So, as I’m sure some of you might have guessed, I’m now back in the US enjoying the awesomeness that is school starting back up. It’s been a busy couple weeks, and I’ve barely had time to check in on the blog until earlier this week. At the moment, I’m predicting that my blogging output is probably going to decrease substantially, both because classes and clubs and stuff take up time, frequently at the expense of blogging and anime because they keep me away from my room, and because much of my free time at the moment is going into attempting to finalize the work I did over the summer and prepping them for publication.
It also means I didn’t manage to finish blogging about my time in Japan while I was there, contrary to what I was hoping. However, I think I did do much better than I would’ve if I hadn’t set a goal for myself. Plus now I have material for posts throughout the year. *shrug*
However! One thing I did learn was that I find it really difficult to talk a lot about the minutia and details of all the stuff I was doing in Japan as standalone things. It seems – in the end – I really do just like talking about big picture stuff, and trying to tie little details back to said picture. I might try and branch out a little bit more in the future (and I have been trying to experiment with new writing styles in a couple of my previous posts at this point), but at the moment I’ll try and stick to what I at least take the most pleasure in writing.
Which of course brings me back to Kyoto. I originally wrote a long extensive post about some of the stuff I did there. Which was cool and all, but ultimately I think not what I wanted in retrospect (and most likely quite boring). Because at this point I want to talk about how Kyoto felt rather than what it was. And it took a visit (back) to Beijing to put it in perspective for me.
First, some background. I’m actually half-Chinese (on my mom’s side), and spent 5 years (3 in Beijing, 2 in Shanghai) of my childhood (from 5-11, minus a “gap” year back in the US) in China. This means a couple things:
- I actually can speak “fluent” Chinese (as in I don’t need to translate back and forth in my head and can understand “innately” what people are saying), although my vocabulary has degraded significantly since my time there since we don’t speak it at home.
- I experienced culture shock (twice) traveling back and forth between the US and China, although since I was young I realize this only in retrospect (at the time, I just sorta adapted as things went, but thought other people were weird). This gave me a nice perspective on the way things work in both countries, although it tends to be more internally realized rather than intellectually/rationally understood.
- I’ve eaten a lot of Chinese (and more generally Asian) cuisine (e.g. hot pot), and have gotten used to some of the larger family-style ways of doing things that tend to manifest more broadly in East Asian cultures.
- I have family in China, and so grew up with a more connected household, although not as much as you might see in some K/J/C-dramas. So the concept of the typical Asian “extended family” is pretty relate-able to me.
- Any landmarks, or more broadly environment, that I visited/experienced as a kid totally went unappreciated, as did much of the history and rich cultural heritage.
- I hadn’t been back to China in almost a decade since moving back to the US.
Since I was staying in Japan over the summer, I decided to take a trip back to China to visit my relatives, as well as to get a new perspective on the place I grew up in. [I also was traveling around the area with my best friend from high school, but whatever.]
In short: I decided to come home.
Now, I know this is a little (quite a bit, actually) cliched. But the fact that I can even make such a cliched statement – and moreover actually believe it – was a realization in and of itself.
As a child, I never stayed in a single place (or country!) longer than 3 or so years, and so the concept of a “hometown” seemed kind of, well, foreign, to me. However, when we finally settled down for most of middle and high school, I finally had a chance to put down roots and call a place “home”. That, I thought, was the end of it.
But it seems memories and experiences work in strange ways, since during my time in China, I really did feel as if I had come home, even if “home” was a lot different from what I remembered.
Note: Everything I’m saying hereon out is “off the cuff”, based on my experiences in Beijing and Kyoto. I’m happy to change any inaccuracies or misleading perceptions I end up reporting if you let me know either in the comments or by e-mail.
This serves as a good transition to talk about Beijing, because my experience there this summer really gave me a framework to put my time in Kyoto (and more generally, in Japan) in perspective. Plus it also allowed me to reconnect with some of my past life in new ways (anime-related concept here), seen through the eyes of a much older me.
Beijing is a city with history, a rich history that one could argue surpasses that of the entire Japanese archipelago (by certain very biased metrics, of course; “ranking” histories isn’t really my thing or something I really agree with). But it is also a city of great change, caught up in China’s wave of modernization. The smog in the city is intense, as one of my friends who also visited this summer can attest. Most days the air is permanently filled with a gray haze that can sting the eyes and frequently blocks out the horizon. Construction sites are everywhere, as are new apartment complexes, roads, shops, and more, all painted in beautiful shades of gray and shaped like gorgeous concrete blocks. Many of the places I’d remembered as a child had either been redone or torn down in the 9 or so years I’d been gone.
Against this rush of industry, Beijing manages to preserve its heritage. Famous historical sites such as the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace remain remarkably preserved and famous tourist attractions.
As shown above, however, their vibrant colors clash with the monochromatic scenery and the smog, as well as the endless noises from the traffic all around.
More historic sections of the city have ordinances preventing them from being torn town or expanded. However, a decent number of them are in disrepair and coated in layers of dirt and muck, filled with crumbling bricks and older residents who seem to be remnants of a time soon to be forgotten. In short, Beijing seems to me to be the quintessential clash between past and present, the battleground of a war between history and the future.
It is with this view that I now looked at my time in Kyoto, because Kyoto (today) seems to be the furthest thing from this view.
Kyoto seems to be a city that has embraced its past in the present, combining both as it moves forward. There is no encroaching march of modernization here, but historical sites merely set within a city that has changed since it’s inception. The temples don’t seem to clash with the modern buildings – they instead seem to complement each other.
Kabuki theatres stand across the street from supermarkets.
Which themselves stand over subway stations, frequently painted with traditional nihonga designs and whose characteristic “train is arriving” sounds take inspiration from traditional Japanese music.
And historical icons are scattered across the city in the most random of places.
The list of the ways Kyoto’s history has integrated into the present-day city could probably take up its own post, and most likely an entire thesis. Ultimately though, although it’s impossible (or at least, extremely difficult for me) to describe exactly, unlike Beijing, Kyoto makes the past feel as if it’s come to life. It’s a very different vibe from the ultra-modern metropolis that is Tokyo, which ends up somewhere in-between Kyoto and Beijing.
There’s a lot of stuff to do in Kyoto, and indeed I managed to see quite a bit during my time there. But I think this sums up more about the city (and my own experiences) than any specific description of my travels ever could.