It seems that people have an idea of what Japan is. Maybe it s due to their place in America's memory/idea of what Asia is. Perhaps it is the obsession we've harbored with Japan for 60+ years. That being said I present to you my descent into the postcard ideal of Japan.
Riding the subway in Osaka I found myself gazing out the window while we were above ground. It was here that my first glimpses of Japan would be had, and I must admit, I was anxious to see if several of the preconceived notions I had about Japan were true. At first glance I was not let down. We were traveling through the suburbs and the streets were clean and the buildings were somewhat haphazardly built upon each other. It looked as if the city had been designed in the 60's and was cutting edge in the 80's. Further up the line we descended under ground and proceeded to make our way to the train station for our ride up to Kyoto. Having spent 4 years in Korea it was hard not to constantly compare the two countries. Japan was cleaner, it was quieter, and it seemed to run more efficiently. That being said it was also a bit more confusing because the public transit is run by several different companies and has not been consolidated. In Seoul different companies own the subways lines but they are all linked through the same system and one ticket works for all the lines. The cost of getting around Japan was also a bit probative. Going on stop on the subway cost 120 yen which costs about $1.50. To go from Osaka to Kyoto (a 45 minute drive roughly) cost $15 dollars on the Shinkansen (bullet train/15 minutes). Yes we could have taken a cheaper option but when in Rome.
Still, upon arrival in Kyoto I felt like I was fulfilling some ancient calling or lifetime goal. Maybe it's because I had wanted to go there for as long as I could remember and had planned the trip three years ago. Either way I was gripped with anticipation and excitement. It's hard to explain. Kyoto was everything I thought it would be. It was ancient temple after ancient temple. There was the imperial palace, a fort, Shinto shrines, kimono, sushi, etc. It was as if they packed every idea we have of Japan and put it there. From a historians perspective this place was gold. Every corner dripped of history and culture. It is tourist heaven. For four days John and I biked around Kyoto getting lost and seeing temple, after temple, after shrine. It was amazing. We ate awesome food and drank a little bit but not too much. It was pretty expensive which I was both grateful for and disappointed in. Still the coolest moment in Kyoto for me had to be Fushimi Inari. This is a Shinto shrine with thousands of orange gates running up the mountain side forming a semi covered walkway. When you could find a spot to be alone with the cicadas and the forest it was truly impressive. I felt like I could have been walking through this shrine 500 years ago surrounded by ancient samurais or costumed geishas. We saw so many shrines and temples that they all seemed to run together.
However, as sight after sight blended into one, I came to understand what had drawn me to Japan. It was not for a world that is different from my own. I've lived in Asia for 4 years now. What was drawing me to Japan was the chance to see everything I've studied about, everything I've read about, and everything I've heard about Japan. It was a chance for me to go there and discover for myself a small portion of the history and the soul of a people we know so much about. That, is why I was there. I was drawn to Japan to discover if it was the Japan that I had envisioned in my mind, or if it was altogether something different. Luckily, it was a mix of the two. The world may have preconceived ideas about what Japan is, but those ideas are firmly on display in Kyoto.