One of the many things that I enjoyed about Japan was the fact that everything was the same as we have here, but slightly off. Here’s a picture of the subway. We have subways. Japan has subways. However, either due to drunk or suicidal people, the Japanese have decided to put barriers that stay shut except when a train has pulled into the station and the train doors have opened.
Advertising for things: we have it, they have it. The difference is their ads are non-sexual. All of them. Imagine that. This was the most sexual advertising I saw while I was there.
I always wondered why the Japanese are famous for their eclectic sexual proclivities and I think if most of the females are dressed like FLDS women and none of your ads show even a glance of side-boob, you’re going to need a whole lot more to get where you’re going in the bedroom. Oh, speaking of advertising, someone asked me if I saw any famous American celebrities in Japanese commercials and I saw only one, this one:
I cannot figure out how Elijah Wood and Peter Rabbit are selling this car, but they are so good for them.
Oh look, cake. We have cake. Wait… are those kernels of corn on top of the frosting?
Transitioning beautifully from corn, the Japanese are really into poop. It’s a thing. I passed more than one store selling golden turds on pillows.
Then I saw this outside a pharmacy. Imagine this outside a CVS here.
I want elves and Pac-Mans cleaning my entrails.
The pinnacle of this was when I saw a book for Snorth. Snorth reads books to children during Storytime in various libraries, so I glance at books wherever I happen to go seeing if they might be good for her. My first day on my way to the Ghibli Museum I passed a bookstore that was selling a book about a sentient toilet with a Dali mustache who travels through the forest where various anthropomorphic forest creatures void themselves in him. I didn’t buy it and I regretted that for the duration of my travels. I went on a quest to find the book near the end of my trip. I will reveal the result of my journey in my ultimate or penultimate entry (because I’m trying to remain chronological). I’m building toilet-book suspense. Will I find the book? Won’t I? Tune in to find out.
Kyoto! It is a really charming city. It’s a little like a fairytale. During the war the Allies decided not to bomb Kyoto at all to maintain the architecture, so it wasn’t damaged at all. It’s an excellent walking city. In fact, our Frommer’s book gave us a walking tour that I would recommend. We did most of the walking tour our first day there. We started at the Sanjusangendo (SAN-JOO-SAN-GEN-DOE) Temple, home of the 1,001 Kannon (don’t worry, I didn’t know what that meant either). It’s a Buddhist temple built in 1164. It has really nice gardens as well (YAY PINE TREES).
Sanjusangendo is the longest wooden building in Japan. It needs to be really long because it houses a giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy, flanked on either side by 500 golden human-sized statues of her as well (that’s what the word Kannon means, Goddess of Mercy). If you’re wondering why each statue clearly does not have 1,000 arms as intended, I found this explanation:
1000-armed Kannon are equipped with 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans and with 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering. Note that the actual statues have only 42 arms each. Subtract the two regular arms and multiply by the 25 planes of existence to get the full thousand.
To me this sounds like the sculptors were like, “Are you serious? 1,001 statues, each with 1000 arms? No. Forty-two arms. We’ll make it a divisible number or something. I’m not carving a bajillion arms for eternity.”
I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but other people have so here’s what it looks like in there. It was beautiful, rows and rows of glimmering figures in the dim light.
Standing in front of all the golden statues were twenty-eight profoundly disturbing Buddhist guardian dieties. They were disturbing because they were human-sized and while they were carved out of wood, their eyes were made of crystal so they totally resembled human eyes. Most of them had intense expressions and ripped muscles, so the shiny eyes became even more off-putting. I believe they were constructed to put the fear of God in people, and I was certainly afraid. Stop looking at me, Wind Guardian! You too, Thunder Guardian! You’re making me uncomfortable!
It’s such a long building that they hold archery tournaments in there. And in January people with chronic headaches can line up outside and be touched on the forehead with willow branches in an attempt to be healed.
Now, here’s something you’re going to hear over and over again. Sanjusangendo burned down in 1249 and was rebuilt in 1266. I cannot tell you how many buildings I visited that had burned down and been rebuilt. I visited one that I think burned down eight times. Hey! Japan! Here’s an idea: don’t build all your buildings out of wood and paper. You have rocks. I saw them all over. You have an impressive clay culture. You can make bricks. You know what bricks are known for? Being not flammable. I know you get earthquakes and the wood probably flexes in a way that works for you, but at least build part of the building out of stone or something so you don’t have to start from scratch each and every time. I’m exhausted just thinking about building these colossal structures over and over.
After leaving Sanjusangendo, we walked a bit down several streets until we got to a house that belonged to a potter named Kanjiro Kawai, and when he died in 1966 it was turned into a museum of his work. This is important. If you go to Kyoto, you must go here. Not because of the pottery (I didn’t much care for it, too thick and heavy and rough-looking for my taste) but because they kept the house intact and chances you will not be able to walk around a typical two-story Japanese house otherwise. It was so exciting for me to go into a home done in a style that has been the standard in Japan for centuries and centuries. I loved it.
Because space is such a premium, it was amazing how the house was laid out. It was labyrinthine. In the backyard Kawai had built a really impressive series of kilns to fire his work (there was also a dirt kiln built under a covering to protect it from the rain, that was cool too.) Regardless of my feelings for this guy’s work, he clearly cared about making pottery and his care for his craft really shows. It gives you warm fuzzies to be there.
After we left Kawai’s home/museum, we trekked up the side of a mountain. Ugh. It was rough. I am not an athlete and I had to pause several times to lean against something and catch my breath. The only problem is the entire side of the mountain is covered in graves, so more often than not I was leaning up on a family’s tomb. There are cemeteries everywhere in Japan, tucked in corners. I think that because they cremate their dead, there’s no worry of contamination if there’s flooding or something like that, so the graves are right next to apartments or restaurants. First we walked past an enormous crematorium with tons of flowers outside.
And then the mountain of tightly packed graves. You better know where your family plot is because otherwise you ain’t gonna find it ever.
After finally making it to the top of the mountain we came upon the Kiyomizu Temple, but we knew that was going to be covered in our organized tour the following week, so we gave it a casual pass-through. We then walked down the mountain down a great touristy road. It had all kinds of fun stuff to check out – snacks specific to Kyoto, green tea ice cream, souvenirs, fans, yukata and pottery. The Moomins is obsessed with pottery so we had to check out the main pottery shop which was two floors of pure awesome. I would have bought a great many items except the prices of things in Japan are depressing. Here, I took some pictures in the store:
Okay, these are little soy sauce dishes. Very wee. Plain. Basic. There’s 100 yen to 1 dollar, so if you move the decimal point over you’ll notice that the entire front row is $115.00. Why? That was pretty much the case for the whole trip. I would see a teapot I liked, nothing special or extravagant, and I’d say, “I would like to own that! It would be a lovely addition to my home!” and it would be $9,000.00. Seriously. Not an exaggeration. It kept me in check because about 90% of the things I wanted forced me to contemplate selling my car to pay for it, so, not surprisingly, I didn’t get them. Have another example:
That lumpy small rinkydink sake cup that looks like an elementary school kid’s project is $336.00. Yeah, no.
After walking for several hours we started heading back to our hotel room. On the way we passed one of the restaurants specializing in only crab which I christened “crabatoriums.” The Moomins decided after looking at the stellar plastic food examples with claws sticking out of them that she wanted crab for dinner and it’s her vacation too, so even though I’m not heavy into crab I was like, sure, let’s do this. We walked in and realized that this was four restaurants, one on each floor, each one serving a different type of cuisine. We had to mime walking sideways and clicking our pincers so the maitre d’ would understand which restaurant we wanted. We probably looked super-smooth. After we had Marcel-Marceau’d enough, they said they understood and they told us to leave our shoes with the shoe-keeper and go into the elevator to the fourth floor. This was the sign in front of the shoe-keeper’s booth.
Anywhere else in the world, the act of walking into a building, surrendering your shoes and stepping into a tiny elevator going to an unknown floor feels SO VERY SKETCHY. I said, “If this was happening in New York or Prague or someplace like that, this evening would end with us in bathtubs full of ice missing our kidneys.” But this is Japan and crime isn’t even remotely close to what we’ve become accustomed to. We arrived at the fourth floor where the waitress took one look at us and led us to a Western table and chairs. Then she handed us the menu which blew my mind. You think you like crab? You better. It’s in everything.
This is my lovely mother doing her best pincer impression while showing the cover of the menu.
And these sumo-wrestling crabs were on the placemat.
We ordered something reasonably-priced (no need for the $100 Crabocalypse) and the crab was delicious. It tastes very similar to the fake crab used in California rolls, but much more delicate and nuanced. I had a crab don, which was warm vinegared rice, cooked egg shavings, salmon roe and pieces of crab. I’m going to try and make it at home. I found a photo online of what it looked like. In addition to being yummers, it was nice to look at.
Outside the crabatorium was a fire pit with couches around it and a tea kettle hanging down (not unlike what you see in the pictures of the potter’s home above). The Moomins said, “Hey, you’re redoing your kitchen and you have a ton of space above the stove… Why don’t you hang a tea kettle there? It will a cool vertical visual for people to see when they come in.” Since I’ve been to Japan and seeing all their amazing design I’ve reevaluated my fish backsplash idea. I think I’m going to take my mom’s advice and do something with a hanging tea kettle and possibly a giant fish-type thing like you see in the photo, and make the backsplash be something plant-y so it doesn’t fight with the fish/tea kettle situation. I need to make some drawings and get back to y’all on this.
Next, a temple fair and the Nishiki Market.