Living in Japan is fun. Some things you can only wish for in inang bayan’s bosom are ordinary in this country. Just do not convert the yen to peso or it might keep you from buying that Cavendish banana with a one hundred peso price tag. Forget you can have ten of that kudamono or fruit in a Manila palengke.
There’s more to love in the land of the rising sun. A first time Filipino foreigner won’t fail to notice how the Japanese perfected the art of waste collection and neighborhood silence. In my VASRA, Quezon City home, one has to be alert like a rabbit to catch the arrival of the waste truck on Wednesdays. It can come at any time and if you miss it, heaven forbid, your trash will be maggot magnet for a week. OCs will love the thrice-a-week clockwork waste pick up time in Japan.
On Saturday nights in Quezon City, it is de rigueur for the neighbors to hold parties that blast your eardrums to smithereens with videoke performances. No such thing in the Japan. But if you do need to sing that new One Direction hit, there are hi-tech videoke places in downtown Umeda or elsewhere. One wonders if people indeed dwell in the quiet houses down the street. In one’s reverie, you miss the noise but meanwhile, enjoy the Zen silence.
Of the places I have visited, I like Kyoto best. The Japanologist Donald Keene spent his summers there and wrote about its local history. Says he, the streets have not changed names for 800 years, and so if one reads the shogun chronicles, one can trace the ancient routes taken by the Ashikagas quite readily. Indeed the past and the modern co-exist in this old city. So many shrines, temples, gardens, and museums to visit in one’s stay. For the hedonists, there are numerous izakayas (eateries) and pubs.
A friend who had fellowship at the Kyoto University said the best way to explore Kyoto is by going the way of the flaneur, i.e., walk the thoroughfares and more so, its narrow side streets. I did just that one time to see the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, or MoMAK, starting off backpacker style from Kawaramachi station. It is a mere twenty minutes away via the Kanogawa river side and busy Kawabata street. Good thing, I followed the legends in a map courtesy of the tourist information office. It was James McNeill Whistler, an American late 19th century painter, on show. I guess the curators chose him for his Japanophile streak. So many common folks went to see his art and paid Y1500 or P700. It was worth it, what with the artist’s almost complete output curated in three major stages. Friends and families talked about what was seen in the frames in animated whispers. The guy’s etchings and print were his best, especially the ones depicting Thames river scenes. Yet I think his Filipino contemporary Juan Luna can trump him anytime, even if he claimed a Monet endorsement.
I have been to the Nijo castle at Nijojo-mae street and was amazed by its singing wooden floors. To be precise, the floor squeaked, the so many boards vibrated at each step of the hordes of visitors. They are not meant to entertain but detect the presence of ninjas out, or in, to hurt the shogun. An announcement apologized to patrons for the absence of display paintings which were at the time of the visit under restoration. When dining out at a downtown izakaya, the cook humbly confessed he was commissioned to restore one of the works. I almost blurted out, Hindi nga? Niloloko mo ako? (You are pulling my leg?) He held the pan in the evening and the brush by day. Interesting character.
I knew of Japanese gardens only through magazine features and postcards. So nothing prepared me for the beauty of the Shosei-en Garden near Higashi Hongaji castle on Karasuma street. From its old teahouses, maple lanes, wooden bridge, studios, to its ponds, everything was in harmony with each other. A piece of heaven inside the light ochre high stone walls, or taka-ishigashi. Farther up in Gion is the Kodaiji Zen temple with its old abbot’s huts, sand gardens, museum, and next to it nestled among the foliage on the hill is the huge statue of the Buddha. In Arashiyama, a thirty minute bus ride away from Kyoto Grand Station, beside the well-known bamboo groves is the Tenryu-ji Temple which is so historic and beautiful it is declared a World heritage site. Then there is the smaller Ginkakuji garden which is just as wonderful, with the maple trees and the grainy mini-furrows in the ginshadan (sand garden) lending impressive scapes to the ancient and golden temple.
And to top the Kyoto experience, one must visit the onsen at Kurama. It is at the northern tip of Kyoto, accessible through the Keihan railway line, a stone’s throw away from the Kawaramachi station, then a quick transfer at Demachayanagi to the Eizan Railways. You will be at the mountain haven in thirty minutes. Thanks to the super efficient railway system.
It was my first time at a public bath and I was very embarrassed to go naked. I felt like a virgin about to be exposed to all eyes. But the warm water, the astounding mountain scenery, and most of all the nonchalant attitude of the Japanese male bathers dissipated my reluctance to join the relaxing activity. I really enjoyed the experience. I never felt so cleansed and clean. That hot dip and Zen like meditation in the outdoor pool did it.