Daimonji, Kyoto

Maura Devereux

© Copyright 2002 by Maura Devereux

Photo of okuribi fire on Gozan Hills above Kyoto
The Japanese welcome their ancestors back during the festival of Obon, but you wonder how welcoming they'd find Kansai in August. The air hangs wet and sultry in the stultifying heat of the valley. Fashion accessories that would otherwise seem prim and old-fashioned - handkerchiefs, fans, parasols - are suddenly not only functional but essential. The "Pocari Sweat" beverages touted by ubiquitous vending machines somehow appeal. The cool steel and glass of Osaka's trains and skyscrapers beckon with the promise of air conditioning. Dragging through the thickness of the summer days, it occurred to me that I had not chosen the best time of year for my first visit to Japan. The dearly departed, I thought, might be well advised to remain on their mountaintops.

I braved the holiday week because it was the only time my friend Cas was free for a visit. Cas and I had criss-crossed paths across the globe for years since meeting in university in England, with a tacit agreement that the door would be open to each new far-flung homestead. She moved to Osaka to make quick cash teaching English after a stint of extensive traveling, making wine in Italy and California. Though Japan was some ways down my travel wish list, I trusted her time there would be short. I didn't know when I'd get the opportunity again.

We spent the early part of the week exploring the immediate vicinity, from the giant Buddha at Nara to the wild electronic gadgets of Osaka. On August 16, we made plans for an ungodly early rendezvous with her friends Takashi and Chikako for a day of touring Kyoto. That one, dizzy day has left me with my most indelible images of Japan.

We knew there would be fireworks. Banners throughout the train stations advertised it, and long-time Japanese residents assured us that they'd never faced the certain hassle to go see it. I knew my time was limited, though, and the proximity in which most Japanese live rendered all fear of crowds relative at best. It was as good a day as any to go to Kyoto.

We arrived in downtown Kyoto just before 10 am, and left ourselves at the mercy of our guides. Takashi had attended Kyoto University for his undergraduate, so we were somewhat surprised to see him pull out a map and display confusion over where to go. "We don't know where we're going," he assured us. Still, they did manage to trundle us onto a bus, and we headed for the Golden Pavilion.

At the entrance of our first attraction, we noticed stalls with small planks of wood. "It's for the fireworks tonight," Chikako said, although tonight seemed like a long time off. She handed us each a stick and a heavy black marker, and explained that we were to inscribe a prayer or a wish, and these would then be used to fuel the fires. What should one wish for? Love? Money? World peace? We pondered. Chikako wasted no time, quickly covering her board in ornate Japanese characters. We asked her what the letters meant. She explained that she had asked for, "All good things. All blessings." We had to congratulate her on her foresight. A proper doll in her summer dress and parasol, Chika smiled beatifically and said, "Yes. I am a genius!" I heretofore had not attributed such sassiness to the Japanese character. I knew we would get along just fine.

We proceeded to the Golden Pavilion, which I found impressive, but somehow expected. We then began wandering through the adjacent temples, sprawling complexes connected by a system of bridges and pathways. Throughout, Buddhist pilgrims stopped to pray at the shrines, pitching coins and ringing bells.

"Oh, no," Takashi said, hand over eyes to shield himself. We had gotten to one of the gift pavilions, where one could buy charm souvenirs. I'd seen this in Nara, and marveled at the specificity of worldly ills that warranted charms. There were many for good grades, a few for traffic safety, and one to ward off earthquakes. I'd certainly be bringing some of those back to California. But Takashi saw something different, and now both he and Chikako shook their heads, ashamed at the craven tackiness before them. There, at one of the holiest religious sites, was a charm bearing the image of Hello Kitty. It was akin to finding Mickey Mouse in a Basilica. And this was not just one devout Kitty, mind you. No. Here was a Kitty charm to match each blood type. To the Japanese, blood type is a more important indicator of character than a zodiac sign. Takashi and Chikako laughed in their mortification. "I didn't know Kitty had a blood type," she said. It was clearly time for Pocari Sweat.

Just as one red shrine started blurring with next, the time came for lunch. Knowing their American guest to be a vegetarian, Takashi and Chika took us to the Zen Buddhist temple Chosho-in, which is famous for its vegetarian cuisine. We surrendered our shoes, as we'd become accustomed to doing upon entering temples, and were seated on cushions around a low table in the spare, elegant room. Despite the evident popularity of the place, a respectful hush pervaded. The specialty at Chosho-in is a delicious yudofu, tofu simmered in seaweed stock, which fortified us physically while the calm and simplicity of the surrounding gardens provided us with just the right respite to face the heat again.

As we were in a Zen frame of mind, our next stop was at the Zen garden at Ryoan-ji. It is perhaps the most famous Zen garden in the world, and therefore a major Kyoto tourist attraction. As in so many famous sacred sites around the world, the clang of commerce is never far away, and this was especially true as tour guides and Zen monks battled for voice by Ryoan-ji's rock garden. The services for Obon drew believers from all over Japan, and monks by the seeming dozens filed in while we were there, chanting mesmerizing prayers in full chorus. We sat by the garden of stones and raked gravel, contemplating being and nothingness, while tour guides gave the history of the garden in Japanese. Chikako listened in. "He says that there are fifteen stones in the garden," she said, "but you can only ever see fourteen. He says that the one that can't be seen is supposed to remind you of the part of yourself that is always missing." I thought about this, and then counted the rocks again. Chikako seemed to do the same. "I only see..." I started. "...thirteen," she finished. We laughed. "I wonder what that says about us?" she said, although by this time, we were well aware that we made imperfect Buddhists.

"I had a friend, once, who was a monk," she said. "But he had to quit. I don't know why. Maybe he just didn't understand Zen."

We moved on through the afternoon, from one site to the next, each more illustrious than the last, all nestled in lush green. Here, this one dates from the Shogun era! Here, here's a pagoda five stories tall! The cultural richness soon became overwhelming, so thoroughly enveloping us that I felt I could have been swimming through it all. The only city I'd been to before that made me feel that way was Venice. Everything was so completely of itself, so completely as it had been for centuries, that I felt not so much that I saw it as that I entered it. I couldn't believe that somewhere so splendid, and so perfectly exemplary existed, sitting right here, just waiting for me to get off a train. It was almost too much for me.

I noticed Takashi and Chikako studying their map again. "There is place we'd like to take you for dinner," he said. "And there, maybe we can," he struggled to remember his English, "take a beer?"

Now they were talking. Next stop: Gion.

The Gion district is the heart of another culture for which Kyoto is famous. In Kyoto, there are monks, and there are geisha. The figure of the geisha has long captivated the imagination of Japanese and westerner alike, with their painted faces, elaborate hair styles and fastidious manners. Kyoto supports a thriving culture of paid companions, from the highly trained and highly paid geisha to their more attainable counterparts in the "hostess" establishments. While the narrow streets and lantern-lit doorways of Gion are most suggestive, one is unlikely to see a geisha as such. More likely, you might see a little maiko, or geisha in training. And more likely than that, you might see a figure such as we saw: a perfectly archetypical maiko, in full makeup, powder blue kimono, and click-clacking geta on her feet. She posed graciously and we took photos. When we finished, and she turned to make her way, a man quickly stepped in to take her place. He held a cardboard sign, which read:

This girl is not a real maiko. We can do hair and makeup like her. 200 yen.

It was time for another rest, and I'd heard a rumor about a beer. Our guides took us to an understated, clean, yet warm place, where a fashionable young Japanese and international crowd drank specialty beers and sampled a menu of small plates. As Takashi and Chikako scoured the menu, Cas and I marveled at the fact that, while thoroughly specific to its locale, we could have easily been in New York, or London, or Buenos Aires. Among travelers, we spoke of our travels. This is one of my favorite things about traveling. When I'm in a new favorite place, I start to love the world at large, and I can't wait to see what my next new favorite will be.

By the time we finished, dusk had gone dark, and people were beginning to gather by the river for the fireworks. We'd expected an event, and that was certainly what we got. Hundreds of people, mostly Japanese, mostly local, came out for the view. Families of salary men, relaxed in rare casual dress. Girls and young women in summer kimono and geta. The crowd spirited, but orderly, as the fall of the sun barely alleviated the heat of the day. We looked at the hills around us and staked our vantage, and the fires were lit.

Five fires - okuribi - were lit in the five Gozan hills. The largest and most prominent was in the shape of the character dai, meaning "large." In addition, there were myo, or "miraculous" and ho, meaning "doctrine." Funagata blazed in the form of a ship, and for those with an especially fortuitous vantage, torii burned, the symbol of the shrine. Together, they presented a humbling sight - five spirits looming in the mountains to be seen from heaven and earth, orange and red in the blue dusk. I wondered where my wish was, the wish I'd made earlier. What spirit was I fueling? Who was I calling from the hills of Kyoto? Fleeting questions for a fair summer night.

We sat by the Kamo river, and as the fires burned down, I contemplated all I'd seen. A city at once ancient and modern, with hills and valleys, highly sacred and highly profane. And yet, as beautiful as it is, and as gracious as its people, there will always be something of Kyoto that it hides from the rest of the world. What it is, it has long been. It will evolve in its own time, with scant regard for the will of the world.

One day, I will return to Kyoto. There may not be fires in the hills, but I'm sure I'm just one cherry blossom away from falling for it all over again.

Maura Devereux is currently working on a novel.  She lives in San Francisco.

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