Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Kyoto: October

Gezelligheid (n.): loosely translated, the "warm and fuzzies"; a feeling of belonging and contentment. (Dutch)

Believe it or not, I've been in Kyoto for just over a month now. It certainly doesn't feel that long to me, although I think I'm still in week-to-week mode from my time in Spain. I'm living in a share house in Higashiyama-ku, a central ward of Kyoto that's in the Eastern, older part of the city. The streets are often tiny and cobblestone, and the shops are filled with kimonos and pottery and about five thousand different types of green-tea (matcha) flavored treats. Going to the supermarket is much more of an adventure here than it was in Spain, with the added excitement that I have literally zero idea what I'm buying. I go a lot by pictures and educated guessing, though I have found a couple of essentials in my neighborhood super (namely Super Chunky Skippy peanut butter and Frosted Flakes) that I recognize from home. Omnipresent convenience stores (called konbini) are also excellent providers of a variety of Japanese foods and cup noodles, and I have become a huge fan of 7-Eleven chocolate eclairs.

I really love this city, and I'm oddly glad that I had to switch my plans and come to Kyoto instead of Istanbul. Fall is absolutely gorgeous here, although a good deal warmer than I'm used to my Falls being--during my first weeks here it got up into the 80s pretty regularly. Now the leaves are finally changing and the mornings are crisp, and there are several festivals centered around the changing of the seasons that I'm looking forward to. I have a bicycle that I use to get around the city (riding along the river that runs through the center of Kyoto is my personal favorite route) and it's the perfect city for living as a pedestrian, which suits me just fine.

Kyoto feels so completely different from Spain, and yet I'm encountering a lot of similar themes here that had been established in the first three months of my project. For instance, there is the involvement of the government in the conservation of religious objects and spaces. In Japan, most of the significant religious objects that would be in need of conservation are considered National Treasures (not the Nic Cage kind) and are therefore under the protection of the government. Only a few conservation workshops in the country are allowed to treat them, and these workshops are very protective of their work. It's incredibly hard to get in to see their projects, especially if you don't speak Japanese (TL;DR, I'm working on it).

I've spent most of my time in Shinto shrines, although I have visited many Buddhist temples and even a couple Christian churches. Only this past Sunday I went to the Ohitaki Fire Festival at Fushimi Inari shrine, which was incredible and more than a little overwhelming. It was pouring rain that day, and the shrine (which is the most popular tourist attraction in Kyoto) was packed with tourists and worshipers alike. It is important to note that Japan is an umbrella culture--not a raincoat culture--so on rainy days navigating through crowds becomes about eighty times more dangerous and a thousand times more awkward as you try not to poke out anyone's eye while you maneuver with a three-foot radius... So. The Ohitaki Fire Festival consists of an entire day's worth of ceremonies, rituals, and dances, which I saw some of (before my near-beheading by a pink umbrella). A major part of the ceremonies is the burning of tens of thousands of wooden prayer sticks offered by worshipers (I put one in!) and dance offerings for the shrine deity. It was magnificent, if a bit wet.

It seems that most of the physically interactive sacred objects in a Shinto shrine are kept very well maintained, like the pulls for suzu (ritual bells,) and saisen-bako (offerings boxes,) which are objects that are actually touched during shrine visits and would be expected to show the wear and tear of thousands of visits. Even the grounds of the shrines are immaculate, although many long-term offerings, like torii (the fantastic red gates that offerings to the temple) are left to nature, and some show the weathering more than others. There are also statues where kami are invited to reside, but these are often kept out of sight within the inner parts of the temple. They are usually better preserved than outdoor statues, though they are exposed to the damage that indoor worship can impose, like soot buildup from candle smoke. There are also many statues that are preserved on display in museums, and it's not uncommon for visitors to the museum to pray inside--something that almost certainly would not happen in Spain.

So! The conservation culture here is completely new, and exciting to navigate. It's a bit more work in that I also spend a lot more time at the library researching religion here than I did in Spain. I definitely took my background knowledge of Christianity for granted when I was in Spain and in Bulgaria, since I already had a grasp of iconography and worship practices. Here I have to do more legwork, but it's giving me much more time to reflect on what I study. I'm finding all sorts of new sources for my project, like Noh theater, which has an entire sub-genre which portrays deities. It is believed that when the actor puts on the mask of a kami, his words are transformed into the words of the god and the god may spread its divinity through the performance.

New avenues for my project continue to surface and I'm very excited to pursue them; as stressful as my detour from Turkey was, I feel like it was a necessary change that liberated me to follow this project where it leads me. As far as my time in Japan goes, I'll be taking some shorter trips to nearby towns and cities in the coming weeks. The main reason I chose Kyoto as a home base is because the city and surrounding prefecture have the one of the highest concentrations of sacred sites and objects in the country. In the coming weeks I'll be heading to Uji, Nara, Hiroshima, and maybe even Tokyo. In any case--I'll keep following my nose and drinking lots of matcha, and I'll try not to eat my weight in sushi. Until next time!

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