In the town of Sakai rests some very peculiar sorts of burial mound. It’s peculiarity lies not only in their immense size but also in the shape of it. These ancient giant burial mounds, the clinical name for which is Tumulus and the Japanese word for which is Kofun, are shaped like Keyholes. The largest of these is Daisen Kofun, which at 110 acres is reckoned the largest grave in the world by surface area.
I found it remarkable that a park so full of life would be immediately next to the largest burial mound in the world. But then, this also makes sense in traditional Shinto values, where the separation of life and death is important, as is the presence of each in the world.
Maybe one day I can get up in that tower and have a good look…
So February 14th arrived, as it tends to, and Valentine’s day began in Japan about 17 hours ahead of the rest of my friends and family.
In Japan, they celebrate Valentine’s day a bit differently. While in North america it’s typically a day for already existing couples to go do something special and exchange gifts, as well as prospective couples to send a thoughtful card, or some flowers and chocolates to one another, typically the bulk of the gift-giving is expected of the man. In Japan, however, it’s the women – and EXCLUSIVELY the women – who give out chocolates on Valentines day. That’s right, on February 14th, a man in japan just gets to sit back and let the chocolate come to HIM.
Ryoan-ji is one of the more famous zen Buddhist temples in Japan, known for its well-maintained rock garden and beautifully appointed garden. The temple lies on the northwestern edge of the city of Kyoto, which was the country’s Capital and home of the imperial seat of power from 794 to 1868, though it was called Heian-kyo at the time rather than Kyoto. This city is known throughout Japan as having a very traditional Japanese aesthetic, and sensibilities. The manners of the people in the city are so extreme that it was once described to me thusly: “Kyoto is a place that hides behind society’s mask, where they will ask if you would like a second cup of tea when really they want you to leave.”
Sumiyoshi-Taisha, or ‘Sumiossan,’ as it’s often known by the locals, is one of the largest Shinto shrines in Japan. And though it is not the oldest in the country, it is considered to be the central Shinto shrine in the entire country – and therefore the world. Though Japanese Buddhism and Shinto beliefs have a lot of crosstalk as far as imagery is concerned, the differences in the primary beliefs are vast and significant. Most notable, Shinto beliefs don’t incorporate Buddha, but rather Kami, which can be a god, a spirit, or a divine essence, depending on the context. And despite the importance the religion places on connection to the natural world – or perhaps because of it – this grand shrine, the primary home of Shinto, sits in the middle of the urban sprawl surrounding Osaka.
When it comes to consumerist culture, the Japanese have taken many cues from North America. They learned the lessons of profitability in the post-war economy and applied the Japanese work ethic to them, resulting in some hellaciously busy shopping areas. One such in Osaka is the Ebisubashi-Suji shopping district.
In the ancient town of Koyasan, aside from the wealth of temples that fill the town, Is the largest cemetery in Japan, with over 200,000 monuments therein. The graves of commoners, generals, imperial family members, corporate heads, celebrities, monks, nuns, conquerors, peacemakers, and simple families lay everywhere within, and a melancholic beauty suffuses the place.
So a Canadian, two Aussies and a Fin walk into a Japanese bar. It sounds like a setup to a joke, but in this case it’s an accurate way to describe my new year’s eve.
New year’s eve in Japan has a lot of similarities to North America’s celebration. People come out in droves to party in the city and participate in the countdown, and it’s the one day of the year the trains run all night, so you can party to your heart’s content and not have to worry about getting a hotel room or paying the steep cab fare home if you take the celebration past midnight. I’ve personally had to take that cab ride before, and it was only just barely less expensive than a hotel room.
My plans for the evening started with a Pub Crawl, organized by a meetup group made for expats and Japanese nationals looking to practice English. I was travelling light, and so didn’t have my camera on me. What I did have, luckily, was the handy trick of remembering the rough course of the night’s events despite drinking as much as I could get my hands on.