March 12, 2019
Hiragiiya Hotel, Kyoto
Even though we've been in Japan since early yesterday morning, it feels like we've been here for a week. It was impossible to sleep on the 12-hour flight from London. As soon as we arrived, we stopped over at the hotel in Tokyo and entrusted two suitcases that we did not want to take to Kyoto. Then we took the fast train to Kyoto. The first impressions, as can be predicted, were the skyscrapers of Tokyo, the crowds in face masks rushing to work and the excellent train lines.
In Kyoto, we chose to stay in a hotel that offers traditional Japanese style (Ryokan) rooms called Hiiragiya to experience and understand the culture. Before we arrived at the hotel lobby, we had to take off our shoes and wear slippers. Our room is covered with tatami mats. A bed is spread over the tatami mat only at night time and it is considered a great offence to step on the tatami mat with slippers.
We learned later that even in modern Japanese houses and apartments there is at least one traditional, tatami-covered Japanese room. This room is used as a guest welcome room, but at night time parents would sleep there. So the Japanese parents prepare and put away the floor bed every morning and evening.
In our room, the walls and the panel separating the different partitions of the room and sliding doors are covered with paper. Bath tub in the bathroom is wooden. Our room has a modern shower head but no shower cabin. They put a wooden bowl on a stool and a bath bowl. Toilet is in a separate compartment. The bathroom has to be entered with different slippers. The toilet is fully automatic and has dozens of separate features. It even cleans itself.
While strolling through the streets of Kyoto, I gathered my first impressions as the following:
1. Narrow sidewalks are not high on the pavement. Sidewalks are determined by a separate lane on the asphalt road.
2. Silence and calm prevail in Japan with a population of 120 million people and 25% of the population over 60 years old, and 2 million in Kyoto. No noise is heard on the crowded streets.
3. The Japanese are incredibly polite and hospitable.
4. In this society, which I think is introvert, many shops, most restaurants and of course the fronts of the houses are always hidden away with a wooden panel.
5. Houses and cars are like miniatures. Exterior and interior architecture is simple, modest, even minimalist. There is no surplus to go beyond the purpose of usefulness. There's absolutely no showing off.
6. The streets and even the most unexpected places are incredibly clean.
7. Children from the age of 6 travel to school alone by public transport such as the metro - this was shocking for me.
8. They have a very healthy cuisine - taste is debatable. They even have sugar free desserts made of broad beans.
9. There is not much of a tipping culture.
10. The concept of religion is very different for the Japanese. Shinto beliefs are based on the power of nature. Buddhism entered their lives later. Nowadays they follow Buddhist traditions for their funerals and their happy activities and their wishes according to the Shinto traditions. These are more traditional customs are for the Japanese than religious. There are no scripts or no rule books. Only traditions. On top of it all, they have an incredible community ethic, are disciplined, clean, know how to turn from their mistakes (I'll try to explain it later) and are patriotic people.
Of course China is one of the largest countries in the world. Besides, it’s rich in history as a great power and still is with its growing population and development. In architecture and other areas, this background is magnificently reflected to great magnitude. While Japan has been inspired by many things from China throughout history, it has always been simple and modest.
Today we went to Ninjo Castle in Kyoto, the former capital city. The Shinguns with a Samurai past ruled the country by taking the powers away from the emperor until the 19th century. Ninjo Castle is a Shingun castle. It is the simplest and most modest of all the palaces, castles or even homes I've visited around the world. We even had to take our shoes off as we entered this castle.
They give more importance to the gardens of palaces and temples than architecture and pretence. Where rock fragments (which are considered sacred) are positioned, pine trees, and even different waves formed by gravels are very important. Alas, it's too early for the sakuras to blossom. We only came across some plum and apricot trees with only a few flowers.
Going back to what I wrote earlier, there were no wars for 300 years during the rule of the Shingun. Isolation policy was followed. They were completely closed out to the world.. Respect to the emperor and to his family was continued by Shinguns during this period and the Emperor was even considered above the Shingun.
In the 19th century, when an American ship suddenly approached the port of Tokyo and expressed its wishes, the Japanese had the opportunity to see the American ship's technology and weapons, and they realized that they were technically far behind due to the isolation policy. Then Shogun decided to hand over the administration to the emperor. Today's emperor is the grandson of more than 100 generations of the first ever emperor of Japan. The Shingun family continues to be active today in Japan in cultural areas.
After the Americans, the British and the French came and tried to take a piece from the country. Seeing the losses of the great and big Chinese to the British, the Japanese have entered into commercial agreements to prevent the risk of war. It is awe-inspiring that in the 19th century, Shingun could see the errors, hand over the administration to the emperor peacefully, see the deficiencies of the Japanese and quickly develop themselves in the technological sense.
The emperor then sent observers to England, learned the parliamentary system and brought the two-house parliamentary system and the prime ministry to the country. Even their democracy was without revolution, without a war. Today the Emperor does not have any political say.
So at the end of two days, my impression is that what makes Japan different and powerful is its exemplary people, easily admired for their values, habits and mentality.
Kyoto is not covered with skyscrapers like Tokyo. A very pleasant, stylish, liveable city. Everything is very easy and convenient in Japan: public transportation, walking on the street, going to school. Although working hours are very long. Punctuality is a sign of great respect.
Fushiniri-Inara, Tenji-ko and Kinkoku-ji (gold-plated) shrines and temples were what we saw. These places attract more visitors to their parks and gardens. Especially the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is truly fascinating. If it were not too crowded with tourists, it would also be mysterious. The Philosopher’s Path would undoubtedly be dreamlike during the sakura blossoms. Unfortunately, we haven’t been lucky enough to observe the sakura blossoms. In the Gion District, there are traditional Japanese restaurants and geishas can be spotted after 18 o'clock. Nikisa Bazaar is like a small Japanese style Grand Bazaar.
The weather is very variable. Wind, rain and sun change every three minutes. Traditional Japanese restaurants cannot be entered with shoes. You need to sit on the floor bending your knees. Families and groups sit in separate compartments. We had trouble finding good dinner last night. Due to the panels outside the buildings, it is not clear if the restaurants are open or if they are closed. Menus always specialize in one type of dish. We were confused. Finally, we went into a place out exhaustion and despair. I was hungry enough to eat a horse that moment. I ordered sashimi without really knowing it. I have eaten 100% raw fish. I can't believe myself. I hope I don't repeat the same mistake. The Japanese are fond of green tea and matcha. Matcha is a stronger, high caffeinated tea made from pounded green tea leaves. Unknowingly I drank too much yesterday, my heartbeat was too fast for a long time.
Kyoto is a stylish and charming city. The air is definitely much cleaner than London. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides. In spite of this, the Japanese are wearing masks on their faces and white gloves on their hands. They're never barefoot. The reason for all this is hygiene and to keep germs and pollens. Small bush brooms made of bamboo hang over the house and shop doors. It is like a Japanese evil eye. In front of some doors there is also water in a small glass and salt in a bowl. I don't yet know what this means.