The past weeks I’ve been visiting 2 well-known areas in Japan: Kyoto and Tokyo prefecture. This was the first time for me and my friend going on a holiday outside of Europe and we were very excited about it. We picked Japan because we were sure to find some extreme cultural differences over there, which would probably feel refreshing compared to our own daily lives. I’d like to share some of the fun, beautiful and exciting experiences I had during my time in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Shrines and Temples
If you’re in Japan, of course you’d have to visit a great amount of shrines and temples. I was already familiar with the 2 major religions in Japan, but didn’t really know anything about them before I went there. The 2 main religions in Japan are Shinto, the “original” religion of Japan, and Buddhism, which was brought to Japan from China somewhere in the late Kofun period. We learned a lot about especially Shinto from both foreign and local people. Nowadays, buddhism became more of a subreligion to Shinto (for the sake of acceptance) and the only clear difference between them is seen in the buildings where they worship each religion. Buddhism has temples where monks learn about buddha and their teaching and Shinto has shrines with priests and priestesses who devote their lives to that specific shrine. From a tourist perspective, I thought that after you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all. Their buildings are mostly the same and they are all build to honor buddha. Of course there are some exceptions, there are some must-visit temples like Nanzenji in Kyoto and Todaiji in Nara.
Japan is great in how every place and name originates from some legend or myth and you also see this in the Shinto shrines. In contrary to the temples, almost every shrine we went to felt like a complete new experience because there are many different kinds with each having its own story. From the shrines and temples we’ve visited the two that stood out to me most were Gotokuji Temple and the Fushimi Inari Shrine .
Cat shrine (Gotokuji Temple) – around Tokyo
The reason I like this temple so much is the original little shrine on its grounds. In this shrine are MANY little cat statues called Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) and as if this wasn’t great enough to visit already, the story behind it is also really nice. We got the original story after buying our own Maneki Neko from a nice woman in the Temple.
This is one example of the many stories in this country and eventually you don’t care anymore if it’s a myth or not, you just start to believe in them. A nice thing about the temple itself is that the king in this story is actually buried in the graveyard of the Temple together with a lot of the other former kings. When we were looking at the graves, an old Japanese man called out to us, asking if we understood the kanji. When we answered in the negative he showed us his own drawn map of the cemetary and gave us a little tour. During the tour we experienced our first earthquake, even though it was only for 10 seconds, it was really scary. We later heard it was around 3.5 where we were. After we thanked the man for the tour we left the temple and cat shrine for that day. Since we liked this shrine and its story so much we decided to make a simple wish to the cat for fun. The wish was granted the day after so we brought the Maneki Neko back to the shrine to show our gratitude (and of course bought a new one!).
Fushimi Inari Shrine – Kyoto
Over whole Japan, many shrines are dedicated to the deity Inari, the god of rice. This is the main Inari shrine in Fushimi, Kyoto. As foxes are thought of as Inari’s messengers, there are many fox statues in the shrine, which is why it is also known as “fox shrine”. Besides having all these great fox statues, this shrine is famous for its thousands of torii gates. Nowadays Inari is also seen as a deity for success and prosperity in business. Many business man come to the shrine to pray for their business to become succesful. Each torii gate in this shrine is a donation, some small and some big, from companies that found success and donated a torii as sign of gratitude. You can walk a whole path through torii gates which will eventually lead to the top of mount Inari. Here you can watch out over Kyoto. This was one of the most beautiful days we’ve had in Kyoto and it is certainly a must-visit. When we returned to the shrine’s main building after climbing the mountain, a Shinto ritual had just started. We’ve seen a Miko (priestess in a shinto shrine) perfrom a ritual dance for two elderly people who had come to them in the shrine. They carefully played the drum and flute while they sang and perfomed the dance. The whole shrine went quiet (yes all tourist actually went quiet too) and watched the Miko dance in awe. This was so beautiful and of course it’s not allowed to film or photograph any of it but it is imprinted in my memory.
Besides shrines and temples we visited many interesting places. One of them, maybe also the most popular one of them, is the deer park in Nara. Nara is reigned by deers! No, but seriously, there are deers everywhere! They walk to you, make you pet them and walk along with you. You can’t look in any direction without seeing a deer or two. Another place we visited is considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Tokyo: Rikugien Garden. It certainly lived up to the expectations! The atmosphere and all those colors take your breath away. There was one more garden in Tokyo we visited that day and this one was really a must visit for me personally: the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens. Its famous for its big western style mansion and the garden full of roses in front of it. On our last day in Tokyo we visited Enoshima. It has a lighthouse where you can look all the way to mount fuji when it’s clear. We also visited the Iwaya Caves, which are 2 caves in the cliffs along Enoshima coast. Legend says that Enoshima was once terrorized by a dragon and one of the 2 caves is now dedicated to this dragon. Another legend we heard when we were on the island was that there was a time that these caves lead all the way to Mount Fuji. And even in this day and age, you can feel the icy wind of Mount Fuji blowing through the caves.
Besides the cultural differences you see in argitecture, food or religion, we differ so much from the people themselves too. From their life style and believes to their clothing and behaviour, there are so many differences.
The differences that stood out to me most in their look, (especially in Kyoto) was the neatness. If you look around you on an average week day (during school hours) you start to notice some things. Almost every girl wears a good quality skirt or dress, and most of the time way above the knee. In case of a skirt, a neat blouse is tightly put away in the skirt around the waist. The blouse is covering the whole top body most of the time. I’d say the average western shirt would be “showing too much skin” compared to what most of them were wearing. Shoes are high HIGH heels 90% of the time, even if they can barely walk on them. So this is basically female fashion over there and it looked great on them, but it also kind of gives this feeling of status importance, which makes them feel less approachable. The male look was mostly just suits, not too special-looking hairstyles and a good pair of shoes.Even though these styles were seen a lot around Tokyo too, it was not as much compared to Kyoto. Tokyo seemed much looser in general, which is not surprising in a big city with much more people and exposure to western cultures and styles I guess.
Politeness as a standard
It is well-known around the world that Japanese people are very polite. At first it feels a bit over the top, but you get used to the bowing. Besides that, the people always try to show kindness and they are above all very honest. There are not many “written rules” needed in Japan to keep order. If you tell the Japanese to do or not do something, they will follow that unwritten rule, just because they were told so. This results in everything outside being and staying very clean and ordered. On one of our excursions we were the only couple joining, so we’ve had a lot of great conversations with our native guide, which was a really nice, aged lady with a good understanding of English. She has visited The Netherlands twice and knows more about our capital than we do! She also said she liked how the people in the west European countries she’s visited were so nice and polite. Coming from a Japanese person, this sounded weird to us. We asked her if she thought there was a difference between politeness of Japanese people and western people. She explained how the Japanese are very honest and very kind, but that a big part of their politeness is part of their upbringing. If you are exposed to the same kind of politeness daily, it becomes a standard. If the meaning behind a polite sentence becomes a standard saying, it removes the big meaning behind politeness if you think about it. For example, if a western person tells you “thank you very much, you are really kind”, they obviously tell you this because they mean it. If they didn’t mean it, the last part would be unnecessary to say, so most people wouldn’t. In contrary, if this sentence would just be a standard thing to say, that would mean that if it wasn’t said in this way, it would be considered (more) rude. Now we kind of understood what she meant with the kind of politeness in the west compared to Japan and it was interesting to look at the Japanese people from another perspective.
The old and wise
As a heavily aging country with over 20% of the population being 65+ years old, the roles of young people and elderly are kind of revert compared to most countries in the west. What was pretty peculiar however, is that these elderly people really are something! Randomly strolling the streets of little villages outside Kyoto and Tokyo, we’ve been heartily greeted by elder people several times, like the already mentioned man in Gotokuji Temple did. All of them gave us a hearty greeting and welcomed us to Japan, following up with a conversation always starting with “where are you from??” and most of the time they’ve been to our country. To our surprise, the elderly seem to speak the best English of all random natives you will meet, and seem to be most practised in it since they actually DARE to speak to others in English. We’ve had a lot of fun conversations with these people and they gave us a really warm and welcome feeling in this somewhat xenophobic country. On the other side, we noticed that the elderly are the most outspoken people. This might be because they have the right to as the old and wise people of Japan. On a random side note: there are turtles everywhere!! Upcoming: Akihabara post