Monday, August 22, 2016

Favorite Places and Spaces: Uji

What comes to mind when you hear Kyoto? Historical buildings and temples, green tea, and geisha? How about noisy crowds and long, long lines for sightseeing buses?

I think it was last year that Kyoto beat Paris as the top travel destination in the world, and thanks to the Japanese government's robust efforts, both foreign and domestic tourism to Kyoto has exploded in recent years. Only a few years ago in 2010 I could go to Arashiyama on a weekday afternoon and walk through the bamboo forest slowly and quietly, and take photos with no people in them. There is no way to do that now, unless perhaps one visits very very early in the morning.

However, this is not to say that all of Kyoto has been taken over by crowds and policemen shouting in megaphones reminding you it's very crowded and to keep moving. In fact it seems to me that tourists are shuttled to certain areas, leaving others still very peaceful and relaxing.

One of my favorites of those places is Uji. 


Uji is situated on the southern outskirts of Kyoto City, on the Uji River (elsewhere known as the familiar Yodogawa), easily accessed from JR or Kintetsu train lines for a few hundred yen (less than $5). All of its major sites are within walking distance of the stations and each other. Here are some good ones:

Byodo-in Temple 

The face of Uji and "heads" on the 10-yen coin, this temple was originally founded in 1052 AD. It has of course been damaged, burned, and repaired several times. An old proverb says, "If you doubt the existence of heaven visit Byodo-in". One time when I went there at the beginning of August we were treated to a free music and dance performance for the Tanabata holiday season. It was really special.

Uji River
There is something so relaxing and romantic about this river. I enjoy walking along its banks, over its bridges (there is an oblong island in the middle where the cormorants are housed), and even on one occasion paddling my feet in its coolness, right before we spotted a nutria, river-dwelling rodent of unusual size! Be careful however as other than the small stretch between the shore and the island, the river's current is very swift and dangerous and not suitable for swimming in. You can however take a little boat tour up and down the stretch of river, and even see traditional cormorant fishing on summer nights. 

Tsuen's matcha parfait
Uji has been a major source of high-quality green tea for centuries. Right near the main bridge and the Kintetsu Uji station is Tsuen, a shop that boasts it has been in operation selling its brand of tea for a thousand years. A friend and I were impressed to see it included in an Edo-period (1600s) scroll painting of the area on display at the Genji museum, looking strikingly similar to the way it does today. It may be the oldest extant shop in the world. Matcha parfaits and other green tea refreshments are quite affordable. It is not by any means the only tea shop in the area; Omotesando street which leads to Byodo-in is lined with similar shops, and there are also many traditional tea-houses where you can participate in the tea ceremony, such as the Taihoan Tea House.

The Tale of Genji Museum
Arguably one of the oldest novels in the world, the last chapters of The Tale of Genji take place in Uji. The museum is a gorgeous building that incorporates traditional Japanese and modern architecture beautifully, and brings to life some scenes from the Tale and the Heian period lives of the imperial court. There is not much English inside the museum, and my knowledge of The Tale of Genji is shaky (I read it in English years ago, and had forgotten most of the numerous characters and their intrigues) but the museum offers a nice glimpse into another world. The sleepy, romantic little town of Uji, juxtaposed with its swift-flowing river, and The Tale of Genji--a story of the "floating world" and the impermanence of nature, beauty, and love--come together in the imagination until the line between past and present, fact and fiction blurs. Admittedly it was good for me that I went there with a friend who was more knowledgeable of the novel, the time period, and archaic kanji than I was!

Mimurotoji Temple 

Uphill and separated from the major spots by a 15-minute walk or so is this lovely temple; it gets crowded at the end of June when its famed hydrangeas bloom, but you can expect a quiet, relaxing wander through its gardens all the rest of the year. The two times I have been there on weekdays we had it to ourselves. Lotuses bloom until the middle of August, and in its gardens you can see the dramatic effect of "borrowed scenery" as its cultivated areas blend seamlessly with the surrounding forests and hills. Beginning in May or so you can hear nightingales calling from the forest. Heaven!

All these places and many others here and there in the area make Uji just lovely for walking around and exploring slowly, soaking up the atmosphere of old Kyoto. Most tourists seem to leave it out of their itineraries, but in my opinion, if you are traveling to Kyoto and want to skip the crowds and get a taste (literally!) of the city and its history, I highly recommend a day in Uji.

Monday, August 15, 2016

What to Expect at a Wedding in Japan

Weddings in another country are interesting glimpse into another culture. I have attended three weddings in Japan now, two Christian ones and one traditional Japanese Shinto ceremony. They all share similarities, especially in the 披露宴 hirouen, or wedding reception. Here's what to look out for if you're invited to a Japanese wedding:

My sister-in-law's Shinto ceremony
The ceremony
Couples can choose to have a traditional Shinto ceremony at a shrine, or a civil ceremony at a wedding chapel. Japanese Christians get married in a church.
The Shinto ceremony at a shrine involves the reading of vows and drinking nuptial sake together. Since the guests are there in the function to give away or receive a bride, they usually limited to immediate family and it's a small, intimate affair. Christian ceremonies in a church seem to have less components than Christian ceremonies I've attended back home, short and sweet with just the pastor's message to the couple, the vows, and exchange of rings. Don't expect a kiss! Weddings are extremely formal events and you might be surprised to see the couple with very serious faces throughout.
For non-Christians who want a Western-style "white wedding" (popularized after Princess Diana's wedding was televised around the world), there are lovely "wedding chapels"--church-like buildings built exclusively to host wedding ceremonies. Since a ceremony is irrelevant to being legally married in Japan, the officiant is not a real pastor, but a white foreign man hired part-time to don robes and conduct a ceremony, the content of which is up to the couple. One co-worker of mine is employed as a "wedding priest" on weekends, and apparently he makes a pretty penny off it.
Outdoor ceremonies are reserved for exotic destination weddings at places like Hawaii, Okinawa, and Bali.
"Hand-made" weddings in which all arrangements are made by the bride and their family and friends are less common, though I attended one at our church; most brides choose a package provided by a bridal company that provides everything from the coordinator, rental dress and tux, MC, flowers, banquet hall, and food. My sister-in-law had trouble with her wedding planner when she found that any deviation from the set menu of services resulted in exorbitant fees.

Wedding presents
Goshugi cash gift envelopes
Each guest must bring a gift of cash called ご祝儀 goshugi. The bills have to be new from the bank, given in a fancy envelope for the purpose, in amounts that don't start with a 2 or 4 since those are unlucky for wedding. For a single person just attending the ceremony, $100 is the minimum expected. A couple should give $300. If you attend the reception as well, you should consider giving more since the reception involves a formal gourmet meal--a single person should give $300 and a couple $500. For this reason you won't see many children at a reception nor do guests bring dates or even spouses. Yuya and I have attended weddings together only when the couple is our mutual friend. When Yuya attends the weddings of his old high school friends, I stay at home. We hit on a strategy for dealing with goshugi that works for us--we received some ourselves when we got married, but we decided not to use any of it. When we attend a wedding we simply give the money from our old goshugi fund. That way we can attend a few weddings without breaking the bank!
Hikidemo gift catalog
Friends might pool together to buy household appliances for the new couple, but the cash gift is what's expected.
Since there is no receiving of a gift in Japan without giving one in return, if you give goshugi you'll receive 引出物 hikidemono from the bride and groom, usually nice little household items, or a catalog of the same from which you can choose your gift yourself. We have received towels, wine glasses, steak, and a kitchen knife from weddings.

The reception
It is not necessary to attend both the wedding ceremony and the reception, as long as you indicated your attendance beforehand when you RSVPed.
The reception is very formal. You'll sign into a guest book and receive a map of the seating arrangements. The bride will have made sure to seat you with people you know. A wedding is less a place to meet new people as it is to meet up with old mutual friends. For us, it's our Bible-study "circle" or club we had joined in college. It's always fun to reconnect and see how peoples' lives change as we get older.
After being seated, the ceremony begins with the couples' entrance. There will be speeches and toasts by the couple's old high-school or university teachers, or bosses (yes you invite teachers and bosses to your wedding!). There might be a musical performance, candle-lighting, or cake-cutting by the couple. No bouquet toss, and definitely no garter toss. There will probably be videos of the couple's childhood and dating photos. In the middle of the event, the bride and groom will disappear for お色直し oironaoshi  "changing colors" and the bride will change from her kimono or white wedding dress into a colored ball-gown. Through the course of the day the bride wears at least two dresses, perhaps more. Brides usually rent rather than buy their dresses. At the end, the couple reads letters to their parents, "thank you for raising me..." It is all narrated by the hotel's enthusiastic MC. Somewhere in there, a few courses of beautiful gourmet food is served. Don't expect dancing or a DJ or much mingling. Someone's relatives might drink too much and get silly, but a "party" atmosphere happens at an after-party or 二次会 nijikai, which may or may not be arranged by previous invitation at a different establishment. Some guests attend the nijikai only; some couples don't hold one at all.

What to wear
Men wear formal suits and ties. Women generally wear knee-length formal dresses in conservative colors (though not all black or all white), modest pantyhose and plain pumps, a bolero or fancy scarf to cover the shoulders, a little formal purse, hair did, and no flashier jewelry than a string of pearls. The uniform is pretty much standard, and contributes to the whole fancy and gorgeous atmosphere.

The cost
The average cost of a wedding in Japan is $31,000, higher than the U.S. average of $26,000. I think our stateside handmade wedding was less than half of that. Like in the U.S., who pays is up to the couple and their families, but some trends are emerging to offset these costs, like intimate ceremonies "sumakon", photo-op only weddings, or simply not holding a ceremony or reception at all.

My thoughts
Weddings are a great chance to meet up with old friends, but there's a lot of pomp and circumstance involved which makes more opportunities for social faux pas--though navigating a wedding successfully is a sign of having arrived in adult society, especially for the new bride. More so than me Yuya seems to have an allergic reaction to such formal events, and incidents always happen: misplaced formal tie, misplaced camera batteries, the invitation with the map to the reception left at home, my name spelled wrong on the goshugi we gave (that he wrote!). Though Japanese attention to detail and propriety make weddings truly beautiful to attend, they always make us secretly glad we had our wedding in my home church in the U.S.