A torii gate is a precipice, and stepping through it is an act of going from the mundane to the sacred. Travel can be a bit like that too, albeit the gateway is usually the metal detector at airport security.
Whatever the reason, travelling is an opportunity to leave preconceptions at home and surrender to a new culture. Setting aside beliefs / habits / ideals, we can explore diversity outside of our bubble. Whatever happens out there, the perspective garnered comes home with us.
It is day three in Kyoto and I’m just starting to find my rhythm. I’ve found a good walking route that follows canals and greenery between neighbourhoods. It is nice to feel familiarity after days of feeling fish-out-of-water-y.
I pause. This is the sixth time I’ve walked this stretch, and only now do I notice a torii gate flush against the wall. Marking a little hollow, there’s a small inset shrine hiding within plain sight. I stop to admire its modest beauty.
The light shifts. I glance up at the sun, which is rising back to its broiling position above. Best to keep moving and try to beat its heat.
They say that if you were to visit a different shrine in Kyoto each and every day, it would take you ten years to see them all.
Kyoto is a remarkable city, but it is also a place of remarkable tourism. Geisha outfits are rented out for photoshoots on picturesque walkways. Historic garden temples have a steady line of guests shuffling through them. Public transport is brimming with wide-eyed visitors hitting up all the hotspots on their maps. There are a lot of selfie sticks.
A quick Google search confirms what I’m seeing on the ground: some 52 million people visited Kyoto last year.
The city can’t keep up. Real-life geishas are being chased through the streets by camera wielding strangers. Temples are becoming more like museums than formal practice grounds. Garbage litters the tourist hot spots - something I’ve not seen anywhere in Japan despite the density of people and prevalence of single-use plastic.
There is something that draws people - including me - to this city: a desire to connect to something deeper. What is it that we search for when we travel? What exactly are we looking to find?
I stand back, watching people jockey for photos that make the place look pure and pristine and completely unlike the elbow-throwing scrum it actually is. I had kept my camera tucked away in my bag, but now I take it out. It feels wrong to take a photo of something that isn’t real, so my photos become photos of other tourists taking photos. This is, after all, what Kyoto seems to be all about these days.
Hrm. Looking at the torii gates with the hordes scuttling through them, I can’t help but think: What is mundane and what is sacred? The line between the two is not so clear.
When we step into another country or culture, we have a chance to decide how to accept what is offered to us. Do we perceive it as mundane or sacred? Is it a coldblooded transaction, or a valued relationship? How are we giving back to these places that we take photos of?
Another statistic: 7 million fewer Japanese tourists came to Kyoto last year - indicating that some are shying away from what the city is becoming.
If I hadn’t already been in Japan for a couple of weeks, I don’t think I would have been able to spot it, but: there is a palpable animosity for foreigners in this city.
I can’t say I blame them.
An American loudly berating a server when trying to acquire their bill? Check. An Italian family of 15 shout-talking to each other in a temple? Yep, I saw that today too. People blithely blocking the flow in one of the busiest train stations in the world? Yes, yes, and yes.
I’m pretty sure that if someone doesn’t understand English, yelling at them in English (or talking slower) isn’t going to make things any better.
At first, Japanese people come off quite reserved, but I think it speaks to the standard of politeness that pervades the culture. While some might view that as buttoned up / stoic / repressed, I’ve found that it lends a level of decorum. You know what to expect and what’s expected of you, and you can relax into that harmonious experience - which is doubly important in a place where people live so densely with each other.
But when people don’t follow the social norms, there is a friction.
Back to the supermarket to pick up supplies for moving onwards tomorrow. I’m left with lots to ponder after my time in Kyoto.