Occupying Spaces: Tradition vs Modernity

Hey guys! This week I’ll be writing a bit about forms of art I’ve encountered so far during my time in Japan. It’s forced me to reflect on gigabytes of pictures and a 6 page bucketlist I’m still working through, so bear with me! My general impression of art in Japan, be it through music/entertainment/performance or more traditional forms such as paintings/architecture/literature, is that works tend to live between two extremes: tradition and extreme modernism. They aren’t necessarily in total isolation though and you sometimes see one in the other, but the distinction is the largest I’ve seen anywhere. What fascinates me is that despite their differences, there really doesn’t seem to be much conflict and I think much of that is because they occupy completely different spaces.

In Kyoto you'll often see newlyweds or older women who rent Kimonos before going sightseeing in search of their roots

In Kyoto you’ll often see newlyweds or older women who rent Kimonos before going sightseeing in search of their roots

I am studying abroad in Kyoto, recognized both in Japan and worldwide as a repository for the country’s culture and history. It is one of few cities that was rarely damaged during WWII and the story goes that a Harvard professor had successfully convinced the U.S. army general that the city was worth sparing. Kyoto has a distinct charm about it, and it is sprawled with enough temples and shrines for a lifetime. Especially today, Kyoto is a major tourist site and was even ranked the #1 tourist city of 2014 by Travel & Leisure.

Burning ceremony at Daigo temple

Burning ceremony at Daigo Temple

Gate at the Imperial Palace, Gosho, across the street from Doshisha

Gate at the Imperial Palace, Gosho, across the street from Doshisha

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Pagoda in a Burakumin neighborhood

Kyoto’s identity is interwoven with an expectation, from both domestic and foreign tourists, to encounter authentic Japaneseness. Although it’s major selling point is tradition, it still occupies a space in today’s lived realities. For example, fewer and fewer residents are choosing to live in machiya because they just aren’t practical. This being said, there are still movements to modernize/repurpose them and the city also maintains height restrictions in an effort to preserve Kyoto’s low skyline. Visiting Tokyo for the first time last October was a culture shock in of itself and I’d call it the complete opposite of Kyoto in terms of its pride as a modern and futuristic metropolis.

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Sunset from Kyoto’s most famous temple, Kiyomizudera, with the most urban part of the city in the background.

My location in Japan also provides me with many opportunities I might not have elsewhere. Last semester, I was able to participate in a tea ceremony–a taiken that I never really imagined for myself. Sitting seiza takes a lot more stamina than I’m capable of though, so I’m not too sure I’ll be doing it again anytime soon. Whenever my host parents want to expose me to Japanese culture this often ends up meaning the traditional side. My host dad is a man of few words but our longest conversation was about his deceased father who had pushed him to play a role in bridging understanding between the U.S. and Japan. Even if it’s through one student a year, he hopes that I’ll take what I’ve learned back (or through this blog!) to those in the states.

Waiting for the next round of participants at a Tea Ceremony.

Waiting for the next round of participants at a Tea Ceremony

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Self Defense Force concert from last month where my host sister played the Taiko

Whenever I am around for the weekends, we usually go to music/dance shows or the girls’ frequent keyboard recitals. One Sunday, we went to a family friend’s ensoukai, including traditional instruments like taikos and shamisen. I mentioned how difficult to play they looked and my host parents jumped on this, asking if I wanted to take lessons. I’ve gotten through three koto lessons so far with my host mom’s childhood friend, such a convenient connection. Sensei picked it up as a college club activity after disappointedly finding out the guitar club was full. I try to practice every night after dinner and I’ll play a song or two at the farewell ceremony next month. Expect a video on my last post!

I listen to more Japanese music now, especially during my commutes. These range from the Sakura song that I’ve been practicing, to Malaysian-Australian Che’Nelle’s current hit in Japan, Happiness. You’ll find that a lot of songs have English lyrics interspersed and this is more often than not because English is considered kakkoii, or cool. Karaoke is major here and honestly a lot more fun than I imagined. You rent out a room with your friends– a microcosm of Japanese oldies, contemporary hits, and then that Frozen craze. I came here at its peak and it was bigger than it was in the U.S. From the postwar period until today, many children songs, like the ones my sisters learn through their Yamaha lessons, have just been translations of Western songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. What we’re seeing more of today is a national pull towards reclaiming the field though.

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Trying our hand at Pachinko and embarrassing ourselves before being saved by an Obaachan sitting behind us

Japanese television, with all of its exaggerations, is also a very good language learning tool. I have seen some of the most bizarre things in my life, things that have made me question all I hold dear to me, and this has allowed me to see a more multifaceted side of Japan that can joke around just as much as it can be serious. Comedy shows are pretty popular and although I don’t watch it, Massan is a very big NHK morning drama right now, featuring its first non-Japanese leading role. Anime and manga are also token aspects of Japanese entertainment that contribute to Japan’s soft power abroad. There’s a Pokemon center in Osaka that I have been too more times than I am willing to admit and the only downside is, the 90s Pokemon I grew up with are already mostly phased out. When it comes to movies, I’d have to recommend one of my favorites: Okuribito.

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The Toei Studio park had ALL of the red power rangers but is mostly a film set for movies and dramas set in olden times

When I first got here I was wowed by so many things and I have in some ways grown desensitized to. You can see something and shrug your shoulders with an “I’m not even surprised. It’s Japan.” but there are still things that’ll get you. This is not necessarily because we don’t have these things in the U.S. but more because I never even considered their existence. For example, there are all sorts of café’s out here but some specialize in having

Kyoto Tin & Doll Museum has toys dating back to the 1940s, all collected by the shopkeeper!

Kyoto Tin & Doll Museum has toys dating back to the 1940s, all collected by the shopkeeper!

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A seal robot, used primarily for mental therapy at hospitals and retirement homes, is charged through a pacifier

you pet animals while enjoying your drink. So far, I’ve been to a cat café and an owl(?!) one too, but I know that there are also some for rabbits, puppies, and even sheep.

This past weekend, my host dad and I went to see the National Sumo Tournament since it has moved down to Osaka from Tokyo for the month. The venue is located in Namba, one of Osaka’s most lively urban areas, but you can immediately escape all of it into another world as you walk into the arena. We spent 5 hours watching massive bodies clash and tumble. A wrestler’s mother sat at my side cheering her son on and I had to think, “How did this small lady make this huge guy?!” My host father also brought opera glasses for us and things were even more intense when magnified. You could see their angry faces, the hairs on their backs, and the ripples of flesh as they crashed against one another. It’s at things like these where I am still wowed.

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This past weekend I visited an Owl café in Osaka! For a thousand yen, you can get your choice of drink and an hour petting the owls.

Within all of the ambiguous, bizarre, and questionable things in modern Japan, you’ll still see pockets of tradition and their preservation even if they aren’t the norm. When I say bizarre, it’s not entirely because I’m a foreigner. Things have been just as bizarre to the Japanese people I’ve talked to and that’s kind of the point with some of these things—to make you doubt and delve into a world of pure imagination ♪. Places have their own identities, and its people reconcile this in finding ways for them to suit their needs. It’s interesting to compare cities throughout my travels and although there are general things you’ll find in all cities, they’re harder to find in some than in others.

Surprisingly, not all of the top wrestlers are even Japanese. The current lead is from Mongolia and came to Japan when he was in high school. There are also a couple of Russians and an Egyptian, Abdelrahman Shalan, who is the first African, Arab, and Muslim in sumo’s professional ranks.

Surprisingly, not all of the top wrestlers are even Japanese. The current lead is from Mongolia and came to Japan when he was in high school. There are also a couple of Russians and an Egyptian, Abdelrahman Shalan, who is the first African, Arab, and Muslim in sumo’s professional ranks.

My program has full year students do a 5-day independent trip while the spring semester students have their turn in Hiroshima, so I’ll be out exploring Okinawa for my first time and then revisit Tokyo for a couple of days before coming back. Till next time, Ittekimasu!

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