May 30, 2012
By Deborah Rumbo
There is this recurring motif of Japanese culture that is prevalent throughout everything we have seen. It is balance. Be it past and present, old and new, and antiquity vs. modernity, the Japanese embed this aspect of Yin and Yang to everything in this country. Yet again, I see my preconceived notions of Japan challenged by my daily experiences here. I have to begin this blog by saying that today was one of my favorite days. The Kiyomizu-Dera Buddhist temple was beautiful to say the least. I find fulfillment in the idea that such beauty still exists in the world. I know I continuously seem to reflect on the balance such places portray in Japan when antiquity and modernity meet. Observing from one of the temple’s many lookouts, I saw nature in its purest forms—surrounded by trees, the smell of incense, the chirping of the birds—there was a tranquility to the whole environment even though there was hundreds of people there. What I found most amazing was that in the distance you could see the city in all its modern glory.
I always questioned why it is that we don’t see this in America as much? At first I presumed the answer to be the fact that Americans seemed to be more apathetic about religion than the Japanese but then the Senior Shinto priest we met corrected me and told me that this is also the same here in Japan. The amount of religious apathy has also risen here and most of the people sharing this sacred space are also simply “touring” looking for an escape of the hustle and bustle of everyday living. One thing that I do have to say after comparing the two countries is that I noticed Japan’s religious apathy seems to preserve an aspect of traditionalism throughout. I find that interesting. Although it is true that people no longer seem to be religiously flexible, they preserve the essence of it through the mini rituals they perform. I guess its because the core of their culture is based on religion and so protecting these practices that are so embedded in their everyday beliefs is also customary.
Changing traditions can also be observed in Geisha culture and how these women’s roles have in many ways both evolved and stayed the same throughout time. We were fortunate enough to see two of them that were “real. ” It saddens me how as Americans and as tourists, we were responsible of the commercialization of this practice. I keep resorting back to this generic ideal of the Geisha that I associate with Memoirs of a Geisha which many Japanese resent. Nonetheless, the Japanese have been able to preserve some aspect of exclusivity with these mysterious and highly valued women. They are reserved for the inner circles of Japanese higher-class men much like they were in the past. I figure this is a means of maintaining the essence of what these women symbolize for the culture— truly genius. I keep falling in love with this country.