Sunday, August 10

Kyoto Day 1

While in Kyoto for two days- in no particular order -we see five temples, visit the graves of a famous group of samurai and my period arrives to spoil the fun. And who thought it would be a good idea to see 5 temples in one day? They all blur together after a while.

The famous Golden Pavilion was a bit of a disappointment. It looked kind of -small. Without the gold leaf covering the top two stories it would be completely unimpressive. Even stranger- it’s not an old building. The original was burned down in 1950 by a deranged monk. The Japanese value the past so much they rebuilt it exactly the way it was- a retirement home for a shogun then a temple. I can’t think of any monument in a America that was destroyed then rebuilt to such exacting detail.

I wish I paid more attention to the shrine of the 47 samurai-probably one of the most familiar stories in Japan, an example of samurai loyalty and honor. The story is pretty straight forward. Lord Asano was being instructed in court protocol by Lord Kira, who was greedy, arrogant and thoroughly disliked. Kira went out of his way to goad his younger charge until Asano had it and drew his sword whacking Kira on the head. He wasn’t killed alas, but drawing a sword in the Imperial palace is a capital no-no so Asano lost his title, land all his assets and had to commit suicide.* Kira walked away unpunished, with a smirk on his face, no doubt.

Asano’s chamberlain and top samurai Oishi decided revenge was in order. Since Kira was expecting this (gosh what a surprise) Oishi and the other samurai bided their time. They spent a year and half making everyone think they didn’t care. They partied, they took jobs-which was unheard of for a samurai, they simply didn’t DO that, some even divorced their wives. (This was a ploy so the family would not be disgraced or lose any assets when the revenge was played out).

On December 15, 1703 Kira let down his guard the boys arrived at his house for payback where they found him hiding in a grain shed. After they loped his head off, they marched to Asano’s grave where they left it as an offering. Of course they ended up having to kill themselves too but they knew that from the beginning. All very chivalrous, romantic and thoroughly Japanese. There is an excellent version of these events in the 1962 film “Chushingura” and a kabuki play by the same name.

We moved on to Nijo Castle, which I really enjoyed.We go through the main palace with it’s elaborately painted doors and ceilings and I absorb as much of the sight as I can, since no cameras are allowed. As we walk along the “Nightingale floors” they make a curious squeaking sound, like birds chirping. They were designed so that no one could sneak into the palace to assassinate the shogun. After listening to that racket all day I’m sure the residents were ready to kill someone.

I was awed by the age and beauty of the place. The idea that the most powerful people in Japan walked these same floors for hundreds of years blew me away. This very room is where the Shogun, the military ruler for 250 years, in 1867 abdicated his power-returning sovereignty to the Emperor, just like that without a big war- is heady stuff.

Our last stop is the Heian shrine, which I skip because I’m tired and cranky from my period. I hang out near the bus and have to visit the bathroom-again. I encounter the dreaded Japanese style trough toilet. This is an experience to be missed. I consider the western toilet the height of civilization.

Tomorrow we are on our own. No free breakfast or lunch. Just a bunch of gaijin’s let loose in Kyoto.

*The proper term is seppuku but most know it by the vulgar term hari-kiri, literally cut the gut.

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