Up the mountain I climbed, pushing through the crowded streets. My destination was the water temple, a wish to receive, my prize. The summer sun beat down upon me, my brow drenched in sweat, my energy in decline. Oh that I might find my way into the temple’s basin shrine, to taste its magical waters, and replenish my pride. The hills and stairs I had climbed followed me, revealing that just as much I had left behind, lay before me still.
At last I reached the top and began my forward trek into the behemoth wooden structure. No nail resided in the wooden beams or floorboards, making friction and gravity the only forces keeping me atop the mountain at this time.
Passing gardens and prayer shrines, I felt the magic and wisdom of ages reverberating in the walls and halls around me. I prayed that no silent guardian was waiting to halt my quest. Dragging my feet across the ancient floor, I saw a sign that my journey’s end was near, for before me was a stone stairway leading down. Down, down, deep into the basin it went. Its descent was only slowed by the uprising plants and flowers growing ever upward from the pools and streams that flowed below.
Toward the fountain I fell, my thirst at its peak. I came to a pavilion built into the wall of the mountain with three streams of water flying off its roof and plunging deep into the ponds of the basin. I grasped for the clear liquid only inches out of reach. I found that the waterfall, Otowa-no-taki, was reluctant to share its life with me.
A cup then did appear before me, attached to a pole, so that I may reach out to catch the falling water and receive my wish. From under the pavilion I stretched my arm and extended the cup, interrupting Otowa-no-taki’s flow for a brief spell.
Staring into the cup, I saw the crystal clear magical water and smelled for the first time the mountain’s scent. The air grew silent before me as I brought the cup to my dried lips. In those seconds, a silent prayer was said. A final wish had left my lips before they were washed over by the contents of the cup. I felt Otowa-no-taki’s life flow through my veins and a sense of peace began to bloom in my chest.
A soft and humble hum emanated from the wall behind me. I turned to face whatever temple dweller I had awoken from an ancient slumber, or whichever spell had been broken from my trespassing into the shrine.
“Thank you for visiting Kiyumizu-dera,” a woman said while smiling and reaching out to take my cup. “Please check out souvenir shops on the way out and visit again soon,” she took the cup pole and placed in into the glowing humming ultraviolet cleaner that had been set into the wall.
Yanked out of my mystical warrior mindset, I realized something: Japan is a weird place.
Saturated in centuries of storytelling and ancient ways, Japan is known for having a culture of traditions and magic. Simultaneously, it is one of the world’s leading countries in technological advances.
In my two-week adventure across Japan I encountered many instances where these two key points were completely integrated, just like in the somewhat exaggerated retelling of my experience at Kiyumizu-Dera (the water temple). I found this to be extremely fascinating while traveling because you get to see an extreme dichotomy living out before your eyes. Even a ride across the countryside embodies this split when you consider the rich stories of samurai battles, Shogun take-overs, demons and gods, farmers plotting the land, and the blood that runs deep in it, all the while speeding across it onboard the Shinkansen (or bullet train as we know it), one of the fastest trains in the world. Now this doesn’t mean that all of Japan has been integrated, there are secret and secluded places where traditions are kept alive and technology hasn’t been able to make its viral bite.
My stay in Koya-san was more of what I was expecting out of middle of nowhere Japan. Secluded in the mountains and accessed by a series of zigzagging trains and rope cars, Koya-san is home to a very spiritual part of Japan. The highlight of the trip was that we got to stay in an actual Buddhist temple. We got to eat their food (all vegetarian, mostly unknown substances), bath in their hot springs (perhaps awkward at first, but super rewarding later), and wake up early to attend their prayer service (surprisingly awesome at 5:30 in the morning). All the spiders aside, it was a very humbling experience rich in Buddhist culture. The most advanced piece of technology I might have seen was their fax machine. Other than that, it was all natural baby.
One of my favorite parts of Koya-san was Torodo, the Lantern Temple. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, unfortunately, photography wasn’t allowed. Perhaps the owners had seen Terminator and were afraid of the machine take-over.
After entering though, I understood why. For one, it was a graveyard. For two, it was a place so untouched by time that I felt a reverence for it I’ve felt very little in life. The ancient trees towered hundreds of feet above me, allowing a few scattered beams of light to penetrate the thick canopy onto the moss covered gravestones and still pools of water that littered the ground. It all had an eerie beauty to it.
Japan is the perfect place for me because it’s just as eclectic as I am. For as beautiful and traditional as Koya-san was, Akihabara was equally beautiful and non-traditional. Akihabara, aka The Electric City, Mecca of anime nerds, was something my sister warned my parents to sit out on.
It was our last night in Tokyo and my sister and I wanted to have our own adventure. Being a fan of animation, my sister told me Akihabara was the place to be. Plus it was home to the Gundam Café, a café based off of a popular anime that had been exported to America in years past. So we took a late-night train to see the electric city and discovered it was aptly named.
Lights. Lights everywhere. Lights on the buildings, lights on the cars, lights worn by the people, lights even in the air. Seriously folks, the lights were everywhere. Alongside all the techno cafes and five-story porn shops, were some of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. There were photo-booths that altered your appearance to that of a make-up-spackled anime chick (don’t ask for the photos for I’ve locked them in my underground bunker never to see the light of day again), casino’s full of video games, Yugioh and Pokemon card duels, and young attractive Japanese women dressed up in some of the craziest costumes, enticing men to enter their shops and buy their company. After a couple passes around the blocks we decided to settle for electric sapphire and ruby cocktails at the Gundam café, home to one of the greatest toilets I’ve ever seen.
Yes, among many things, Japan is also leading the technological toilet revolution. I’m not going to get into it too much but here are some things to note America: Wireless remotes (not sure why but cool), seat warmers, courtesy flush noises, and even an information display, all in the palm of your hand. What made the Gundam Café’s toilet so wonderful? The fact that the flush button actually started up the Gundam sequence (Gundams are giant mechanical suits used for fighting). The lights would dim and a pair of Gundam eyes would glow as the room was quickly enveloped in the Gundam start-up sounds. Oh and the toilet would flush.
On that note I would like to reiterate a previously mentioned statement. Japan is a weird place. But it’s also a beautiful place full of majesty, mystery, wonder, and some awesome toilets.
The Japanese have managed to handle their transition from land of ancient magics and stories of warriors to the technological super-power that it is known as today. The major cities have found a way to integrate centuries of lore and legend into modern day living, without sacrificing any advances. What does this say about them? I’d like to think that it shows that they will hold steadfast in their past but at the same time will never be afraid to move forward to the future. That is something I have a lot of respect for and look forward to experiencing whenever I return to their land one day.