The Road Not Taken


It cannot be a coincidence that both Koray and I love the poem “The Road Not Taken”. I’ve always loved the things that aren’t that popular,  stayed away from best-sellers even though I felt they were good, and always had the urge to try unfamiliar things. Now I can’t say that I’m a courageous person, but when it comes to taking the road not taken, you can count me in. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that the crowds disgust me. I can’t stand being in a place where there are too many people. And, when traveling in Japan, we of course wanted to see the attractions, and avoid the crowds at the same time. That is a difficult task, as in some attractions there were thousands of people. Going by our instincts, we found the roads less traveled by, and that made the whole difference.

Fushimi Inari Shrine ve Mt. Inari, Kyoto

We arrived at Fushimi Inari station by using JR Nara line, and it was just two stops away from Kyoto Station. Fushimi Inari is the #1 tourist attraction in Kyoto, and it’s not hard to understand why. The shrine which was built in 852 AD, gained fame when the emperor’s wish for rain and abundance was granted. Since then, thousands of people donated a Torii gate when their wishes were granted, so Mt. Inari was soon full of corridors made up by orange-red Torii gates.

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The entrance and the biggest Torii gate.

The biggest gate is at the entrance, donated by a leader who wished for his mother to recover. 

So the corridors of Torii gates offer a magnificent, almost intoxifying experience walking through them. The gates go all the way up to the top of the mountain.

When tourists come here they take photos like these: (source: http://jpninfo.com/11830)

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isn’t it pretty awesome?

When we arrived at the shrine and started walking through the Torii gates, the situation was exactly the same: the people were trying to take the best photos, without anyone in the background, while keeping hundreds of people waiting. And most of them probably couldn’t take the plunge to go all the way up, so they turned back after the first hundred meters or so. At this point, disgusted by the crowds, we saw a signpost saying if we turn right, there are two shrines 50 and 100 meters away. So we decided to get some air and visit them, and maybe come back and continue walking through the gates again. I’m glad we did! At first we weren’t keen to climb all the way up (233 metre high and 4 km long- sometimes very steep path, which took around two hours), but if we climbed along with the others our only experience was walking through a thousand red gates. But on the road we took, a forest with huge bamboo trees were waiting for us!

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It turns out the shrine 50 metres away, was actually 50 metres above, so it took us half an hour to get there.

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The bold lines are the main road, and the one on the right is our path. The writings with kanji indicate the small shrines.

When we saw this map, we decided it would be a waste to go back, so we kept climbing to the top. Two hours later, we had climbed 233 metres. As tiring as it was, it was the highlight of my Japan trip and one of the best experiences ever.

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There were lots of moments we felt eerie and freaked out. The only noise was our footsteps, rain and the birds’ singing. All of the shrines and graveyards we passed by looked abandoned except for one, but the candles kept on burning despite the rain. And a cat followed us for a while, which scared Koray as I had told him before that spirits can take the shape of animals like foxes or cats. 🙂 And in Japan it’s not common to see stray cats,  especially on a mountain. It was probably a monk’s pet or something, but as there was nobody around, I admit it was a bit scary.

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I really like hiking, but as I’m not very good at sports, I always felt I’d be left behind if I join a hiking or a mountaineering group. But here, among birds and giant bamboos, in the eerie silence of shrines, I made the best hiking ever.

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And happy ending!

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Behind me is the main road where people usually take to climb to the top.

On our way back, we took the main road and we got really happy we didn’t take it while going up. Aside from an observatory terrace and thousands of gates, there wasn’t really much to look at. And as it was all stone stairs, I imagine it was harder to go up.

Mt. Inari, without a doubt, one of the most exciting places for me in Japan.

 

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First Impressions on Japan and the Japanese

  • Most Japanese can’t speak English.

I read a lot on this, but I didn’t expect it to be true. I can say with relief that, in fifteen days, I met maybe two or three people who could speak proper English. There were some times that they understood me, but I didn’t understand them. 🙂 Luckily, Japanese people are very good at using body language and making use of maps, so except for food it wasn’t a big problem in daily life. Since my husband and I are Muslims, we had quite difficulty in finding out if there is any pork or raw egg in meals. So if you have dietary concerns, I strongly suggest that you learn the Japanese phrases (and the possible Japanese answers to them) to ask if the food contains meat/pork/raw meat/raw egg etc.

  • They are both under the effect of Western culture and not.

 

 

When I saw Stradivarius, Bershka and Zara all next to each other in Dotombori, Osaka, I almost felt like home. While it is possible to see people in kimono, yukata and traditional attire on the streets, Japanese people are usually under the influence of Western fashion. All working men and women wear suits (it is even possible to see women who wear ties)

 

  • Kawaii everything

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I guess this kid must be famous. His pictures were all over billboards.

Kawaii can be translated as “cute”, and it is an essential part of Japanese culture. Kawaii doesn’t care whether you are a male, female, old or young. It takes you under control! Especially cartoon and anime figures are everywhere, and it is very natural to see a middle aged man in snoopy shorts or a grandma rocking a hello kitty purse. What was interesting for me is again regardless of age and gender, everyone has a phone charm. As iPhones don’t have a hole for charms, they found a way to hang their charms to their phone case.

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crosswalk fashion. source: unsplashed

And boy, there are a lot of things that hurt your eyes. My husband, Koray, is obsessive with the color harmony of belt, watch and shoes in a man. So his attention was mostly on men who care nothing about the color harmony, and some men with wrinkled shirts, which seems quite common in the subway. The most interesting thing for me was wearing socks/stockings inside sandals and defying the whole reason of wearing them.

 

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It seems the yukatas come with cell phones and selfie sticks attached to them. source: unsplashed

  • Addiction to cell phones might be one thing we have in common.

A quarter of people on subway are asleep (official Japan guide says it’s almost a hobby to sleep on subways), a handful of people are reading an actual book or an e-reader, and all the others are on their cell phones. Some sidewalks even have the “don’t text and walk” sign.

 

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    The famous philosopher’s road in Kyoto. And yes, she’s on her cell phone.

    Gender is a bit weird. 

As I mention in kawaii, cute things aren’t just limited to children and young girls. On the contrary, children wear much simpler clothes whereas everybody who feels kawaii is welcome to express it in the most bizarre ways. Besides, most men wear what I would call “feminine” purses  and  women and men alike like to dye their hair every color imaginable. There are lots of women with man-like haircuts as they are many men with women-like haircuts (and of course this is just my viewpoint of gender, as a half westerner, half middle-eastern). That’s why sometimes I couldn’t understand if someone walking in front of me was a male or a female. And maybe that is the reason why so many Japanese and Korean dramas have the theme “misunderstood gender”.

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From Hanazakari no kimitachi e, a famous J-drama where the lead actress goes to an all-boy school dressed as a boy, why of course to be with his crush who is a celebrity athlete.

  • And then there is the onsen.
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one of the onsens we’ve been to, Naniwa no Yu. The picture is from their website, it’s prohibited to take photos inside, which makes sense.

Onsen might be translated as “hot spring bath”. These are gender-segregated public baths which run water that come from hot springs. The baths are about 50-60 cm deep and most of them are around 37-40 C degrees. Besides the numerous health benefits, I found going to an onsen really refreshing and fun. In Turkey we have a similar concept, which we inherited from Roman baths, but we almost always wear a towel or even a swimsuit to public baths. In Japan though, you need to be completely naked. Not one single piece of cloth to cover your private parts. And for us it took some courage first, but then we were okay. In Kyoto we went to two onsens, and then when we went to Osaka our bus pass also covered onsens so we visited two other ones. If I had had more time I would visit more! :)What I wonder about onsens though is the gender segregation. Japanese people, so far I understood from their literature, movies, cross-dressing and such, are open to lgbtq and it’s not a big taboo as it is in the Turkish culture. But here the only segregation is through sex, male and female. Everyone can enter this place and the only exception is having a tattoo. But they don’t seem to care about the possibility of taking a bath with gay people.

  • They stick to their principles.

 

I could say Japanese people are extraordinarily polite, when I think about the lady who apologized twice for keeping me waiting in front of a public toilet, or the numerous people who so kindly (sometimes only with very successful body language) gave me directions. I was never let down when I asked for something.

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talking about toilets… here you go, a Japanese toilet controller.

But considering people just bump into, and sometimes crash each other to get into trains without saying “sumimasen” (sorry) at all, I could say they are quite rude. As far as I’m concerned, just as every society they have an unwritten moral code and some things are acceptable while others are not. It’s just our perspective that compares the politeness with our cultural codes.

The big difference between Japanese and the Turkish I think, is that Turkish people have always had contact with neighbouring cultures, namely, Persian, Arabic, Greek, Roman and French. So our vision of hospitality and politeness has been somewhat a synthesis of the Middle East and Europe. However, Japanese had very little contact with other cultures until a hundred years ago, which makes their culture very unique and sometimes illegible.

  • Would I live in Japan?

Much as I’m in love with the culture, the answer would be a no. This is the first time I feel so foreign and so alone. It was obvious we weren’t Asian so I can understand that we caught attention, but everywhere I go, especially in onsens, people just kept staring at me. I smiled as I normally do when I make eye contact with someone, but the answer was mostly the same stare.  I feel like I could easily fit in a European country, but in Japan, I will always be a foreigner even if I don’t have the language barrier.

Sorry for keeping this a bit long, but  I still haven’t talked about my favourites: the Japanese gardens, Shinto & Buddhism, and food. And I apologize in advance if any of my views hurt any person. So until next time, Sayanora, or more friendly, ja ne!  😊