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Published: April 16th 2007
I last left you in Shanghai on New Year’s Eve, 2007. What better city to start a new year? China, the country of the future, the economy of the future. (Update: Ex-Fed Chairman Greenspan has just issued concern over China’s stock market that it’s a bubble, growing 3 times in value since beginning of 2006. Same day another article concentrated how a high number of Chinese investors invest like we might play roulette. Double 8s equal double happiness, BUY! Someone needs to give these guys financial statements.) The implied promises of the Red Dragon hang high over the people of this ‘democratic republic.’ And although I counted down 2007 in a cab in Shanghai traffic (symbolic?), the night ended on a high note with a great party and new friends.
January 1st I reluctantly awoke after three hours of sleep and made my flight off the Asian mainland. I flew from a city which promises the future to a city that relishes in its past, and was celebrating happily in the present. In Kyoto I found a city with a deep historical identity. And as typically lucky for me I found myself there at a time during great
festivity. All over Japan (as is probably commonly known to others besides me), New Year’s is celebrated over the first 7 days of the year. It is by far the biggest holiday of the year. I knew this must indeed be true as I tried to find a hostel with an empty bed. Being on crutches at the time, if I had to do this on my own I would have been sleeping outside. But being in Japan, someone is 5 steps ahead of you at all times when it comes to consideration of your comfort and needs. Straight out of the impressive Kyoto train terminal I found a tourist center that helped me find an accommodation for the 5 nights I planned to stay. I was grateful not to tow my oversized bag with my three legged canter. (which I did in Shanghai for 5 hours!)
Anyways, I mentioned tradition. Well if you want a taste of traditional Japan, Kyoto on New Year’s is the place to be. All over town you could see women dressed in traditional, beautiful, colorful kimonos. Even a few geisha girls could be found gliding their way through the old traditional low
buildings near the temples. And wherever there is a celebration there is bound to be food. Oh the food! I love it. Everything is amazingly displayed to tantalize the senses. The attention to detail and refinement is masterful, whether it’s rice cakes, sweets of dizzying assortment, or squid on a stick. The diversity of snacks in Japan was astounding to me. Almost all of it is new to me. I decided there in Kyoto that the Japanese must be the original snack masters. Every block I saw something and said to myself “I bet people in the US would LOVE that, those, and these.” Now obviously our cultures have been sharing ideas for a long time now. And you’re probably thinking, “if it was really that good we would have it by now.” But I remind you that it took us a long time before we took to sushi. And I’m convinced Japan will always be exporting their expert culinary creations as we evolve our tastes from Twinkies to Green Tea ice cream, and who knows what next. Perhaps the whole ‘birds nest’ flavor will take off. But then again, any flavor derived from the saliva a special bird uses
to build nests probably will have to undergo a serious re-branding effort.
I don’t know how I just took you from kimonos to bird saliva, but such is how the mind wanders and dreams when in Kyoto. A visit to one of the myriads of Shinto or Buddhist temples adds to the dreamscape. In the running for “the world’s next seven wonders of the world,” one such temple is built steep on a mountainside on a massive wood lattice-work. No nails. No screws. Just brilliant craftsmanship. You’ll learn to expect nothing less after spending time in this country.
The traditions, behaviors, and people were quite diverse at these temple visits. Part sacred ground, part festival, I found myself intently trying to understand the various rituals around me. Long lines of believers waited turn to enter the temple, give alms, say a prayer, or ring a bell. Others lined up to buy a fortune. For a few yen the fortune seeker would shake a wooden cylinder, then turn it on its head until a thin ‘pick-up stick’ slid out of a teeny-tiny “hole of destiny.” The stick was numbered or named and was turned in for a slip
of paper. The expressions on people’s faces were amazing to watch. I spent a good 30 minutes trying to be inconspicuous and photograph people as they read what the new year had in store. I still remember one young man, dressed liberally in jeans, t-shirts, and leather jacket, his girlfriend by his side. She smiled and laughed at her fortune and was trying to engage him but he stood there, eyes fixed on that little slip of paper. He remained expressionless for a good 3 minutes as he took it in. I don’t know what it said but I would have loved to learn. Obviously he didn’t find it too comforting or funny. The poor guy must have been unlucky in his stick selection. I actually started to feel concerned for the guy his expression was so serious. In the end his girlfriend glanced it over and got a smile out of him. It’s amazing the power a pretty girl has even when you’re staring at your impending doom!
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