I went, somewhat reluctantly. My parents had been in the guerrilla movement in the Philippines during World War II and had told me countless stories of Japanese atrocities and the sufferings of the Filipinos during that war. In fact, my first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, integrates many of my parents’ stories of survival in Mindanao.
I was therefore a biased observer in Japan. I did try to keep an open mind, and I did see what my friends saw in Japan, its beauty for instance.
Japan Is Beautiful
The mountaintop place of Koyasan with its ancient cedar groves and Buddhist temples felt other-worldly and mystical. Koyasan, a UNESCO site, preserves Shingon Buddhism, a sect began in 805 by Kobo Daishi. The town only has Buddhist temples for housing, and we stayed at Ekoin Temple, where we slept on tatami mats, ate vegan food prepared by the monks, and witnessed their meditation, chanting, and a morning prayer ritual that involved burning wooden sticks with petitions. We had a wonderful walk through the Okunoin cemetery with graves and mausoleums of shoguns and emperors. This ancient cemetery also has many small stone statues tucked here and there, near imposing grave markers and enormous cedar tree roots. The figures have knitted head coverings and red aprons; these small Buddha figures represent dead babies and indicate that infant mortality was high and that families grieved for their dead babies.
There was Hakone, another gorgeous mountaintop place with Lake Ashi and hot spring pools (onsens). In Hakone, we had hoped to see Mount Fuji but, unfortunately, clouds shrouded the famous volcano.
We visited Hiroshima’s Shukkeien Garden, which dates back to 1620, and is one of the loveliest Japanese gardens I have ever seen. The garden itself is not that large but the winding path through representations of valleys, mountains, and forests around a pond was most satisfying.
The castles and temples in the various cities are all interesting, in particular Kyoto’s Nijo-jo Castle and Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. Kyoto charmed me most of all. Undamaged by World War II, Kyoto, the former imperial capital, still has prewar structures. Kyoto is also the heart of Japan’s geisha world. Its historic district of Gion has many resident geishas (or geikos as they are properly called). These traditional female entertainers still wear white makeup and elaborate kimonos and are paid highly for their performances. Highly respected, geiko preserve classical Japanese music, dance, and poetry. Further, in Kyoto, many ordinary women wear traditional kimonos, something that charmed me and made me wish Filipinas would wear our native dress on a daily basis.
The various cities of Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo have their own flavor and styles and offer further exploration.
The Japanese Are Polite
I agree with my friends that the Japanese are polite. They line up at train and bus stations; they stand to one side of escalators so people in a hurry can pass them by. Young men jumped up to give me their seats in trains. When I made space for someone to sit in trains, the person would bow repeatedly to express his or her gratitude. Once, in the train station, while waiting for my husband and our tour guide and probably looking lost, a man kindly asked if I needed help. On our last night in Tokyo, my husband wore his Angel Ohtani shirt, and a young woman stopped us and happily chatted about the famous Japanese Angel baseball pitcher and hitter, Shohei Ohtani.
Our tour guide, Mika Yabe, was politeness and efficiency personified. She even unnecessarily woke up at four in the morning to make sure we would get to the Tokyo airport on time. Only twice in Japan did I come across rude people: a surly older woman in Koyasan and restaurant workers in Kyoto who overcharged us.
Japan Is Clean
“Japan is very clean,” is another statement my friends often say, and indeed this is true. Streets, sidewalks, train stations, parks, just about every place, are spotless, despite the fact that there aren’t many garbage cans. Apparently, people keep their trash in their purses or pockets and dispose of them properly at home or when they come across a trash can.
And the toilets, let me tell you about Japanese toilets -- they are the cleanest I have ever seen. They are impressively high-tech with heaters, built-in bidet, music, deodorizer, plus other features. My husband joked and said he was afraid he’d be electrocuted. The numerous buttons compelled me to put on my eyeglasses every time I used the toilet to find the “flush” feature – and by the way, you have the choice of “small flush” or “big flush.”
I agree with my friends that Japan is a safe and tourist-friendly place, and I highly recommend the country. One can go on a modest budget, or go high-end. The trains and buses are very efficient though challenging. The JR Rail is a great deal as it allows tourists to take trains and some buses on a single pass. Japan has many places to visit and experience; and there is enough funk and culture to entertain everyone.
Reflection on Hiroshima and World War Two
But my visit to Japan made me reflect on Japan and World War II.
In Hiroshima, I was not unmoved by the graphic and carefully collected exhibits and information given at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park. Indeed, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first Atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing 90,000 to 146,000 people and destroying 69 percent of the city’s buildings. The event was horrific.
But looking at Hiroshima and World War II from a wider angle, one should note that Hiroshima was a supply and logistics base of the Japanese military. The Japanese Army headquarters were on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle, which ironically had a samurai exhibit during our visit. The exhibit made me consider that Japan was dominated by a military establishment that pushed for World War II in continuation of the Japanese samurai/shogun militaristic culture; military leaders were the modern samurai.
Taking a broader look at history, one can see that Japan was the aggressor in attacking Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, China, Singapore, Burma, and other parts of Asia, killing over 20 million civilians. The Japanese government still has to accept responsibility for the Filipina, Korean, and Chinese “comfort women” enslaved in Japanese military-run brothels during World War II. I think the Japanese government still has to accept responsibility for the Rape of Nanking in China. In this 1937 massacre, some 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the invading Japanese army.
These are just two incidents to indicate that history needs to be looked at in its entirety and with honesty. We should not rewrite history, otherwise we will repeat mistakes. Man needs to learn from the past.
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, has been recently reissued in the Philippines by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House (http://bit.ly/USTPHOrderForm). UST publishing House is the publisher of her two other novels: Magdalena and The Newspaper Widow. Cecilia’s official website is https://ceciliabrainard.com.
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