that couple we randomly met on the street. We were looking for a nice, local restaurant, and asked them if they knew some. They were both holding McDonald's takeaway bags, and even though they were heading in the opposite direction, they turned around and walked with us for a little over two blocks to take us to where we wanted to go.


SHI: Scramble Kousaten


Shibuya has a starless sky. The night is brighter than the day. The buildings (one taller than the next) have dozens of billboards with business and brand names, all of them with pictures and color lights.


Outside the metro station, there’s a crossroad: the most impressive proof that this is a country that can’t be classified. One of the factors that indicate if a country belongs to the first, second or third world, is the traffic. For example, in Southeast Asia nobody respects the street lights, so when if you want to cross the street, you need to follow the instructions given by the locals: do not run, do not stop, do not walk back, just walk across the street calmly, while a million scooters pass around you.


The streets outside Shibuya have a very strange sense of direction: they seem to go both ways, but then they don’t, and to make it even more confusing, one of the streets goes to what it seems to be the wrong side. Then, there’s the crosswalk: this joins all four corners, and also the diagonals. Once the street lights turn green, thousands of people walk through this crosswalk. I went up to the top of the metro station to see the action of the people-crossing from atop, and it looked as if they were frightened ants, moving in a very organized way.


When it was my turn to cross those roads, I hold the jacket of my friend, and I let him be my guide.


Right outside that station, there is a statue of a dog, Hachiko. A faithful dog who lived nine years outside the station waiting for his owner to come back; that owner, who was a university professor, had died at one of his classes.



GO: Bad behavior


In Yokohama, we detour two Japanese’s with the question: where can we find good Japanese food? The couple walked two blocks with us take us to a good local restaurant.

Once I walked in I found myself under the observant eyes of all the locals, who wouldn’t stop watching at the only two Caucasian, especially when trying to order our food and, of course, when trying to eat with chopsticks.


Of course, we had to order according to the pictures on the menu, because all I could say in Japanese was “One, two, three, Photo!”, and the waiters were almost at zero with English.


I soon discovered that western table behavior was useful only for the west. Instead, I was allowed to shrug forward, take the bowl to my mouth, and slurp the soup in a way that would make my grandmother shrink. “We need to be careful when we go to Europe”, Hiro told me, “because everybody watches when we make noises with the soup”.


On my bowl, I had broth, pasta and two squares of something. I could tell it wasn’t fish, or chicken, or cheese. It didn’t taste like anything I knew, and it was worse than a bubble gum to chew. If I thought that was strange, I wasn’t ready for dessert. What we thought was ice cream according to the photograph, it actually was some kind of sweet dough.  


In Asakusa, one of the temples we visited later, Hiro and Kana took us to a street market. We stopped at a place where we bought typical Japanese candy. Among the snacks that were for sale, I saw the same white squares I found at my soup bowl, and on my dessert plate. What was it? Rise. It was all rise. With soya sauce, bean sauce, and sugar. A delicacy.

ROKU: The sheets of fortunes


According to the legend, two fishermen found a golden statue of the goddess Kannon (of mercy), and they returned it to the river. Several times. The statue, one time after the next, kept on returning to them. So, the fishermen took it to Asakusa and build a sanctuary. And right after that happened, the town started to become wealthier.


This temple built for the goddess is called Sensjo-ji and is the oldest of the whole city. It has overcome fire, earthquakes, and even the Second World War. The entrance is protected by two giant statues of fierce-looking man. They represent the god of thunder and the god of wind.


Once you walked through the gates, there’s a street market. As in most places I saw in Japan, people are everywhere, overcrowding each space. And, at the same time, I always had a sense of freedom (not in the metro stations, to be honest). So many people buying snacks, souvenirs, and walking all the way up to the temple… if when I got to Shibuya station I thought I would cry if I get lost, here my thoughts were to pray to Buddha.


That was a particularly cold day. I was wearing gloves made for photographers, so my fingers had no protection to the sub-zero degrees, and to make it even worse, the cold was so deep that my lens was a bit frozen, so the focus was working poorly. Halfway to the temple, it started snowing.


It took us some time to walk through the market, but we accomplished that hard mission. And so we found the temple. Built on the year 645, so impressive to the eye.


I was feeling curious about everything that was going on around me, while, at the same time, I didn’t want to disturb the devotees. So, I strategically stood next to one of the columns, staring at everybody, but trying to not be the annoying Caucasian tourist with a camera. I was captured by one of their rituals: people would through a coin, pull a cord to ring a bell, and finally put their hands together under their forehead. So many different people would do that, old man, little girls, grown women. “They ask for happiness, health, and money,'' Kana told me, “like in everywhere”.


They also have a way to guess their good fortune: a wooden cylinder with sticks inside. You remove one of the sticks, and it has a number. With that number, you go to a piece of furniture full of doors, each one of those doors with a number. So, you open the matching stick number to the door number, and you take your fortune sheet.


Kana explained to me those are like lottery numbers, but they can be either good or bad. As nobody wants to leave the temple with bad fortune, there is a counter spell:  in case you get the bad number, you need to make a knot with the paper on yet another piece of furniture, so the misfortune stays behind, and the person can go and get another stick from the wooden cylinder.