Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan since the 8th century, teaches us about spirits, or kami, who inhabit inanimate objects and the landscape in general.
One way that we can communicate with these spirits is through inscribed wooden wishing plaques, or ema, that adherents leave at shrines. There were hundreds of miniature wooden gates (below) that mimicked the thousands of life-sized vermillion portals at Fushimi Inari (top), a huge shrine which reaches all the way up the side of a mountain southeast of Kyoto.
Since the white fox is the messenger animal of the spirit Inari, he has his own special wooden wishing plaques, too.
Making wishes sounds like fun, doesn’t it? But Shinto has a maudlin side, too. For example, jizo rocks represent the god who helps deceased children into the next world. Jizo gods can be found everywhere, each donated by a family who had lost a son or daughter. (And, yes, the bibs keep the god warm!) This particular collection was found in the middle of a strip mall in the Sanjo Dori area near our hotel.
If I remember correctly, there was a Starbucks across the walkway from this shrine—and by the end of our week there, that kind of contrast no longer surprised me at all. Stay tuned for more on Kyoto’s mix of tradition and modernity.
Our warmest welcome—and our biggest find—was the Kyoto Suzuki Furudouguten. Welcome to Mr. Hallock’s childhood in 1970s Japan.
Mr. H grew up in toy stores—not the mall kind, nor the department store kind, but the small neighborhood kind with action figures and trading cards and stuff. The whole time we were in Kyoto, he complained that they didn’t exist anymore.
Guess what we found? Suzuki-san! We met the nicest man who owned a great store with everything Mr. H wanted. Man, I did not know so many action figures existed! Well, the scantily-clad women, I knew they existed.
We left with some very special souvenirs, too. See those two signs in the middle picture below? One is of chocolate cigarettes and the other shows a Japanese housewife preparing fast food. We checked both in repurposed cardboard boxes as our luggage allowance because that’s how we roll.
And didn’t we find just the place for both signs? From a corner store in Kyoto to a country kitchen in New England.
I do not think the model for this beautiful woman would really have poured mystery meat out of a package, but I gotta say she looks good on our pantry door.
Now I have a reminder of our amazing trip every time I walk into the kitchen. I judge my voyages by my souvenirs, and this trip was a winner.
Who says manhole covers cannot be useful and beautiful? The Japanese see the potential. In both Kobe and Himeji, I found myself searching out these beauties like my students search out Pokémon Go. Here’s a few for you:
It has been a while since I’ve taught a world history survey course, but I do remember that one of my favorite lessons was about the Meiji Restoration in Japan.
What was that? Let’s start at the beginning. In medieval times, the emperor of Japan was a prisoner in his own palace in Kyoto. Though he was still considered a god in the Shinto religion, and though he was too holy to touch the ground, his divinity meant nothing politically and economically for 675 years. From 1192 to 1867, the military dictator who collected taxes, made treaties, and governed was called the shogun. And it benefitted the shogun to keep the emperor holed up in his palace. Now, it is a nice palace, as you can see below. Maybe a little cold in winter, but nice. Still, it was still a prison.
The shogun was meant to keep peace amongst all the daimyo, or feudal lords, each who had their own stable of knights, or samurai. But battles still happened. Fortified homes were still needed, like the one at Himeji, Japan’s most beautiful surviving castle.
(Note: Though most people focus on just the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the United States Army Air Corps actually destroyed an additional 64 cities in this war, killing 333,000 people and making 15 million homeless. According to the Himeji tour, about 2/3 of the city itself was destroyed, but the single firebomb that landed on the roof of the castle failed to detonate. Luck? Check out the fish below to find out.)
The shogun was best when he kept the daimyo from fighting each other, but the farther away he lived, the harder it was for him to keep the peace. Where did he live? It depended upon where the home base of the shogun’s clan and was. For the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, this meant Edo, or Tokyo. He did have to visit Kyoto on occasion, though, so he needed a private residence here: Nijo Castle.
When you visit Nijo Castle, ironically, you can see the end of the shogun’s power. When Commodore Perry of the US Navy forcibly opened Japan to unconstrainted Western trade and exploration, it could have spelled an end to the country’s independence. China was carved into spheres of influence, and some in Japan feared the same for them. The European powers were taking rival sides at court, some backing the emperor and others backing the shogun and daimyo.
Unlike other countries in world history, though, the Japanese realized that a civil war would only benefit foreigners. The emperor (who was only 17), his advisors, and the shogun worked out a compromise, restoring political and military power to the emperor. The edict of the Meiji Restoration (1867) was proclaimed from this very room in Nijo Castle. Today you can see models of the shogun, his bodyguard, and his loyal supporters, all ready to welcome the emperor. Yay, the emperor can leave his house now!
This was the moment that changed everything for Japan. Soon education became universal, Western (“Dutch”) science and technology were accepted, and the military was modernized. Within a few decades, Japan became an imperial power itself. Now, that did not go so well for lots of people, especially after the military rose to power again: the defeat of Russia in 1905 (which led to a revolution there), the colonization of Korea and Taiwan, the invasion of China, the Nanking Massacre, the invasion of Southeast Asia, the Pacific War, and so on. Hence the firebombing mentioned above. But I digress…
The point is that we saw lots of history. It was great.
If you believe Mr. Hallock, the Japanese celebrate Christmas like Valentine’s Day. You still have to go to work, but you get to eat chocolate—and celebrate young love! As a romance author, I felt right at home.
A few years ago, it was reported that record numbers of Japanese are forgoing marriage for career and lifestyle. They may have chosen “happy for now” over “happily ever after,” but they are still living and loving.