The first day of our trip was spent in Kyoto, in western Japan. Kyoto is usually described as “Japan’s ancient capital,” as it was the site of imperial government from the eighth century until the late 1900s. As a fan of Japanese popular culture, I prefer to think of Kyoto as the location of the headquarters of Nintendo, the imaginative corporation that has brought us Super Mario, Pokemon, and the Wii. Kyoto is also one of Japan’s leading college towns: it is home to more than 25 universities and almost 20 percent of its 1.4 million residents are post-secondary students.
Our time in Kyoto was dedicated mainly to cultural events: visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, enjoying the plum trees, which have just started to bloom here, and walking down some of the crowded shopping arcades in the central city. We spent the morning with a kyogen master. Kyogen is a 700-year-old theatrical form, comic, exaggerated, and stylized, and about as appealing to the average Westerner (or young Japanese person, for that matter) as a root canal. With the thoughtful explanations of the master, however, even as uncultured an American as myself was wrapped up in the techniques, expressiveness, and real artistry of this thoroughly Japanese theater. In the late afternoon we enjoyed a tour of a sake brewery in Kyoto’s historic Fushimi district. Seeing the process of making this traditional Japanese liquor was fascinating, and none of us seemed to mind a sake tasting session at the end of a long day.
One cannot help but be struck, especially here in Kyoto, by the richness and depth of Japanese history and the impact that the long legacies of the past continue to have on life today. The kyogen master we met is in the fourteenth generation of his family’s school. The sake brewery we toured, Kitagawa Honke, was established almost 300 years ago, and its president is also a fourteenth-generation leader of the family business. There are said to be 100,000 Japanese companies over 100 years old, including Nintendo, which was founded in the late nineteenth century as a playing card manufacturer. The oldest business currently operating in Japan was established all of 1,100 years ago and has pursued the same line of work over its eleven centuries, painstakingly handcrafting Buddhist temple structures. SMU, just coming up on its centennial, and even the state of Texas, a scant 175 years on from independence, are babies by comparison. The Japanese can be forgiven, I think, for talking reverently about ancient customs, time-hallowed traditions, and the weight of history on contemporary life.
(Photos courtesy of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation on Facebook.)