By Fyllis Hockman
It 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 caused a spray of water to clean my nether regions and a portion of the large bathroom mirror that remained perfected clear even after an exceptionally steamy shower, which coincidentally, was the most invigorating I've ever had. Plus a sophisticated hair dryer with more settings than I had hairstyles — all 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 teahouse 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 can't actually stop for a beverage of any sort on the way to the airport!
From Kyoto and its temple overload — it has more than 2,000 of them — we headed into the countryside to follow the paths forged by feudal lords, daimyos and samurais of the 17th to 19th 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 eight to 10 miles a day, we traveled through post towns that afforded the pilgrims refreshment and accommodations and that feel and look as old as they did in the 17th and 18th centuries. We meandered over trails, through mountain passes and alongside Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, often shrouded by forests, thick and lush, with ever-present rumblings of brooks, rivers and waterfalls that provided a different kind of tranquility equivalent to the many temples en route.
I sensed the samurais traversing the same stone steps, stopping for tea at the same wooden teahouses, sitting on the same tatami mats. 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.
As we hiked in and out of shrines, temples and teahouses, there was a lot of taking off of shoes and putting on of slippers — and then taking off those slippers and slipping into other slippers. Whoever has the slipper concession in Japan provides added dimension to the concept of walking in someone else's shoes.
We spent the evenings 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 cooked 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 took 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 travelers' 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. OK, so maybe "shower" is somewhat of a misnomer — really I was sitting on a low stool next to a series of other low stools and rinsing myself 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 multiple 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 has become a communal rather than an individual affair. 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 up for dinner saves a lot of space when packing.
Ours was a measured pace with lots of stops for historic perspective, and although the uphill climbs often necessitated a wish for even more historical perspective, it sounds harder than it was. Oh all right, so there were one or two sharp inclines, but we tended to forget about them shortly thereafter.
As much as my eyes tended to glaze over after yet another temple, shrine or castle, 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, the concubines who dominated the history of Japan from the ninth century through the 20th. And I was actually beginning to look forward to yet another pair of slippers.
Eventually it was time to return to the big city. Culture shock ensued 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 high-rise modernity, the Edo period (1602-1868) is still alive and well just below the surface. And this is what our guide, Paul, delighted in explaining. Using a collection of woodcuts and old photographs dating from the 1800s that he's amassed in a mammoth book, he illustrated how every street corner, bridge, hidden side street and major boulevard all had their beginning from the time Tokugawa arrived in 1590. 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 said, pointing to a historical illustration time and time again. "This is where we are now!"
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 Nakasando Way that made the journey so meaningful.
As I was going through security at Narita Airport en route 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.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit www.walkjapan.com.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.