Enoshima Shrine, Japan

Highlights of a Cultural Journey in Japan, Part Two.

Story and Photos by Ashok Khanna.

This article continues from Highlights of a Cultural Journey in Japan, Part One, in which a cultural tour of Japan engendered a new appreciation and understanding of the complexities of Japanese traditions in craft arts, paintings, and garden design.

To better appreciate the traditions of the Samurai, we walked through a district in Kanazawa along narrow streets and canals. There, they lived in traditional houses with gardens surrounded by earthen walls and gates that signified their rank. Similar to the Geisha districts in Kanazawa and Kyoto, many of the small wooden houses have been well-preserved and converted into tourist areas with restaurants and shops.

Philosophers Walk, Kyoto, Japan
Philosophers Walk

Our visit to Kanazawa and Kyoto coincided with national holidays, so most of the tourists were Japanese, and surprisingly, many women were wearing colorful kimonos. In Kyoto, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom in the old districts and along some canals. This looked spectacular at night, with lanterns hanging outside houses and street lights reflecting on the cherry blossoms.  The Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, about a mile long, was lined with cherry blossom trees, with a canal on one side and small shops on the other; it was serene and felt like walking through falling snow. I wondered if the beauty detracted from deep thinking or enhanced it. In keeping with that theme, the boat ride on Lake Ashi, bluer than the clear blue sky and surrounded by a mountain range that rose to snow-capped Mt. Fuji, was awesome.

Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi, Japan
Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi

Japanese Religious Traditions: Many of our cultural tour visits were to religious sites, either Shinto or Buddhist.The tour took us to Meiji Shinto, Sensoji Buddhist, Tenryuji Zen Buddhist Temple, the Golden Pavilion, Todaji Buddhist temple, (a UNESCO World Heritage site in Nara), Senkoji Zen Buddhist temple, Inari Shinto Shrine (with 10 thousand gates), and Sanjusangendo, the thousand Buddha’s temple.

Religious practice is open and inclusive in Japan. It is normal to bring a newborn baby to a Shinto shrine for a blessing, have a Christian-style wedding, and have a Buddhist funeral. The two homes we visited in Part One of this article had both Shinto and Buddhist shrines.

Todaji Buddha, Japan
Todaji Buddha

Shinto emphasizes the importance of purity, harmony, respect for nature and family, subordination of the individual to the group, and showing gratitude for the life forces that nurture us. There are many Shinto gods or spirits with shrines dedicated to them where people offer food, money and prayers. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it did not suppress or replace the existing Shinto worship of spirits, and the two religions influenced each other. Buddhism’s main goal is to end suffering by developing inner peace and compassion. Because it came in waves from Korea and China, distinct approaches to achieve that objective formed sects with adherents. Generally, Shinto’s focus is more on worldly blessings, whereas Buddhism is more transcendental. Confucianist and Taoist ideas have also had an influence on Japanese thought as well.

Enoshima Shrine, Japan
Enoshima Shrine in Fujisawa

On the day after my arrival in Tokyo, I visited the Enoshima shrine in Fujisawa, about an hour’s train ride outside the city with a former World Bank colleague. Its location on top of a hill gave great views of the surroundings, but unfortunately, not Mt. Fuji that particular day. The site has Shinto shrines, a Buddhist temple, and a temple dedicated to Benzaiten (originally the Hindu goddess of knowledge, Saraswati).

Each religious site had distinct features, especially in the design of ponds and gardens; some stood out, e.g. the rows of shops selling sweets at Sensoji, the blazing color of the Golden Pavilion, the huge Buddha statue at Todaji, a Zen Buddhist lecture at Senkoji, (where a couple of us got lost climbing up a hillside in the rain), the thousand Buddha statues guarded by 28 Hindu deities pressed into service to protect Kannon, the goddess of mercy, and the personal temptation to pass through all 10,000 gates at Inari, which was resisted.

The Food Scene: Now to the important subject of food. Did you know that Tokyo has the largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants, at 203 (more than Paris), with Kyoto second at 108 and Osaka third at 96? New York trails with just 65. Unfortunately, this important cultural aspect was not included in our tour.

Hotel breakfasts offered a variety of Japanese and Western foods, but as I am not much of a breakfast eater, I sampled some fresh fruit, although at Granvia Hotel in Kyoto, I enjoyed their French-level croissants. I also tried their Japanese breakfast option once–a Bento box with 5 or 6 small portions of vegetables, pickles, a bland Japanese-style omelet, and miso soup. Our cultural tour meals were mostly at small family restaurants with great service but not memorable food, partly because handling 15 guests at once was difficult for them.

Sujo Kyoto, Japan
Sujo Kyoto

Farewell Dinner: We 13 all piled into taxis for our farewell dinner at a riverside restaurant in the Sanjo district of Kyoto. Here, we walked meditatively along the Kamogawa River through a narrow lane with restaurants on both sides to Mimasu-ya in Ponto-cho. There was a lovely view of the river from my table. We were occasionally served sake with our meal, but I enjoyed it as my aperitif before meals, too. After that dinner, several of us went to a small tasting bar to try a variety of sakes from different regions and of different vintages. We ended up tasting each other’s three tasting portions as well. It was a convivial ending to our tour, especially the amble along a canal with cherry blossoms aglow under street lights on our way back to the hotel, reflecting on all we had seen and learned about Japanese culture and traditions.

The best food: Independent of the tour, I found great sushi at Mitsukoshi Department Store, Ippei, a small 12-seat counter restaurant in Kanazawa recommended by our tour leader, and Tsukiji Sushisei. I had the Sakura set Menu, consisting of sushi bites with a dash of wasabi on top, prepared by the chef two by two and put on my plate at the counter. The Yellowtail at Ippei just melted in my mouth, leaving just a hint of a sour flavor.

Shinpuku Ramen, Japan
Shinpuku Ramen

For Ramen, our guide suggested a vegetarian place called Yoroiya near a temple we visited, where the noodles were delicate and the broth was mild. I found another eatery called Menya Ramen in Kanazawa online. It was located in an alley not far from our hotel. When I got there, I found a long line outside and wondered if the wait was worth it. I asked an Australian ahead of me in the line, and he said it was. He was an English teacher living in Kanazawa. After an hour’s wait, our turn to order came up. He suggested I get the Tsukenmen, a thicker noodle with Miso sauce served on the side and chased with a Yibisu Premium dark beer. The food was indeed good. The thickish miso sauce came in a separate bowl from the noodles, and also had spring onions and fried bamboo in a bigger bowl. The sauce was outstanding in taste and texture—light brown and had what felt like flakes of tofu for the body. I ate some of that as soup and poured the rest into the noodle bowl. The Shinpuku Saikan Ramen Restaurant in Kyoto, pointed out to us by a taxi driver, was near our hotel. I ate there twice: ramen in a thin soy-based sauce the first time and fried rice, also in a soy-based sauce the second time. Another delight was the tempura at Heso Kyoto. Light and creamy, it brought out the flavor of eggplant and tofu.

The Science of Sake: I took a course in Sake decades ago and attended a few tastings at breweries in the San Francisco Bay Area. I knew that Junmai (pure rice–coincidentally also the meaning of Buddha’s father’s name, Suddhodana) is superior as there was no brewer’s alcohol added. Gingo meant that rice was polished down to 60%, and Daiginjo meant that it was polished further down to 50%. At this level of processing, sake is clean and crisp, especially when cooled. As I cannot read Japanese, I asked for assistance from other shoppers to identify what I wanted. For simplicity, sticking with just Junmai was good enough. I also tasted an aged Sake bought at a stall, which had a nuttier flavor.

After the tour ended, I stayed in Kyoto for a couple of days at another hotel where a “happy hour” served Shochu, a Japanese distilled drink made from barley, buckwheat, or sweet potatoes. It is Japanese vodka and tastes like it, except when made from sweet potatoes. Its alcohol level at 30% is about twice that of Sake. I found it a pleasant drink as well, but not with food.

At the end of one of our temple visits, we stopped at a historic 400-year-old inn (Amasake-Chaya) to drink Amasake, a warm fermented sweet drink with no alcohol. It tasted like a mildly sweet dessert wine. The inn was a simple roadside cafe for traveling feudal lords and looked like those seen in Japanese historical movies.

End: Japan’s reforms to develop into a modern state started when Emperor Meiji was restored to power in 1868 after centuries of Samurai-Shogun rule. The feudal structure of society was abolished, and the government looked to Western countries for science and technology. Decades later, an unfortunate outcome from that path led to the rise of militarism and an imperialist adventure culminating in WW II. Since its defeat, Japan has adopted a pacifist policy and concentrated on economic development. Its unconventional approach has successfully made it the second-largest economy in the world, reaching the zenith of its achievement in about 1990. Since then, its economic innovation and productivity growth have slowed, and it has lost its position as the second largest economy to China, which has 10 times its population and has emulated Japan’s approach to development together with South Korea and, more recently, Vietnam.

Despite the slow growth, Japan is a well-off country with an income of about $40,000-45,000 per person depending on the measure you use. But that does not convey its situation accurately. Japan has eliminated poverty; its population lives longer than anywhere else; people treat each other with respect and follow religions of their choice. Its governance is excellent, a democratic system that recognizes human rights, and an orderly, clean country with great infrastructure. This is the civilization and society Emperor Ashoka tried to create, or at least the closest to it of any populous country I have been in, for non-violent, tolerant, and compassionate governance.

To not make it feel like paradise, Japan does have issues: the Hinin people, low-caste Japanese that deal with death and animals, number about 2 million, and they suffer from discrimination, along with resident Koreans or Zainichi, that number about half a million. Apparently, they are now eligible for Japanese citizenship, but only if they change their name to a Japanese one. Ironically, Japanese are ethnically most closely related to Koreans. Still, the maltreatment of 2.5 million people in a population of 125 million, is much better than most other developed countries with large populations.

Three weeks is hardly enough time to judge a country, especially when assessing the role of women, as we did not meet any to speak with at length. Meanwhile, from my perspective, Japan feels good and is fully deserving of a Saikeirei, a 90-degree bow of respect. It is the most developed among the club of rich countries in the full sense of that word.

This story was originally published on https://ashokkhanna.com/japan-2023-shrines-crafts-samurai-geisha-and-cherry-blossoms/

To read Part One, open here: Highlights of a Cultural Journey in Japan, Part One.

IF YOU GO: The following links may provide additional travel information for Kanazawa, Kyoto, the Five Lakes Region and Mount Fuji, Tokyo, and Osaka.