Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Drawn to the Unfamiliar

International Manga Museum Kyoto
On the plane from San Francisco to Tokyo I watched a documentary called The Iran Job about an American basketball player who travels to play in Iran. Debating going, he says: I don't know why I am going. Something the Lord put in me draws me from the familiar to the unfamiliar. 

When younger I actively promoted travel and foreign experience, thinking it essential for understanding the human condition. Time has tempered that notion. Today I believe simply there are those of us born to wander, drawn towards unfamiliar environments in spite of the ensuing insecurity, drawn by the opportunities of the unknown. I don't fool myself that travel is the only means of exploring the unfamiliar. For example, every time an artist faces a blank canvas they enter unknown territory, as does nearly every college graduate and every newly married couple.

I toyed with the idea of going to Japan many years ago, lured by talk of good paying jobs teaching English to businessmen. I was living in San Francisco, studying martial arts in a Japanese dojo in the basement of a Buddhist temple. I was also working for a Japanese carpenter whose skills with a saw astonished me. I moved back East. Japan's draw receded. We take some roads and others must go unexplored.

How lucky am I then to have had this brief chance to see this cool country. Its impact profound on global culture and history.

With a scant week, I had to choose. What could I do with only a few days in the country of samurai and sake and sushi? Of Kobe and Kurosawa? Kyoto it was. Roads chosen, roads neglected.

First up? Navigate the Tokyo subway.
The Japanese are clearly masters of efficiency and complexity. I could not believe the number of lines, the number of trains, the number of stations. After the BTS in Bangkok, I felt like I was running from Jack Nicholson in the tree maze in The Shining. I did ultimately make it through from the airport to the metro to the bullet trains north.

Everything advertised and more. Unbelievable smoothness and speed. Banking corners at over 170 MPH. Easily one of the best transportation experiences in my life. And leaving on the minute more than three times every hour of the day. Expensive? Yes, at some $200 round trip and yet no, experience and comfort-wise compared to my cramp-legged, always delayed flights. Smooth as 1000 stitch Egyptian cotton sheets.

Kyoto was even cleaner and more disciplined than Tokyo. A city where the ancient coexists with the future.

These are not 'costumes'. I regularly saw denizens wearing them. No one bats an eye in their presence.

Tucked behind a gate in the 'old' wooden section of town.

My hotel in Kyoto was much more spacious than that in Tokyo. Limited by time I had to choose among scores of worthy sites. I considered renting a bicycle but opted for the simplicity of walking to the temples, most of which ring the city's higher surrounding mountains. There are a wide range of sacred and personal sites. Here are two shots from one temple:

This  continues to be an active Buddhist temple. One cannot help but be put into a tranquil and meditative state.

All around the city were humble touches that evoked joy in my heart, like this small menu on a winding back lane:

And, as ordered, quirky touches of cultural strangeness:

Provided in the restaurant washroom- How thoughtful!
Space was always at a premium:
The sink in my favorite restaurant.

Parking Double-up
In addition to the Manga Museum and temples, I also went to a hilarious and thought-provoking invitational show including a wide array of artists on a particular theme. Can you guess what it was?

Need another hint?

It was a fun and well curated show.

Speaking of such things, there were many, many stunning young women in Kyoto. Remarkable, actually. Throughout the city. Their main occupation seemed to consist in intense conversations on their iphones and gazing at their stunning selves in shop windows.

Their absorption was certainly not disturbed by this old gaijin wandering the streets in his stylish Crocs. Which, by the way, gave me enormous blisters on my toes. Not good daily walkers.
In general the reserve of the Japanese was very notable in contrast with places like Cambodia and Thailand. Very little noise or laughter in the streets, and except when engaged in a transaction, very little personal eye contact or intrusion of strangers' 'bubbles'. When at a crosswalk, no one ever set foot into the road unless the little electronic man changed from red to green. I felt positively criminal if after waiting and looking I crossed- which, come to think of it, I was. Once I did cross boundaries of personal space- either to ask for directions or to buy something, I found the locals to be terrifically generous and sweet. Yet the tenor of the streets left me feeling a little lonely and isolated.
It was less so when I returned to Tokyo on my way out, where I had a great time eating street food with two French men and their Japanese wives. I will definitely come back again to explore further, if fate allows it, since I have barely nicked the surface, and I also had the best best best sushi by approximately 100,000,000 times over anything in California or New York or Boston or ANYWHERE. A revelation.

Next up: Jakarta

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