Japan 2023: Shrines, Crafts, Samurai, Geisha and Cherry Blossoms
“Arigato goziamsu” or “thank you” are words I heard most during my 20 days in Japan usually accompanied by a slight bow or “eshaku”, signifying politeness. I joined an organized “cultural tour” of Japan with 13 other travelers with stops in Tokyo, Hakone, Kanazawa, and Kyoto. My main destination was Kyoto, the capital for several centuries known for its cherry blossoms, and Buddhist and Shinto temples. I picked the dates of the tour on the off-chance that we would be there when the flowers were in full bloom, and they were.
I had been to Japan several times before in the late 1980s, but the visits were for meetings with the Japanese aid agency and export-import bank in Tokyo to coordinate co-financing for the World Bank’s policy projects in Kenya and India that I was managing. I did not get much time to get a feel for the country, just took taxis to attend meetings and flew off. At that time, Japan was at the peak of its post-WWII economic success, confident and prosperous. I recall everything being embarrassingly expensive even though I was on an expense account. Aside from Japan’s economic success, which served as an example for other developing countries to emulate, I had long admired Japanese culture, its authors and movie-makers, such as Mishima, Murakami, Kurosawa and Mifune. At a more mundane level, I eat Japanese food regularly, probably twice a week, because it is healthy, simple, and relies on natural ingredients to appeal to the palate.
On this visit, in addition to taking more time to experience and understand Japanese culture, I had an added quest. I published a book about Emperor Ashoka who ruled the Indian subcontinent around 250 BCE. He is credited with starting the spread of Buddhism to the rest of Asia, including his non-violent, compassionate and effective governance. I have traveled to many countries in Asia looking for the remnants of his influence. In Japan, it was initially through Prince Shotuko (574-622 CE) who promoted Buddhism and issued a 17-article constitution, which is like Ashoka’s edits about the administration of justice. I found a plaque in Kyoto’s Kosho-ji temple referring to “the legendary Prince Shotoku who spread Buddhism throughout Japan”.
It doesn’t take long to notice the differences between Japan and other developed countries. The streets in Tokyo, other cities, and even small towns we passed through, were spotlessly clean; all toilets, including public toilets, which are generally available, are not only clean but have seats that are electronically adjustable for warmth, and can also shower your bottom upon request. The sense of order carries over to crossing streets. No one jaywalks. People patiently wait until the walk sign permits them to cross the street. I couldn’t resist disobeying this rule a couple of times just to feel naughty, thumbing my nose at the citizens’ passive obedience. I did get a couple of quizzical gainjin (foreigner) looks, but no censure. Consistent with order and politeness, the incidence of violence is low, especially by guns, which are covered by stringent regulations. Death by guns is about 10 per year in Japan compared with 20,000 in the US.
All trains, including city metro lines, are clean and run on time. Signs are posted in Japanese and in the Roman alphabet making it easier for foreigners to get around. People are extremely polite, considerate, and helpful. Younger people understand enough English to help with directions, often with the aid of a cell phone. Like in other countries, there is little conversation on platforms or in trains as everyone is busy on their phones.
People dress well, the vast majority in western clothes. Younger people wear casual clothes and carry a backpack and working men in their thirties and beyond are in dark suits, white shirts, and dark ties—the “salaryman” costume of the 1980s. In the ritzy areas of Tokyo, along the Ginza, women are dressed fashionably, carry the latest accouterments, and are well-coiffed too. This is especially noticeable when walking through large department stores like Mitsukoshi.
On my first evening in Tokyo, I stepped into a small restaurant across the street from my hotel. Just three of the ten tables were occupied. They gradually filled up with men aged 35-55 in salaryman costume and began their drinking and eating for the evening, customarily returning home to their wives around midnight. Has Japan changed in the intervening decades, I wondered?
I noticed that commuter trains are not as crowded as they used to be when staff on platforms had to push people into cabins. Now they just bow to the conductor and driver as the train passes by. Other staff is also available to assist travelers, a service no longer available in the US and W. Europe. While this is great for travelers and tourists, it may not be economical. Indeed, I got the impression of excess labor employed elsewhere as well. One morning, I noticed about 10 yards of the pavement outside our hotel was being repaired and there was an employee at both ends, bowing and directing pedestrians to a clearly marked diversion. I was reminded of a conversation with a former World Bank colleague that I met on my first full day in Japan who was bemoaning the lack of productivity growth in the country.
After walking around Tokyo for a couple of days, I suddenly realized that I had not seen an obese person. I knew about this, but the reality is striking. It is usually ascribed to the Japanese diet, which is based on seafood, often raw, and low on fried foods. But the amount of food consumed by my neighbors in restaurants did not endorse this reasoning. They managed to scarf down a plate of fried rice on top of a full bowl of Ramen with a pork chop in it while I could just about manage to finish one of those dishes. The diet is clearly not low on carbohydrates. I have yet to solve this puzzle.
I did not notice a single homeless person living on the street. Japan’s social safety net seems to be better than in other developed countries and it is supplemented by close family relationships that are emphasized by Shinto beliefs.
The level of service everywhere is outstanding—at restaurants, shops, and in transport. Staff always greet customers with a bow and end the service with one as well. Japan has four levels of bows: categorized as eshaku, a simple 15-degree bend or nod of the head; keirei, a 30-degree tilt to show respect; saikeirei, a full 45- to 90-degree bow intended to show the deepest veneration or humility; and dogeza, a fetal prostration expressing utter subjection or contrition. Most bows are eshaku, but some services such as in restaurants often merited a saikeirei. Shops always wrap any purchase very carefully, equivalent to a gift wrap in the US, as a show of respect for the customer.
Our tour group had couples and singles of a certain age, and a local tour leader. We visited Tokyo, Hakone, Kanazawa, and Kyoto in that order. Hotel accommodations, inter-city transport, visits to cultural sites, most meals, and in-city transport were included in our package. Hotels had a three-star rating except in Kyoto where we were upgraded to a four-star. Rooms in two hotels were small but were designed well and had every amenity normally provided, and more, as items travelers sometimes forget were available at a display near the front desk. Except in Hakone, the hotels were near stations that had striking modern steel and glass architecture and included shops, restaurants, supermarkets, and department stores. Kanazawa Station received a major overhaul with a futuristic design featuring a glass-and-steel dome resembling a Samurai helmet and a giant wooden gate, like a torii, found at Japanese shrines. The Kyoto Train Station structure has a fluidity of space, intriguing discontinuities of scale, open roof lines and a futuristic quality.
Because Tokyo had been bombed and burned during WW II, it is an almost entirely modern city without many remaining older structures, but Hakone, a resort town for Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Kyoto, had modern downtowns and older sections that were enjoyable to walk through for their history, and some neighborhoods had these areas renovated for tourists, to eat at restaurants and buy crafts.
We spent a morning with a couple of Sumo wrestlers, learned about their training, competition rules, and the food they ate to bulk up, which we tasted for lunch. I found it bland, not what I imagined, and wondered how they ate so much of it. Taiko drums have been used since ancient times for a variety of reasons ranging from communication, drama, and rousing the army for battle. While the tutorial was interesting and included us beating out a rhythm, a show we attended later in week was downright thrilling, had my pulse racing. The parquetry and inlay demonstration at the Hamamatsu-ya workshop in Hakone was engrossing and the products were exquisite. I had vowed not to buy anything on this trip as I am downsizing, but I could not resist a woodblock-type portrait made of natural wood. A geisha mother (in-charge of a geisha house) explained their role as entertainers and conversationalists, but not as prostitutes. She played music and danced briefly to show us her art and we also saw a performance later with two dancers of this stylized craft in elaborate and ornate kimonos. At the same show, folk song singers got a more participatory reception from the audience.
Green tea, hot and cold, is a staple drink in Japan. We were taken to Fukujuen Tea Company and given a talk on the process and we got to ground treated leaves, which I fumbled, to make our own cups. Later, the medley performance we attended also had a segment on Chanoyo, the ritualized preparation, serving and drinking of green tea. It is not my favorite beverage, unfortunately. Our other hands-on experience was a visit to Kakuichi, a leading company making gold leaf sheets for decoration, Buddhist temples being substantial users. We got a demonstration of the process of making these fine sheets and made our own post card with one. The company’s gallery and shop had alluring art objects and I almost succumbed to a second purchase, but was let off the hook because I did not have my passport.
I did not know that there were several kinds of sushi, although I had eaten all of them at one time or another. We got a lesson in making Nigiri Sushi, raw fish (usually) placed on a molded, vinegared and salted ball of rice. My effort was not particularly pretty, but it held together. I also did not know that it is customary to eat sushi with one’s hand. That is helpful as I sometimes have to struggle with chopsticks to keep my bite together. When the teacher/chef, with decades of experience, was asked what he ate at home, he said “curry”, a poetic contrast from the natural, pure ingredient of raw fish to a complex mixture of spices to embellish vegetables, fish or meat.
We got a lesson in arranging flowers or Ikebana. There are three components; height, density, and angles to form a harmonious presentation. This quest for harmony carries over to exquisitely designed gardens around temples and castles, and all crafts. I saw some huge flower arrangements later at Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. We visited Kenrokuen Garden adjacent to Kanazawa castle, among the best in Japan and the world. “Kenrokuen” means a garden that combines six characteristics: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, water sources and magnificent views. It was raining on our first visit so I went back on the next day, a sunny one, to absorb fully its beauty. The garden had a museum on one side that exhibited crafts in wood, lacquer, porcelain, textile and paint that were perfect, clean, spare and balanced. (The craft store in Kyoto that we visited a few days later had woodblock prints, other paintings, and calligraphy of an equally high standard). That night a few of us ventured into the garden within Kanazawa castle to catch the light and music show. The changing colors of the lights reflecting on the garden, pond, bridge and tall surrounding curtain walls, accompanied by classical music, was mysteriously beautiful.
Hot spring baths were available in our hotels in Hakone and Kanazawa. I ventured to try one. It was a process. The first step was a thorough shower before entering the shallow rectangular pool, maybe 15 feet by 8 feet and 18 inches deep. Once in the pool I sat on a built-in pool-side deck recliner made of stone. I soaked in the warm spring water for about 15 minutes with a customary hand towel on my head. I wondered what that was for. Coached by a fellow bather, the towel was to rub off the minerals after exiting the pool while sitting on a stool and using a telephone shower. On the drive between Hakone and Kanazawa, we stopped at a community market and adjoining community house. The medium sized market was expectedly well laid out with all the products neatly packaged. In the community house, a group of volunteers helped us make our lunch of rice with a hearty miso soup that had a lot more vegetables in it than we normally get in the US.
In Kanazawa we visited the 280 years old indoor Omichi market with 170 stalls selling every kind of product neatly displayed. I tasted some sweet strawberries and a microbrewery’s IPA with some bite to it. Our group of 14 people was divided into smaller ones of three or four for an arranged home visit with local families. My group of three visited a retired couple in the suburbs. Their house felt small because of the size of the rooms, but the kitchen, dining and living rooms had modern appliances and furniture. We managed to exchange some information about our lives with their broken English and the aid of a translation app. He was the retired owner of a small software company and his wife had been a secretary. They talked about their visit to the US. They dressed us up in kimonos for photographs. A glimpse of local life is definitely better than none.
Museums did not get much emphasis on the tour, but some of us did venture into a few. I wandered through the extensive grounds of the Hakone Open Air Museum that had pieces by internationally renowned sculptors such as Rodin, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. It also had an entire building dedicated to Picasso’s works, which had a couple of his cubist paintings and a lot more of his ceramics. Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art had long lines at the entrance on a sunny day, but just a few galleries open inside. One small room was dedicated to a painting by Anish Kapoor, a large, oblong black hole on a slanted wall titled “Creation”. More of his sculptural style was visible outside as seats and children’s play areas were in rounded, shiny, aluminum. The nearby small D. T. Suzuki Museum was dedicated to his autobiography. Born in Kanazawa, he was a Buddhist philosopher who is credited with spreading Buddhism to Western countries through his lectures and writing. In keeping with his approach of simplicity, the museums architecture had clean lines and a room looking out on a pond for contemplation and self-reflection.
Nijo-jo Castle is really a museum showing the assembly and living quarters of powerful Shoguns with remarkable wall paintings, especially of nature scenes. Some rooms displayed mannequins in traditional period dress that looked just like in the Samurai movies I have seen. The Imperial Palace in Kyoto was not as artistically impressive but had lovely gardens and was surrounded by a huge garden-park. On the day of my visit, a Kemari game was on show. People standing three-a-side on a square, dressed in elaborate traditional costumes, trying, not too successfully, to gently kick a ball to each other with the objective of keeping it in the air for as long as possible.
Talking about Samurai, we walked through a district in Kanazawa along narrow streets and canals where they lived in traditional houses with gardens surrounded by earthen walls and gates that signified their rank. In the same way, Geisha districts in Kanazawa and Kyoto, with small wooden houses, have been preserved and converted into tourist areas with restaurants and shops. Our visits coincided with national holidays so most of the tourists were Japanese and, surprisingly, many women were wearing colorful kimonos. In Kyoto, with cherry blossoms in full bloom, the old districts, some with canals, looked spectacular at night with lanterns hanging outside houses, and street lights reflected on flowers. The Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, about a mile long, lined with cherry blossom trees, with a canal one side and small shops on the other, was serene and felt like walking through falling snow. I wondered if the beauty detracted from deep thinking or enhanced it. In keeping with that theme, the boat ride on Lake Ashi, bluer than the clear blue sky, and surrounded by a mountain range that rose to snow-capped Mt. Fuji, was awesome.
Many of our visits were to religious sites, either Shinto or Buddhist. Religious practice is open and inclusive in Japan. It is normal to bring a newborn baby to a Shinto shrine for a blessing, have a Christian-style wedding, and a Buddhist funeral. The two homes we visited had both Shinto and Buddhist shrines.
Shinto emphasizes the importance of purity, harmony, respect for nature and family, subordination of the individual to the group, and showing gratitude for the life-forces that nurture us. There are many Shinto gods or spirits with shrines dedicated to them where people offer food, money and prayers. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it did not suppress or replace the existing Shinto worship of spirits, and the two religions influenced each other. Buddhism’s main goal is to end suffering by developing inner peace and compassion. Because it came in waves from Korea and China, distinct approaches to achieve that objective formed sects with adherents. Generally, Shinto’s focus is more on this-worldly blessings, whereas Buddhism is more transcendental. Confucianist and Taoist ideas have also had an influence on Japanese thought as well.
On the day after my arrival in Tokyo, I visited the Enoshima shrine in Fujisawa, about an hour’s train ride outside the city with a former World Bank colleague. Its location on top of a hill gave great views of the surroundings, but not Mt. Fuji that day, unfortunately. It has Shinto shrines, a Buddhist temple, and a temple dedicated to Benzaiten (originally the Hindu goddess of knowledge, Saraswati). The tour took us to Meiji Shinto, Sensoji Buddhist, Tenryuji Zen Buddhist Temple, the Golden Pavilion, Todaji Buddhist temple, (a UNESCO World Heritage site in Nara), Senkoji Zen Buddhist temple, Inari Shinto Shrine (with 10 thousand gates), and Sanjusangendo, the thousand Buddha’s temple.
Each site had distinct features, especially ponds and gardens, some stood out: the rows of shops selling sweets at Sensoji; the blazing color of the Golden Pavilion; the huge Buddha statue at Todaji; the Zen Buddhist lecture at Senkoji, where a couple of us got lost climbing up a hillside in the rain; the thousand Buddha statues guarded by 28 Hindu deities pressed into service to protect Kannon, the goddess of mercy; and the resisted temptation to pass through all 10,000 gates at Inari.
Now to the important subject of food. Did you know that Tokyo has the largest number of Michelin starred restaurants at 203, compared with Paris and Kyoto at 108 in second place, and Osaka in fourth place with 96? New York trails with just 65. This was an important cultural aspect that was not included in our tour, sadly.
Hotel breakfasts offered a variety of Japanese and Western foods, but as I am not a breakfast eater, I sampled some fresh fruit, although at Granvia Hotel in Kyoto I enjoyed their French-level croissants. I also tried their Japanese breakfast option once–a Bento box with 5 or 6 small portions of vegetables, pickles, a bland Japanese style omelet, and miso soup. Other tour meals were mostly at small family restaurants with great service, but not memorable food, partly because handling 15 guests at once was difficult for them.
We piled into taxis for our farewell dinner at a riverside restaurant in the Sanjo district of Kyoto, walked along the Kamogawa river, through a narrow lane with restaurants on both sides to Mimasu ya in Ponto-cho. I had a lovely view of the river from my table. We were occasionally served sake with our meal, but I enjoyed it as my aperitif before meals, too. After that dinner, several of us went to a small tasting bar to try a variety of sakes from different regions and of different vintages. We ended up tasting each other’s three tasting portions as well. It was a convivial ending to our tour, especially the amble along a canal with cherry blossoms aglow under street lights on our way back to the hotel.
The best food I had was outside the tour: great Sushi from Mitsukoshi department store; at Ippei, a small 12 seat counter restaurant in Kanazawa recommended by our tour leader; and at Tsukiji Sushisei, where I had the set Sakura set menu. Sushi bites with a dash of wasabi on top were prepared by the chef two by two and put my plate on the counter. The Yellowtail at Ippei just melted in my mouth leaving a hint of sour.
For Ramen, our guide suggested a vegetarian place called Yoroiya near a temple we visited, where the noodles were delicate and the broth was mild. I found Menya Ramen in Kanazawa online. It was located in an alley not far from our hotel. When I got there, I found a long line outside and wondered if the wait was worth it. I asked an Australian ahead of me in the line, and he said it was. He was an English teacher living in Kanazawa. After an hour’s wait our turn to order came up. He suggested I get the Tsukenmen, a thicker noodle, with Miso sauce served on the side and chased with a Yibisu Premium dark beer. The food was indeed good. The thickish miso sauce came in a separate bowl from the noodles that also had spring onions and fried bamboo in a bigger bowl. The sauce was outstanding in taste and texture—light brown and had what felt like flakes of tofu for body. I ate some of that as soup and poured the rest into the noodle bowl. The Shinpuku Saikan Ramen Restaurant in Kyoto, pointed to us by a taxi driver, was near our hotel. I ate there twice: ramen in a thin soy-based sauce the first time and fried rice, also in a soy-based sauce, the second time; and the Tempura at Heso Kyoto was light, and brought out the flavor of eggplant and tofu, which became creamy.
I had taken a course in Sake decades ago and attended a few tastings at breweries in the San Francisco Bay Area. I knew that Junmai (pure rice–coincidentally also the meaning of Buddha’s father’s name, Suddhodana) is superior as there was no brewer’s alcohol added. Gingo meant that rice was polished down to 60%, and Daiginjo meant that it was polished further down to 50%. At this level of processing, sake is clean and crisp, especially when cooled. As I cannot read Japanese, I asked for assistance from other shoppers to identify what I wanted. For simplicity, sticking with just Junmai was good enough. I also tasted an aged Sake bought at a stall, which had a nuttier flavor.
After the tour ended, I stayed in Kyoto for a couple of days at another hotel. They had a “happy hour” when they served Shochu, a Japanese distilled drink made from barley, buckwheat or sweet potatoes. It is Japanese vodka and tastes like it, except when made from sweet potatoes. Its alcohol level at 30% is about twice that of Sake. I found it a pleasant drink as well, but not with food.
At the end of one of our temple visits, we stopped at a historic 400 years old inn (Amasake-Chaya) to drink Amasake, a warm fermented sweet drink with no alcohol. It tasted like a mildly sweet dessert wine. The inn was a simple road-side cafe for traveling feudal lords, and looked like those I have seen in movies.
Japan’s reforms to develop into a modern state started when Emperor Meiji was restored to power in 1868 after centuries of Samurai-Shogun rule. The feudal structure of society was abolished and the government looked to Western countries for science and technology. Decades later, an unfortunate outcome from that path led to the rise of militarism and an imperialist adventure culminating in the WW II. Since its defeat, Japan has adopted a pacifist policy and concentrated on economic development. Its unconventional approach successfully made it the second largest economy in the world, reaching the zenith of its achievement in about 1990. Since then, its economic, innovation, and productivity growth have slowed, and it has lost its position as the second largest economy to China, which as 10 times its population, and has emulated Japan’s approach to development together with S. Korea, and more recently, Vietnam.
Despite the slow growth, it a well-off country with an income of about $40,000-45,000 per person depending on the measure you use. But that does not convey its situation accurately. Japan has eliminated poverty, its population lives longer than anywhere else, people treat each other with respect, and follow religions of their choice. Its governance is excellent, a democratic system that recognizes human rights, an orderly, clean country with great infrastructure. This is the civilization and society Emperor Ashoka tried to create, or at least the closest to it of any populous country I have been in: non-violent, tolerant and compassionate.
To not make it feel like paradise, Japan does have issues: the Hinin people, low-caste Japanese that deal with death and animals, numbering about 2 million, suffer from discrimination; and resident Koreans or Zainichi, that number about half a million, also suffer discrimination. Apparently, they are now eligible for Japanese citizenship, but only if they change their name to a Japanese one. Ironically, Japanese are ethnically most closely related to Koreans. Still, the maltreatment of 2.5 million people in a population of 125 million, is much better than most other developed countries with large populations.
Three weeks is hardly enough time to make judgement about a country, especially assessing the role of women as we did not meet any to speak with at length. Meanwhile, from my perspective, Japan feels good, and is fully deserving of a Saikeirei, a 90 degree bow of respect. It is the most developed among the club of rich countries in the full sense of that word.