Opening doors in a closed culture

Traveler: An American tourist finds her way into the `real' Japan.

January 24, 2001|By Alice Steinbach | By Alice Steinbach,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KYOTO - Most travelers to this 1,200-year-old city - even those visiting for the first time - bring their own Kyoto along with them. Stored away in their heads is the ancient city they've imagined: a city of silver and golden pavilions, of exotic geisha and Zen rock gardens, of moon-viewing and stylized tea ceremonies. This is the Kyoto of their expectations.

But the most rewarding trip to Kyoto - or any foreign destination - is the one that comes after the tourist has visited the place of her imagination. Only then is a traveler free to see the real city, the one that exists beyond the temples and shrines.

At least, this is the opinion of one American traveling in Kyoto - we shall call her Madame-san - who has toured with great pleasure the city of her expectations. Now, after lingering at the awe-inspiring palaces and gardens, Madame-san is in search of something else: the Kyoto where ordinary people work, raise families and go about their daily lives.

But Madame-san is uncertain about the right way to find this hidden Kyoto. Over and over, she has been warned by friends with knowledge of Japanese people that the "real" Japan - the one behind the tourist-attraction faM-gade - is not open to a gaijin, or "outside person."

Most tourists, to be sure, would flinch at the idea of trying to penetrate such a closed culture. But Madame-san is ever the incorrigible optimist. Why, just yesterday she was overheard telling an English couple in a noodle shop how her optimism reflected a Zen attitude toward life. "When I am totally ignorant about a subject," she told her newly minted friends, "I cannot help but remember the words of the great Zen teacher, Suzuki Shunryu: `In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's few.' "

Call it beginner's luck, but one possible way to find "hidden Kyoto" had occurred to Madame-san even before leaving for Japan.

While sitting in her back yard one day pondering how an outsider might get an inside glimpse of Kyoto life, she had an epiphany. As she watched her cat stalk a clump of dirt shaped like a mouse, she suddenly realized the best way to understand a foreign culture was to find native-born people willing to instruct her in its traditions.

To find such people Madame-san hit the Internet and hit it hard. After several false starts, her research paid off. Through a newsletter posted on the Web, she learned of a group called the Women's Association of Kyoto. Its purpose was to "introduce foreign visitors to Japanese culture in daily life."

The Kyoto women's association and Madame-san; it was a marriage made in heaven. Within a few weeks the women had helped the American tourist line up lessons in origami, flower arranging, tea ceremony, antiques appreciation, traditional dancing and woodblock print-making. They also would supply translators to assist Madame-san whose Japanese language skills, alas, were weak.

Now, Madame-san is here in Kyoto, on her way to a dancing lesson in the Wakayagi style. Although she has no idea what the Wakayagi style is, the American woman, who fancies herself quite the dancer, is up to the challenge. Of course, she has never danced in split-toed socks but her reasoning is it can't be any harder than dancing the rumba in 4-inch heels - which she has been known to do. Still, just to be on the safe side, before her lesson she stops briefly at a shrine to ask for good luck.

When she arrives for her lesson at the dance instructor's house in the Nakagyo-ku area, Madame-san finds two women in Western attire waiting for her: Michi Ogawa, founder of the Women's Association of Kyoto and Tomoko Kisaka, a translator. With them is the 34-year-old dance teacher, slim and elegant in her yellow silk kimono and black obi embroidered with colorful butterflies.

"She has two names," says Tomoko, introducing the dancer. "Her real name is Junko Kawakatsu. But her stage name is Ouka Wakayagi - which means `form of cherry.' Wakayagi is one of the three major schools of dance and - because Ouka-san is a diplomate of that school - she is authorized to use `Wakayagi' as her stage name."

The dancer, who lives in this house with her parents, leads her guests upstairs to a large tatami-mat room with a raised platform at one end. The platform serves as a stage for her dance pupils, including the one about to receive instructions: Madame-san. But first the American woman must suit up for her lesson.

With the help of the dancer, she dons a white cotton yukata (a lightweight kimono) patterned with blue leaves. Then a wide orange obi is wrapped around her waist. A difficult moment follows when the dance instructor tries to fasten the snaps on the white, split-toed socks, or tabi, that Madame-san is given to wear on her feet. Although her feet are not large by American standards, their size is formidable in Japan. But like Cinderella's stepsisters, Madame-san is able to squeeze her feet into the tabi.

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