Gion Matsuri was clearly in this area. However, I didn’t see any floats, just people. Determined to find the floats, I set off to Yasuka shrine, where the festivities were supposed to start. After wondering through Gion, the geisha district, I managed to follow the signs until we reached Yasuka shrine. Situated on the top of a hill, its main feature was a giant stone Buddha which seemed to come out of the bamboo forest that surrounded it. It was beautiful and quite impressive. 

Next to it, at a smaller shrine, a large group of children and adults were preparing for Gion Matsuri. All the children, standing next to a couple of smaller floats, were all dressed in similar festival costume. Adults scampered around, tending to the last details on the floats and getting everything in order. It seemed as though I had stumbled upon a “mini Matsuri”, one where the kids would be carrying the floats through the streets and chanting to the beat of Taiko drums. 

Old men, dressed in their jinbei (resembling a men’s summer kimono) and old women in their yukatas (summer kimonos) stood around, chatting and nodding their heads slowly. Mothers tended to the needs of their children. Tucked away in this quiet area of Kyoto, there was a sense of excitement in the air. 

The children, anxious to get on their way, could barely contain themselves, fiddling around and yelling to each other. 

Suddenly, a whistle blew. The children, heaving, lifted up the mini float and began to chant to the beat of the Taiko drums which had also begun. Their chanting was angelic, yet full of determination and vigor, as they slowly turned out of the shrine and began to walk down one of the many winding and tiny streets of Kyoto, followed by their families and friends. 

“Mechasugei!” a bystander next to me exclaimed.

I agreed. It was really awesome. After the first float passed, I soon heard the sounds of another one coming and sure enough, from around the corner, a new group of kids barreled toward us with a rather heavy looking float. With the assistance of a few adults, they were able to keep it steady. 

After watching for awhile, I decided to head back to the Kawaramachi street, where the main festivities were being held. By this time, it was beginning to get dark. Making our way back to the main area, I nearly collided with two businessmen, red-faced and drunk. 

“Sumimasen”, they slurred, as they took another sip of their Asahi canned beer. 

I laughed. The poor Japanese could never hide when they were smashed, as their faces turned a bright red color. I had read somewhere that the Japanese lacked an enzyme in their body for metabolizing alcohol and the side effect of this was flushed skin. So therefore, whenever they had a drink (or a few drinks), it was quite obvious that they had been boozing. 

Unfortunately for them, there was no way to lie to anyone about whether or not you had been drinking. They just couldn’t rely on a simple breath mint or a spray of perfume to do the trick. As a spouse or a parent, it was a foul proof way to tell if your husband, wife, or child was under the influence. Ingenious, really. 


 
 
“Why do you want to come here?” my Japanese friend asked me as we arrived at Yasukuni shrine, a curious look in his eyes.

I wasn’t sure if I really had an answer for him. Yasukuni Shrine, if you don’t already know, is a shrine dedicated to the war dead who served Japan from 1867-1951. When enshrinement occurs, it is believed that all negative acts committed on Earth are absolved. Enshrinement is permanent and irreversible, according to the current priesthood at the shrine. The criticism that Yasukuni shrine faces comes from the fact that Class A war criminals (as convicted by the IMTEF in post WWII trials) are enshrined here. The war museum next to the shrine has also been accused of having a nationalistic approach and the Japanese government (whose officials sometimes honor the enshrined here) has been indicted by the Chinese, Koreans, and Taiwanese as being “revisionist and unapologetic” about World War II.

However (in the spirit of objectivity here), the trials by the IMTEF (which was comprised of the victors of WWII including Australia, Canada, China, France, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the UK, the USA, and Russia) have been criticized “for using a method of information collection called "Best Evidence Rule" that allowed simple hearsay with no secondary support to be entered against the accused.” The criminals were therefore all released in 1958, giving many Japanese people a reason to believe they were not war criminals. Note also that “none of the victors faced trials for mass civilian killings in fire bombings of major cities, the mass deaths of non-repatriated Japanese soldiers, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Simply put, the trials by the IMTEF were considered biased. However, no one disagreed that there were many terrible atrocities committed during the war.

Controversy surrounding Yasukuni shrine also revolves around the Yushukan War Museum sitting beside it. Yushukan shows a documentary to museum visitors that shows Japan’s conquest of East Asia before WWII as “an effort to save the region from the imperial advances of the colonial Western powers. Displays portray Japan as a victim of foreign influence, especially Western undermining of trade. Critics say the museum fails to portray any atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army. On the invasion of Nanking, the museum omits any mention of the massacre and states that "General Iwane Matsui observed military rules to the letter. The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”

I had been to an exhibition on the Nanking Massacre in London a couple of years and the information about it was night and day from what I had seen at Yushukan. Of course, bias occurs everywhere and history has certainly been rewritten before. However, knowing the truth about history is important; it helps prevent misunderstandings and prejudices, and it inspires us to prevent our past mistakes. Isn’t that worth more than pride?


 
 
Toka Ebisu.

The mere mention of this word sends over a million people rushing to Imamiya Shrine near the notorious Shin-Imamiya district in Osaka every year in January. Why all this madness just after the peaceful New Year’s holidays with the family? Money, of course. Since the 6th century, people have been coming here to pray to Ebisu, the god of business and wealth. And with 40-50 beautiful shrine maidens selling charms for your bamboo branch, it certainly doesn’t hurt the turnout.  

            Starting from 10,000 yen and upwards, you can adorn your bamboo branch with charms meant to bring wealth and good fortune, such as small rice bales, old oval coins, and wooden ornaments covered in kanji. After returning home, these adorned branches must be put in a prominent place in order to bring on the good fortune. What’s the use of a 20,000 yen adorned bamboo branch if you can’t even see it?

            Some men, more interested in the shrine maidens or “good luck girls” than the charms, often take great care in choosing which shrine maiden he will purchase his charms from. Some shrine maidens have long lines of men waiting patiently with their bamboo branches ready to be adorned, while other shrine maidens who are not so popular try to catch the attention of people passing by in order to sell them charms.

            “The shrine maidens at the entrance of the shrine are the most beautiful. The quality goes down as you go further down the line, especially towards the back of the shrine,” observed one man, who religiously attends the festival every year.

            Regardless of looks, these 40-50 shrine maidens are chosen from more than 3,000 candidates, in a series of auditions meant to find the best of the best. Not only do these women receive the title of “shrine maiden”, but being a “shrine maiden” also comes with a significant status and many of these women are approached with marriage proposals by a number of interested potential mates. Sure takes the stress out of dating. 

 
 
Tokyo, as most people know, is the capital of Japan. However, Tokyo didn’t always hold this title; it used to rest in a lovely place we know as Kyoto. Kyoto is different from the rest of Japan, its colors are softer, its people are gentler. Even the language is different. In North American terms, Osaka’s rough, business talk can be compared to a New Yorker, while Kyoto’s soft lilt can be compared to that of a Southern belle.

In fact, the geisha and maiko of Kyoto still speak pure Kyoto dialect, their words soothing to the weary businessmen who spend buckets of cash just to hear their voices. It’s no wonder they make such good conversationalists. Some common Kyoto words are “oideyasu,” which means welcome, and also “okini,” which means thank you.

Kyoto attracts millions of visitors every year and it’s no wonder. With over 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens, who wouldn’t want to visit? With the number of historical monuments that staggering, it’s just hard to choose what to see. While Japan can be a rather expensive country to travel around in, fortunately there are still some things in Kyoto that cost nothing. After all, who said there was no such thing as a free lunch?

For example, the first thing you can do if you are arriving at Kyoto Station, is to take the escalators to the top, where you can see a beautiful 360-degree view for free. There’s even a small grassy area with a couple of benches and you can bring a book on a nice, sunny day.

After basking in the sun for awhile, you can head to Nishiki Market, better known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen.” It’s better if you start here in the morning, preferably after arriving at Kyoto Station and seeing the view. This is the time when all the chefs from around Kyoto come to do their grocery shopping. Fresh fish, colorful fruits and vegetables, and vendors selling freshly made street foods fill about 150 shops. Just looking is free, right? And if seeing all that food from Nishiki Market made you hungry, why not pop into one of Kyoto’s many department stores and snag a load of free samples from the food floor? Nishiki Market is near Daimaru department store, so you won’t have to spend any money on transportation fees to get there.

After filling yourself up on free samples from the department store’s food floor, go ahead and take a walk to Kyomizu-dera Temple for something sweet. All around the temple, there are souvenir shops with tons of free samples. Here you can try “yatsuhashi,” Kyoto’s specialty sweet, which is a cinnamon-flavored “mochi” flattened into a small, triangle-sized pancake and stuffed with various flavors such as apple, sesame, peach, strawberry, and even chocolate. Just try to limit yourself to one free sample per shop if possible.

After filling up on sweets, walk back down to Kawaramachi street and go to Gion, where you can sit freely and do some maiko-watching. If you are lucky, you can see them scurrying in and out of restaurants or tea houses, on their way to some important appointment. There’s only one rule; never forget to bring your camera!

After (hopefully) getting lucky enough to spot a few geishas in Gion, put your camera away and take a walk to Kamogawa, the main river in Kyoto where you can sit for free along the banks and listen to any of the musicians practicing their skills. Think of it as a free, outdoor concert.

If you are in the mood to see a temple or shrine, head to Heian Shrine, to see the towering, steel torii gate and the beautiful Chinese-inspired buildings. Following a look around Heian-jingu, set off for Nanzen-ji. This temple is off the beaten track and is very serene and peaceful, located in a wooded area and next to a red, brick aqueduct that is still working and flowing with water. It’s a 10-minute walk from Heian-jingu, so you don’t have to spend any money on transportation.

If you are still in the mood for history, it’s worth taking a look at Kyoto Imperial Palace. This palace was first built in 794 and you can tour it for free with an English guided tour. However, you have to apply for the tour in advance and it can either take an hour to set up or a whole day. So hope for an hour and in the meantime, you can stroll around Kyoto Imperial Palace Park without spending a single yen.

If you still have time, see a festival. There are around 40 famous festivals a year in Kyoto so you are bound to have free time for one of them. Some have fireworks, some involve burning mountain sides, and some involve men in loincloths running through the streets. Whatever your fancy is, there is sure to be some festival that you can enjoy.

So whatever you do, don’t miss Kyoto. There are no excuses for it. Not even an “I’m broke right now” one.

 
 
I immediately noticed a different feeling about the place. The fresh alpine air filled my lungs as I took in a deep breath and a strange sense of peace and reverence washed over me. Koyasan, a sacred site on the top of a peak in the Kii Mountain Range (Wakayama Prefecture), was definitely another world, far away from the hustle and bustle of daily life below it. Little did I know, I had arrived on the day of Kechien Kanjo, one of the most important ceremonies of Shingon Buddhism. In this ritual, wisdom water is offered to the participants in order to wash away the worldly desires. I wondered if it really worked and decided to find out.

After taking the bus to the main area of Donjon Garan, I blindly followed a group of pilgrims carrying walking sticks with jangling bells. They were wearing all white clothing and cone-shaped bamboo hats. Some were chanting sutras. Everyone carried a votive candle and a handful of brightly-colored flowers. I followed them along a dirt path lined with stones until we reached a clearing. Before my eyes a towering orange and white pagoda stretched into the sky. It was dusk and fire torches flickered around the pagoda. The air was heavy with incense. Monks dressed in vibrant ceremonial shades of orange and purple tended to the shrine inside the pagoda, performing rituals as both pilgrims and bystanders watched on. “Welcome,” an old man as wrinkled as piece of dried fruit said to me with a gap-toothed smile as I stood solemnly in front of the shrine, bowing my head in reverence. “Arigato gozaimasu,” I replied, bowing. I walked on. Near the edge of a thicket of towering cedar trees was an enormous wooden structure, one that (in my opinion) rivalled Nara’s Todaiji Temple as the largest wooden structure in the world. I figured this structure, called Kondo, was at least the second.

After consulting my trusty brochure given to me by the nice people at the train station, I saw that it had been built by Kukai in 819 (although the present hall was built for the 7th time in 1932). Kukai, or Kobo Daishi (his posthumous name), is the Japanese monk responsible for spreading Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He lived from 774 to 835 and during his life travelled to China to study with the mystics there. After returning to Japan, he founded Koyasan as a retreat away from the world. Koyasan, surrounded by eight peaks, was selected because the terrain it lies in resembles a lotus plant. There are several sects of Buddhism in Japan, including Tendai, Shingon, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren. Kukai is the founder of Shingon. Although the pale gray of dusk had set in, I decided to forget about curing my desire for worldly treasures and head to Okunoin, a massive graveyard among the towering cedar trees of the Koyasan forest. From Donjon Garan, it was about a fifteen minute walk to Sando, the entrance path. Along the way, shopkeepers were closing up for the day and the streets were empty and silent. I wondered if I should really be wandering through Japan’s largest graveyard at night.

Upon arrival however, I was relieved to find the entrance path lined with lanterns that cast a flickering pale glow so I could see where I was going. A few other brave souls had also decided to venture through the graveyard at night and the only sound was the wind in the trees. The graveyard was impressive to say the least, filled with the headstones of monks, military commanders, and a few commoners. Passing by some of the towering headstones, I noticed the older ones were written in Sanscrit, the language of Buddhism from India, circa 4th century BC. Because of the festivities going on, I passed a few monks along the path and two kilometers later, I arrived at Kukai’s mausoleum in the heart of the forest, next to the quiet Tama River. Because of the festivities, the mausoleum was still open and monks flitted about quietly, replacing incense sticks. Monks still bring food to Kukai everyday, as they believe he is not dead but meditating. They feed and change his clothes everyday and no one but the highest monks are allowed to see him. The mausoleum was bedecked in gold lacquer and red upholstery. A group of pilgrims chanted sutras in Sanskrit and I felt like I had been transported to another world. As I turned around to leave, I noticed with dread that the sky was black above me. Graves stretched before me as far as the eye could see and the trees shifted in the wind. A bird cried out. As I began to walk quickly along the path through the forest, I made a mental note that next time, I would definitely come back during the day.