Observations on Japanese culture - Part 2 - New and Old

When I visited Japan I guess I had some preconceptions. One was that everything would be smaller scale than in the US. Another would be that, except for historical sights, everything would be new. In a way I was both right and wrong on both counts.

For a start, let's look at the new things. This may sound stupid, but everything in Japan still felt... Japanese. For example, the covers on the bed our first night in the hotel. There was an extra piece of cloth along the foot of the bed with no obvious utility. With the duvet turned down and this strip of decoration, the bed looked liked a gift, something left by the hotel staff for guests to curl up in. And the Japanese-ness didn't end with the decoration. Although the bed was declared to be western style, it was still a futon, just raised up off the ground. And the pillow wasn't what I expected either. Sewn inside the pillow was a sort of bean-bag filled with what felt like rice or barley. I later learned it was a traditional Japanese buckwheat hull pillow, which is still the most popular pillow in Japan. So, even though I had checked into a modern hotel in a western style room, I still had a room that reflected some traditional themes of gifts, presentation, concern for health, and an awareness of nature.

In the same way I found that the presentation of food was as important as the food itself. On our trip we purchases a JapanRail pass, which would let us bounce around the country by train at will. Because of this, and traveling with kids, we ended up organizing our days so that we'd spend the lunch hours on the train. Each of the train stations offered their own local versions of the food specialties, which were sold at kiosks in boxes called Eki-ben (Eki = train station, ben is short for bento). Both the boxes and the food were presented in ways to be as pleasing as possible. Again, it was almost as if they were giving me a delightfully wrapped gift, with each piece of food tucked away in a special drawer for my delight.

I don't know if this emphasis on design and beauty in everyday things (such as lunch and beds) comes from the people, or from the country. The landscape in Japan provided many surprises, but the country we traveled was so well populated it was hard to separate the influence of civilization from nature. Many times as we rode the train I could spot clumps, or even full forests of bamboo. What was Japan like 100 or 200 years ago? Did bamboo spread across the landscape at that time, or is it an import? In any case, these stands ranged from delicate brushstrokes to massive organ pipes of greenery and continually evoked in me visions of Kurosawa films.

We visited Nikko, which is in the mountains, not more than a couple hours from Tokyo via train and bus. The landscape of the forests there were much different from the bamboo and brush of the lower lands. They were mostly evergreens, with a mix of deciduous trees. But even there I wondered about the origins of the forest. In Nikko park there is a famous path lined with 500 year old cedar trees, massive things that bring shade and moisture to the way. But even the "wild" trees outside the park grew in designs that looked as if there were cultured. The treelines often were the same height, or the branches met between trees as if they were holding hands. The only other time that I'd felt this way was when I saw the forest of Les Landes in France. Those forests were a monoculture planted at the order of Napolean. While the French trees appeared stark and regimented, the trees around Nikko had layers of leaves almost like a cumulus cloud.

The 5-story pagoda at Nikko built in 1650, and rebuilt after it burned down in 1818.

Some women in traditional dress on the streets of Kyoto.

I don't know if this reflects the Japanese culture, or if it's just savvy economic sense, but I saw quite a few sights that were only recreations of the original. For example, the Kinkaku-ji temple (The Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto was originally built around 1400, but destroyed by arson in 1950. On an extremely rainy day I flocked to see the replica along with hundreds of other tourists from all over the world. Most of Tokyo was destroyed in the 1923 earthquake, and then again in WWII. Even some of the ancient sights were recreations of even older monuments. The great Buddha of Kamakura may or may not be the original from 1252, and the Buddha of Nara has been rebuilt several times, most recently over 400 years ago.

In a way, reading about all this destruction reminds me of the Godzilla (Gojira) movies of the 60's and 70's. Whole towns in Japan would be completely obliterated by the monsters time and again, but the movies still had happy endings.

Maybe this determination has nothing to do with economics, or tourism, or even Godzilla movies. I like to think that people can recognize the spirit of the place, and when the physical sight is destroyed, they rebuild to honor the spirit. Maybe everyone needs to think more about development and restoration. Don't build new buildings just because they're are new, and don't hold onto old things just because they are old.

Corrugated metal building

In the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo an unpainted wooden building.

A massive pedestrian mall in Hiroshima echoes the more traditional ginza street.

A small wooden building nestled beneath two modern buildings in Kyoto

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