St Edmund's

Japan 2023 – Day 7

Day 7

The St Ed’s tour of Kyoto began with a visit to the Inari Shrine in the South Hagashiyama area of the city.

As we left the train station, it felt as if we were on our way to a football match. The approach roads were jammed with people heading slowly in the same direction and the sides were lined with vendors selling sizzling hot foods and memorabilia; as it turned out, the day was to become distinctly a ‘game of two halves’.

The extensive complex of temple buildings and famous avenues of red gates cover a large area of wooded hillside, which rises steeply to overlook the entire city. The students were given two hours to explore.

Shintoism, practised at Inari and throughout Japan, seems like a very useful belief system. There is a god and potentially an evil spirit doing battle over every area of life. The way to swing things in your favour is to come to the shrine and make an offering, in the form of putting up a red gate. You get to put your name on it and the date. Some of these magnificent portals are even sponsored by local companies, apparently seeking better fortunes in the next financial year. The gates will of course one day rot through and fall down and then somebody else will come along and put one up in its place, for an entirely different reason.  Of course, all this corporate sponsorship makes it sound as if visitors are wondering around some sort of ghastly trade fair, in search of a tasteful gift shop. But I should not be cynical. There is something touching about the blatant humanity of the place. The gates are packed in and jostling together, just like the people filing through them, trying not to spoil each other’s photographs, or in some cases deliberately doing the opposite.

Anyway, much cash was splashed by the crew in the aforementioned gift shops: Charlotte bought a cat mask, Percy bought some ice cream and Piers and Natalia made offerings with their own mini red gates. Spirituality, however, did not withstand the shopping district and the pull of the gravitationally significant Nishiki Market in central Kyoto. Imagination cannot match the actuality of Nishiki – in scale or scope. It’s ‘well massive’… is all once can say. While Mr Kincaid went kitchen knife-shopping, Mrs Burton bought novelty Christmas cards (!!!!) and Ash purchased himself an entire new wardrobe from the second-hand stores. I got into trouble for taking a picture of an octopus on a cocktail stick (At least I wasn’t eating an octopus on a cocktail stick, which I’m sure I spotted Adam doing) and Chris bought another pair of shoes. Vlad is the only person on the trip who did not succumb. He is clearly made of strong stuff.

After supper, we made our way at speed to the Gion District, to see a performance by the geisha of the Kyoto Traditional Musical Art Foundation. This was the moment to put mammon behind us and purify ourselves in the refined and stylised movements of the geisha in the tea ceremony and Bugaku dance. The show, which included dance, flower arranging, music and even comic acting, was a rich visual spectacle. At its heart was an enviable simplicity, deftness and control. This was the ancient spirit of Kyoto on display, and it was a challenge to the tribes of shoppers in off the high street to approach and try to understand. How is it, as Mrs Burton said, that we could have watched the experienced geisha all day as she made her tea? I will never forget the beautiful twisting movement of the hand that left the bamboo ladle balanced on the lid of the hot water pot – it was placed and left with such confidence that it could not have fallen even if it wanted to.