It’s hard to believe we are almost through our time here. It feels as though each day we are still just arriving, getting over our jet lag, lazily making our way through the streets to be greeted by the onslaught of beauty, order, cleanliness and calm that is Tokyo. I have never been in a city this packed with people that appears to remain so peaceful. There is a relaxed tone to everything, from the well trimmed shrubs and vibrant trees neatly encased in cement squares to the cashier who hands me my change and receipt with two hands, a smile and a bow. The rushing and stress that I associate with life on the streets of a large metropolis seems to be absent. Yes, at rush hour, one feels a definite press of commuters, but even then, most people are moving at a reasonable pace and the frenetic energy I associate with big cities and the resulting rudeness and gruffness is not to be found.
Yesterday we took a tour of Kyoto and hired a car and driver for the job. Mr. Araki, who had lived in San Diego for ten months, was a delightful wellspring of suggestions and animated discussion. “Japan people are rigid, not like Americans. Americans are so frexible!” I’m sure American flexibility is something I ought to appreciate more, but so far, Tokyo has given me a snug feeling of order that fits very well with my temperament.
Araki was right about Japanese rigidity, which may sometimes beget tension, like I saw in the face of a restaurant manager when a photographer, eager to get a picture, mistakenly stepped on some moss in the immense rock garden that ran along the outside of the dining room where we were eating. The manager seemed unable to get over the offense, even after the photographer apologized profusely, bowing a dozen times in deference, and the manager continually bent down over the trod upon spot to lovingly sooth the moss several times as we looked on, slurping up seafood entrails and strange fungi.
The devotion to order and cleanliness is impressive in action. I love the warm wet towels given before meals and the people who stand, often white gloved, at the entrance to a subway platform, a restroom, a department store or any number of places whose sole job seems to be to tell you where to go. They are like traffic cops for people, making sure to keep us flowing in the right direction. Since our arrival I’ve seen men feverishly scrubbing a bench on the subway platform, a woman removing fingerprints from the glass cases in a museum minutes after they were made, and a bathroom attendant, dressed like a french maid keeping the stalls pristine and the sinks furnished with warm towels.
Today was the Autumn Equinox which is a national holiday in Japan. The culture demands a reverence to nature that I wholly approve of and has its roots in the prevailing religion, Shintoism, which is often combined with Buddhism, and is largely based on honoring and praising Mother Nature above all. In Kyoto we visited a few temples and shrines and watched people perform various purification rituals – washing hands and mouths with water, and smudging with incense – in order to enter the places of worship. Like many Eastern religious practices, the rituals are practical measures taken to achieve a certain outcome with different statues and shrines devoted to specific goals like love, money, success or good health. But built into these themes is always the overarching idea of praising nature, the elements or sometimes certain animals in order to live well.
Above all, the thing the Japanese seem to to have mastered is the idea of balance. It takes precedence in everything, from the beautiful gardens to the striking architecture and design, to the way people dress and arrange flowers, to the precious boxes of colorful food arranged just so. We are staying in a very fancy area where the sight of an ill-conceived outfit is rare. The people on the street are not just dressed expensively, as they are on Madison Avenue or Beverly Hills, they manage to have individual style. But it’s not just a matter of being fashionable, though most people are, it is the balance and restraint and just plain good taste in almost everything that has impressed me the most.
Balance is enormously important in how the gardens and plants are tended to. When we visited the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto it was almost ridiculous how perfectly picturesque each view of it was. The greenery surrounding the structure, the pond and trees and mountains behind it, are all designed to frame it like a picture. You couldn’t take a bad photo of it if you tried. Here, nature is not wild and unpredictable as we thought. It is an expression, beautifully balanced and tended to with the utmost care and devotion.
Nothing is perfect and I’m sure there are steep prices paid for all the perfectly harmonious beauty I’ve perceived on this visit. But I will go home in a few days inspired to live my life, tend my garden and get dressed every morning with reverence for the Gods who rule the natural world, and I will strive for the balance and calm that I have witnessed here.