Monday, 26 November 2012

The Curious Statues of Arashiyama

With the autumn leaf season upon us again (October/November), Jules and I decided to head to the nearby town of Arashiyama to enjoy the colour and festivities that usually surround major seasonal changes in Japan. In fact it’s a very popular little town all year round in any case, as the scenic mountains and fast flowing river attracts regular visitors keen to enjoy the combination of scenic beauty, temples, quaint shops and eating establishments. While traditional flat bottomed boats regularly transport tourists from the up stream town of Kameoka  to Arashiyama itself, a fleet of energetic rickshaw drivers run couples to the various attractions in and around the town. Being just a short train ride from Osaka and even closer for the residents of Kyoto, it remains one of the most visited areas in the Kansai region. There was certainly plenty of evidence of that on the day we were there, with thousands descending on the little town for a pleasant family day.

 In the centre of Arashiyama is the world heritage listed Tenryuji Temple that dates back to 1300 AD and is regarded as one of the great examples of Zen architecture in the Kyoto area. It is also surrounded by a magnificent bamboo grove where you can follow a winding path and be dwarfed by beautiful towering lengths of bamboo plants that stretch high into the sky as to almost block it out. This walk alone attracts thousands of visitors to the temple grounds, yet for us it was only a slight diversion from the real reason we were visiting Arashiyama.

On one of her many internet searches into the Kansai region, Jules had read about a lesser known temple with a particularly unique feature that had sparked her curiosity. The Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple is very small and sits at the northern outskirts of town, at the edge of the nearby mountain range. It is a little further to walk to than most of Arashiyama’s temples, which makes it far less visited and often quieter than the towns larger and better known Buddhist attractions. However, what makes this temple unique is the garden that surrounds it, which is filled with over 1200 stone statues of disciples of Buddha. This might sound all very solemn and serious, but these are possibly the most whimsical statues that you are ever likely to see in a Buddhist temple anywhere. While the original temple dates back to the thirteenth century, the carved figures where added relatively recently, in the 1980’s. Not that you would be aware of that from their immediate appearance. They look much older, weathered from seasonal rains as well as the moss and lichen giving them an increased sense of age and in some cases, an almost unrecognizable quality. Closer inspection however, began to reveal some of the more interesting and endearing features of these figures, which were lovingly carved by local amateurs. There are some wonderful facial expressions that reveal the distinctly individual nature of each piece. Each has its own unique pose; some in peaceful contemplation, some in small joyous groups and some even involved with contemporary pursuits like photography, tennis, boxing and playing guitar. We even spotted one listening to a walkman! We found that the charming nature of these carvings were far less ‘stony-faced’ than western styled religious iconography and they seemed to say much about the warmth and optimistic nature of Buddhist faith.

As you can imagine, we ended up spending quite some time wandering around the various levels of the gardens trying to determine the story behind each little character. Like the other visitors there on the day, Jules’ just couldn’t resist photographing as may of them as possible as they stood nestled in their natural setting as colourful autumn leaves fell all around.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Mystique of the Geisha

One of the iconic images that can be seen on tourist brochures about Japan is that of the Geisha. These young girls dressed in elaborate kimono, with heavy traditional make-up and sculptured black hair adorned with hanging decorations, appear to represent everything that is traditional in this country. While the image is very familiar, their role in modern Japanese society still remains somewhat of a mystery and to a certain degree an intriguing curiosity to visitors.

While the Geisha community is quite small in Osaka, a quick train ride to Kyoto has often led us to several districts in which they can be seen at various times. Certainly Kyoto is quite unique in this regard and is the place where many of the apprentice Geisha (referred to as ‘Maiko’) learn the art of becoming a traditional hostess. This may involve learning Japanese arts such as dance and music as well as important communication and hospitality skills for their generally male guests. In fact the word Geisha actually means ‘person of the arts’, which suggests something very different to the misguided western notion of their role and the salubrious comforts they may provide. Indeed it is the exclusivity of their establishments and the long-standing trust between their clients that has over time enhanced the mystery that surrounds this small and unique cultural society.

When Jules and I have been walking through the historical Gion district of Kyoto, we have often seen pairs of Geisha (more likely Maiko) walking the laneways between buildings. Well, ‘teetering’ might be a better term, as they are often wearing very tall, steeply angled wooden shoes (called okobo), which combined with the heavily layered kimono, ensure that only tiny steps are possible. They are always immaculately dressed in their brightly coloured kimono’s with ghostly white make-up that covers the entire face except for a perfectly chiseled W shaped area at the back of the neck (regarded as one of the most sensual areas of Japanese beauty). In stepping out into the streets, they inevitably attract a crowd and quickly the cameras are out for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. They are of course well aware of the attention they attract and are generally very obliging in stopping to pose for the occasional photo before shuffling off to their destination.

The random nature of their appearance ensures that at most times they are able to go about their business relatively easily, however this is not always the case as Jules found out during a recent visit to Kyoto. It had been announced locally that a small number of Geisha would make an appearance to commemorate the local poet and playwright Isamu Yoshii, so Jules thought that she would investigate. What she found was the sort of paparazzi mayhem that might otherwise be reserved for the arrival of celebrities and movie stars. Such was the appeal of the Geishas that amateur and professional photographers alike could be seen clambering for position, some even bringing step-ladders to see over the anticipated crowds. The ceremony quickly dissolved into camera flashing chaos and the Geishas hastily retreated back to their establishment. With attention like this, it is not surprising that young girls are still attracted to the life of a Geisha. For the Japanese, they are still regarded as national treasures who provide a tangible link to the simple and elegant traditions of their past. For visitors like ourselves, they remain an exotic enigma that symbolizes much of the charm, beauty and mystery of this ancient culture.