Exploring the Head, the Heart and
The Soul of a Country
Story & Photographs by Fyllis Hockman
t is not often that a toilet and a tea ceremony form perfect metaphors
for the culture of a country, but so it is in Japan.
The toilet falls into the realm of delightful personal
discoveries albeit all of them in the hotel bathroom of the Kyoto
Park Hotel. First, a warm toilet seat with a variety of buttons that
cleaned more areas with water spray than I have nether region body parts,
a portion of the large bathroom mirror that remained perfectly clear
even after an exceptionally steamy shower which co-incidentally was
the most invigorating I've ever had. Plus a sophisticated hair dryer
with more settings than I had hair styles. All a testament to Japanese
ingenuity they apparently don't only make better cars. However,
as I was to discover on our hikes through the countryside, these benefits
were not always available. In fact, toilets in general were not always
available or stall showers (but more on that later).
A stop at a tea house illustrated another pervasive
element of Japanese custom the precision with which they do everything.
Just the preparation of a simple cup of tea can be a time-consuming,
labor-intensive, rule-bound ritualized ceremony the same is true
of a cocktail at a bar. Whether you prefer your drink shaken or stirred
and if shaken, the procedure resembles a professional maracas
concert an air of pomp and circumstance surrounds its presentation.
You don't actually stop for a beverage of any sort on the way to the
From Kyoto and its temple overload, we headed into the
countryside to follow the paths forged by feudal lords, daimyos and
samurais of the 16-18th centuries. Traversing the Kiso Road section
of the Nakasendo Way the ancient highway that connected Kyoto
with the then-town of Edo, now Tokyo at a rate of 8-10 miles
a day, we travelled past post towns that afforded pilgrims refreshment
and accommodations, through mountain passes and alongside Shinto shrines
and Buddhist temples.
Every day was an adventure. Past so much greenery
as to require a new color delineation to accommodate the different
shades. Past sacred stone markings, old rice mills and monumental
rock structures representing any variety of gods or demons or
homages to emperors and other human or spiritual deities. And
then the de riqueur waterfalls that crop up through the beautiful
forests that provide a kind of tranquil experience equivalent
to the many temples en route.
As we hiked in and out of shrines, restaurants
and tea houses, there's a lot of taking off of shoes and putting
on of slippers and then taking off those slippers and slipping
into so to speak, other slippers. Whoever has the slipper concession
in Japan provides added dimension to the concept of walking in
someone else's shoes...
The evenings we spent at small travelers' inns, with
fluffy futons floating on the floors serving as our beds. The inns might
have been small and simple but the dinners there were not. They most
often were banquet-style with multiple courses ranging from traditional
(and to my palate, unidentifiable) to more recognizable offerings that
usually took the shape of small fish. Despite not being an advocate
of Japanese food in general, I still never left the table hungry.
Having luxuriated in the bathrooms in Kyoto, such ablutions
take on a slightly different tenor in the countryside. I don't usually
shower and wash my hair before getting into a bath, but at the traveler's
inn in the rural town of O'Tsumago, I found this was the custom. And
as I'd learned, customs are one of the primary characteristics of Japanese
society. Okay, so maybe shower is somewhat of a misnomer really, you're
sitting on a low stool next to a series of other low stools and rinsing
yourself off with a shower head. And maybe bath is misleading as well.
It was actually an assortment of hot pools in a tranquil outdoor setting
accessed by multi-levels of stones and surrounded by interspersed boulders
ranging in size from large to humongous. And although to me this seemed
like a very unusual experience, our guide assured me it was an everyday
occurrence. In other words, bathing had become a communal rather than
an individual occurrence.
That sense of community carries over to meals to which
the inn occupants tend to wear their yukatas, dressing robes provided
by the inns, while sitting cross-legged on tatami mats. No dressing
for dinner. Saves a lot of space when packing
Day two took us through more post towns that feel and
look as old as they did in the 17th and 18th centuries. I sensed the
samurais traversing the same stone steps, stopping for tea at the same
wooden tea houses, sitting on the same tatami mats. At the Waki-Hajin
in Tsamago, where feudal lords used to stay, allegedly the infamous
Emperor who moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868 stopped by
once. They're still celebrating that half-hour rest stop by showcasing
special seats and implements he may or may not have used. It reminded
me of the George Washington Slept Here claims often heard in the U.S.
Our daily meanderings continued, sometimes over trails
or through towns and often shrouded by forests, thick and lush, with
ever-present rumblings of brooks and rivers and waterfalls accompanying
our journey. It was a measured pace with lots of stops for historic
perspective and although the uphill climbs often required a wish for
even more historical perspective, it sounds harder than it was. Oh alright,
so there were one or two sharp inclines but you tend to forget about
them shortly thereafter. Sort of like childbirth...
Day three more ups and downs, more historical towns,
more stunning views, more shrines and temples. As much as my eyes tended
to glaze over after too many temples, shrines and castles, each is actually
so well done that despite myself I found I was both interested in and
understanding the many details of the lives of the various emperors,
shoguns, samurais, daimyos and oh yes, also the concubines who dominated
the history of Japan from the 9th century through the 20th. And I was
actually beginning to look forward to yet another pair of slippers
And all the while, continued inter-connectivity with
the other men and women on the tour, conversing with different people
at different times, the camaraderie certainly welcome as you cross another
mountain pass for yet another scenic overlook.
There is no tipping in Japan. I mean you can't tip even
if you want to. Service people just won't accept it. At one point, we
stopped for tea and our guide Kate had collected more money from the
group than was needed. The waitress practically chased us down the street
to return the equivalent of a $1.50 overpayment. Can you imagine THAT
happening in the U.S.?
Time to return to the big city. There's definite culture
shock going from the tranquility of the countryside to the sensory overload
of Tokyo, the city center doing a very convincing impression of New
York's Times Square.
Despite Tokyo's hi-rise modernity, the Edo Period (1602-1868)
is still alive and well just below the surface. And this is what our
guide Paul delights in explaining. Using a collection of wood cuts and
old photographs dating from the 1800's that he's amassed in a mammoth
book, he illustrates how every street corner, bridge, hidden side streets
and major boulevards all had their beginning from the time Tokugawa
arrived in 1590. Assuming the title of shogun, he unified the country
by manipulating the daimyo (the baron class) and the samurais (the warrior
class) so that they stopped fighting each other (for the most part)
and worked together to make Edo (later renamed Tokyo) the center of
Japanese life and culture.
The rich history is not present in the buildings but
in the layout of the city, the nooks and crannies underneath. He related
his pictures directly to what we were looking at so that we no longer
saw what was currently there but what used to be. He brought to life
all the far-reaching accomplishments of the Tokugawa family shogunate,
the daimyos and samurais who served them, the merchants and the horse
traders who lived there. "See this," he pointed to a historical
illustration time and time again. "This is where we are now!"
When I was finally able to pull myself away from the
enthrall of the Edo Period, I looked up and was surprised to find a
very modern Tokyo all around me. The intriguing and creative architecture
of so many striking skyscrapers was in sharp contrast to the wooden
dwellings of the daimyos.
Although the two major cities, Tokyo and Kyoto, add
breadth and scope to the experience, it is the richness of texture and
depth of culture of the Nakasendo Way that makes the journey so meaningful.
As I was going through security at Narita Airport enroute
home, somehow having to remove my shoes did not feel as oppressive an
activity as it usually does. I felt right at home until I asked a
surprised TSA agent for a pair of slippers. For more information, contact
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