Since Japan was my first step into Asia, here’s a salutary bag of traveller stories and pithy impressions.
After we happily munched on just warm pounded, luscious matcha mochi from a downtown Nara shop, we strolled over to Nara Park, a heritage park steeped in Japanese Buddhism, some temples …and its wild deer.
Bowing, Hungry Wild Deer at Nara Park
Its deer have been there for centuries since Nara is considered the historic, spiritual heart of where Buddhism began in Japan. The legend is a white deer carried a god from northern Japan to Kasugataisha Shrine. Until WW II, the deer were considered sacred.
There are frequent signs all over the park, warning people of sudden aggression from these deer. They can be and are often after the deer chips you can buy from vendors. And yes, some deer cleverily, can bow to tourists –for food. We saw a few bowing deer to some amazed tourists who got off their bikes.
Here and there in the park, there are deer motifs on the grounds, as a nod to their long-gone sacred status – in stone lanterns that line walkways and Nara’s manholes.
Jack, did pet some deer while he waited for me outside the famous Todaiji Temple. I shrank away from the approaching deer.
Soaring Wooden Todaiji Buddhist Temple Complex
This temple sits in Nara Park. Todaiji Temple is the world’s largest wooden temple. It is a UNESCO site (lots of UNESCO sites in Japan). Housed inside the temple, is the world’s largest bronze Great Buddha statue which was completed in 752 AD. It is over 15 metres high. I found it complicated to shoot photos in semi-darkness. It was my first time in a heritage Buddhist temple of many centuries.
Not far from Great Buddha, inside the temple is a warrior-like, imposing Komokuten which is a giant guardian for Buddha. He is the guardian of the west and sees all evil. Normally he is depicted with a scroll and brush – a contrast to his ferocious expression. I would like to believe he embodies the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. Komokuten is carved out of wood, which absolutely awe-inspiring to see.
The park does house working enclave of monks that practice a form of Buddhism. It is less of a leisure park, than a whole enclave of Buddhist temples and buildings in a huge sprawling park that expresses spirituality and cultivated Nature.
Japan to other Asians or those of Asian Descent
I wonder what others think. I can only speak as a Chinese-Canadian woman. These impressions are only mine:
So Clean, Neat – a Country with Rules
Certainly Japan strikes many Westerners and to other Asians, as a highly structured, safe and organized country. To have a clean country with very little
litter and generally clean restaurants, requires imposing rules, either law or societal norms. We had problems finding a street litter container while walking along in downtown Tokyo. No wonder why Japan is a popular destination, since it doesn’t have large scale poverty or noticeable divisions between the rich and poor to bystanders.
I did see the rare homeless street people in Tokyo. One of them was a white woman. I’m sure they exist in major cities but for tourists, perhaps the local authorities ensure they are somewhere else.
Conservative Dress, Expectations of Local Women
What surprised me was the level of conservative dress among many Japanese girls and women. Make no mistake, some women were wearing expensive or quality clothing. My seamstress eyes judged perhaps linen or raw silk fabric in
ritzy downtown areas, for the summer heat. Many local women dressed in longer hemlines and kept themselves protected from the summer sun when we were there. We saw enough women cycling around with sun umbrellas. Both men and women cycled in the rain with umbrellas in one hand. There is even an umbrella holder to fasten onto the handlebar that I spotted on a parked Tokyo bike.
Some women go as far to wear fabric armbands to protect their arms from sun. Sun tans aren’t revered in this part of the world which accounts for some women with lovely skin as they age. So most likely Asian women in tank tops, sundresses, short skirts and shorts (the latter two for me) were Asian tourists from other countries. The crazy anime dress-costume of Japanese women looking cutesy, yet sexy in public wear, are a minority in Japan.
By accident, in the evening, we cruised about a popular restaurant street in the business district of Tokyo, where there was 95% Asian men and probably most were Japanese. I have a hard time shaking off, the working, career reality for bright university or college-educated Japanese women who have dreams beyond marriage and children.
Maybe that’s why there are so many Japanese national young men and women at ESL schools in Vancouver –a chance to taste a freer, multicultural society, to be oneself, less obsessed about “saving face”. Japan is not multicultural. The country makes it difficult for non-Japanese to immigrate and become citizens. (Stress is on citizens, not temporary / migrant workers.)
Cycling in Tokyo and Kyoto
We didn’t do any cycling. Yup. Amazing. We were too busy trying to compress our time by taking advantage of our hotel shuttle bus from Kyoto train station to our hotel whenever we took day train trips to Inari-Fushima and Nara after Tokyo. The bike rental shops we passed by, in Kyoto didn’t seem to quite have bikes I would have enjoyed cycling.
Cyclists are allowed to bike on the sidewalk in Japan, which we found in Kyoto slightly disconcerting as a pedestrians, since that city had a sizable mode share of local cycling commuters all times of the day.
A Society to Try for a Few Months or a Year
Japan has impressively preserved its great historic architectural, religious and cultural sites, as well as its centuries-old cultural festivals, which unfortunately, were not on during the start of monsoon season when we were there.
If it means becoming accustomed to some singing washroom bidets, beautifully laid out fast food meals, polite service, trains on time, sure it would be great to live there for a few months to discover more of its nooks and crannies.