Well. Somehow, the last day of my trip has appeared as if out of nowhere. Apparently I’ve been away for 24 days, although it feels like far longer. I have become used to travelling, and seeing a different place almost every day, and I am under no illusions that returning home will be bizarre and that the normality of everyday life will, conversely, seem quite alien at first. I will miss the sense of freedom, the proximity of the unknown and endless opportunity for exploration. But my God, I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again. And so to the last chapter in this little travel diary I’ve been keeping. I’ve found Kyoto fascinating, not least because when considered in tandem with Tokyo, it perfectly encapsulates those binary oppositions which so define Japan; namely, the constant conflict between nature and technology, and the past and the future. Here we have a nation which has Shintoism as its principle religion; an animistic faith which preaches above all the sancitity and importance of nature, yet is the world leader in electronics development. To the casual observer, Japan is a symbol of the future, yet it is a country utterly characterised by its history. These are dichotomies which permeate every aspect of Japanese culture, and nowhere are they more obvious than when comparing Japan’s past and present capitals.
I have already written about Tokyo, so to Kyoto. It is, of course, a busy city, but one which houses constant reminders of Japan’s cultural and political past, and the spirituality of its people. The geisha quarters (with the exception of Gion which seems to have become a red light district) have an air of understated elegance about them; lanterns hang from the doorways and the streets are narrow and quiet. Walking along them yesterday by myself (having ditched my tour group – I will elaborate in due course), there was a certain magic to the air, greatly contributed to by the fact that all I could hear was my footsteps and the occasional dripping of rainwater. Kyoto is also home to hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. These are generally incredibly special places, but the circumstances of my visits to the first few meant that the experience was somewhat ruined for me. I absolutely despise tour groups, and I was part of one for my first two days in Kyoto. These religious sites are supposed to be places of reverance and contemplation, yet they had hoardes of bleating happy-snappers swarming all over them like God’s 11th plague. I apologise for my preciousness regarding this matter, and I am fully aware that I am a tourist with a camera myself, but I just find it absolutely impossible to draw any positives from the company of people who cannot compute the word ‘sacred’ and wouldn’t know a good photograph if it painted itself purple and set fire to their ankles. That’s not to say the entire group was like that, and there were several others who grew similarly weary of being herded into a coach and then siphoned back out at all the hotspots. And so it was that I made my escape yesterday lunchtime and found my way to Kyoto’s ancient geisha quarters.
Today was a rather more sombre affair, as I took the bullet train to Hiroshima. The first half of the trip was spent, of course, in tribute to the 1945 atomic bomb disaster. Although the centre of the city feels like any other, around the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb dome (a building which has been preserved in its ruined state, in order to serve as a reminder of the devastation of nuclear weapons) there is a peculiar, heavy air. It is completely intangible, as all these things are, and perhaps was something I experienced only because my impression of the place was being mediated through my consideration of the bombing. The memorial museum housed several affecting, distressing exhibitions and artefacts. Particularly strong in my memory is the sight of the lunchbox of a 12 year-old boy, which had been found at his school by his older brother the day after the bombing. The metal was ripped open by the blast, and through the distorted tears in the lid, you can see the blackened outlines of carbonised rice. They never found his body. The second half of the day was a tremendous experience; every bit as memorable, although far more uplifting. I spent the late afternoon walking up what I suppose could be called a mountain on the outskirts of Hiroshima. The roads were all tarmac, and densely populated with houses, but there wasn’t a Westerner in sight. The way was seriously steep, and wound around the mountain right up to the summit, where there stood a silver pagoda with a statue of Buddha inside. I could see Hiroshima in its entirety from up there, and sitting cross-legged on the first level of the pagoda, watching the sun set over the city, felt like a fitting end to my visit to the place.
Tomorrow will be a far less strenuous affair, although I will not have time to do any writing. Therefore, I believe I have come to the end of this blog. Huge thanks to everyone who left messages, it was so nice to hear from people while being so far away. See you all soon!
Pappa (as you have christened yourself!): “Gedatsu” means salvation. Rest assured I have not forgotten about Samurai William, although I can’t remember where exactly he landed. It may well have been near Edo/Yedo. We must visit his shrine when we go to Japan together. Tara: Yes of course I am coming to Japan with you, although on the condition that we drop into Tibet as well; after all, that is my next intended destination!