When my sister notices her three kids getting more and more involved in the preponderance of manga and anime culture, she decides it would be best if she brought them to Kyoto so that she could squeeze in a couple of ancient temples and traditional culture between visits to the international manga museum. I volunteer to fly in and meet with them in Osaka and show them around as I slightly know the place, owing to some crazed notion four years ago that I and my brother Don can see all seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto in seven days. We were able to see fifteen because one (the one where the guidebook describes as moss and lichen-covered) is available on a reservation basis, and the other (the one where eerie distant gongs can be heard from a hillock of peace and quiet) is too far away. These are our recommendations so far:
1. Visit one temple a day, if you can help it. If you don’t and when you look back, the experience becomes a blur of pagodas, chedis and stupas and you won’t be able to remember anything, let alone know the difference. Do not be a cretin and follow what we did.
3. Go early in the morning because when the tour bus comes in, well, the tour bus comes in.
4. Wear comfortable shoes. Unless you’re Japanese, then you may wear your fancy Jimmy Choos because your ankles have done worse, like the subway stairs in Tokyo or Osaka.
5. Go ahead and drink the water.
6. Always find a reason to come back.
When the family arrives at the Kyoto station, my sister is alarmed at the modernity of the steel and concrete around her. She had expected bamboo. Lots and lots of bamboo. I tell her to relax as this is typical of most Japanese cities. They are a huge mass of concrete and steel but are able to somehow conceal the ancient between hilly passes, within patches of green, even behind downtown high rises. Trees rise just enough to cover the modern edifices but not the summer sky, bushes are thick enough to repel the sound of cars and there is always someone picking dead leaves off of any plant. Maybe we are familiar with ikebana and bonsai, but the intricacy of this conundrum, of being able to separate the ancient from the modern in such limited space, is an art in itself.
Rain falls unforgivingly and we are stuck in the corner of a golf shop and wet. I hand the kids, Julianne, Enzo and Tonii, their Den-den Rice–my invented meat-stuffed rice balls wrapped in seaweed aptly named after the technological hub of Den-den Town, because of their absence of innovation. We run to a covered pedestrian street and were pleasantly surprised it is the Nishiki Market. We buy some octopus, tofu skewers slathered in bean sauce, lots of green-tea flavored pastries, more skewered sea food of unrecognizable origins, and of course, fried chicken. At the end of the street, the kids have already gobbled the entire stash. I am glad my niece and nephews are raised in the tropics. They are taught the same things I was–if it has tentacles and suckers, put it in fire and eat it. Every time I travel with them, I really don’t have to worry about where to buy the next chicken nugget meal.
We finally make it to the Kyoto International Manga Museum.
The kids find their own nooks between shoulders of businessmen and housewives devouring their manga of choice. The exhaustive collection is two stories and a basement big, and is patronized by locals as much as tourists. The Japanese enjoy their comic book culture like Filipinos enjoy their telenovelas–always excited for the next issue. What is noticeable though is that manga culture is not exclusive to tweeners or couch-bound losers. There is a comic book for every sector and age. Even some for the perverse. And they provide seating all over the place.
I sit in a corner and observe my niece and nephews navigate Nihongo with hand gestures during a cartooning workshop. They pick up their jaws from the floor when I tell them I used to be the voice of several cartoon characters back in the Philippines more than a decade ago. I dismiss the triviality and tell them we all do strange things when we’re young but this time, we are going to experience traditional Japanese culture.
After a subway ride and a slightly inclined walk past Chion-in Temple, Maruyama Park and Kodaiji Temple, we get to a village-like setting with low-roofed, wooden houses converted into smart storefronts. Human-pulled rickshaws run around carrying Kimono-clad tourists whose hairpieces jingle in the humid summer air. I make a mental note to get myself a pair of rickshaw guys’ shoes. They are so ninja. The alley leads to Ninenzaka slope where we encounter the crush of tourists spilling out of their buses and heading to Kyomizu-dera. They stop and go like clay animation every time they see and buy a fridge sticker the price of a decent wrist watch. I begin to regret and think whether I should have brought the kids to Kinkaku-ji instead, but they are enjoying their green tea ice cream and Kinkaku-ji would not be any less crowded anyway (fond memories including being almost pushed into the Mirror Pond of the Golden Pavillion).
The crowds begin to dwindle as visitors stake their own space in the massive temple complex, gradually having personal epiphanies. The kids stand on the sagging floor of the main hall and laugh at the skewed photos they take of each other. My brother-in-law hurts his hand trying to lift a solid block of iron, because he likes to lift things and maybe inside a spiritual temple, gravity is different.
Named after a diminutive waterfall inside the temple complex, Kiyomizu-dera was put up in 798 CE. Like a monk boss, I explain to everybody that all the structures, including the Deva Gate, the Three-storied Pagoda and the Honda Hall were built without nails after Tokugawa Iemitsu’s wishes during the Edo period in the seventeenth century. They are impressed at the information I dispense which I lifted from the brochure while they were busy stuffing their face with ice cream. Just beyond, we could make out the tip of Kyoto tower trying to rise above the trees and fog. The temple gifts me with a moment devoid of worries, so I hit a bell with a suspended log, clap twice and bow my head in thanks.
Working our way back, we stop at Yasaka Shrine to enjoy the lanterns light up in the sunset, then past toriis, trees,
more lanterns and the shrine gates, modern Kyoto begins to rush back in. We all go to the Gion district to enjoy more traditional houses of bamboo and wood, and try to catch a glimpse of a Geisha on her way to work.The smell of cooking seafood is in the air and our hunger takes us back to the human. We see a disappointing grand total of one out of seventeen World Heritage Sites. But we are happy and dry, and now have sixteen reasons to come back.
(All photos ©M. Sanchez)