SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

Gloria Yu Yang “A Nomad’s Tale of Two Cities” (Series “Studying in Japan” No. 4)


“What kind of people (and from where) ride on a Sunday train at 5AM?” I asked myself the question while sitting on a JR train bounding for Shinjuku and pretending to read a book.


The book I held, “Kyoto-Ghirai (I Do Not Like Kyoto),” is historian Sho-ichi Inoue’s latest book, and it is peculiar. Books on the Kyoto culture generally sell a convenient-store set, made of “Maccha (powdered green tea)”, “Gion Matsuri (The Gion Ritual in Summer)”, Machiya (traditional townhouse)” and temples, featuring unchanging themes of “The Tale of Genji,” four seasons and the “heart of Japanese tradition.” Moreover, they also describe the vague term “ikezu (spiteful)” as unique to people and customs of Kyoto, exemplified in the restaurant’s rejection of customers without introductions, or the host’s notorious question, “Do you want to have some Bubu-zuke (a simple dish mixed rice with tea),” which was an indirect request for “Go Home.” Claiming to decipher the phenomenon related to “ikezu,” these books actually eulogize or mythologize the term as the emblem of the incomprehensive Kyoto. The book “Kyoto Ghirai, ” however, provides a different perspective. Examining his bitter personal experiences of encounters with the “ikezu” through a distant, analytic lens, Inoue reveals the social structure and essence of the “ikezu.” I admire his courage and enjoy his meticulous analysis of the popular image of Kyoto manipulated by the profit-driven mass media.


“But isn’t he (Inoue) born in Saga, lives in Uji and works in Katsura?” Someone from Kyoto raised a small question with a light smile. For people who are familiar with the famous scenic spots of Kyoto, the Arasiyama (Saga) and the Katsura-Rikyu (Katsura Imperial Vila), the intention of the question was not clear. People who have lived in Kyoto, however, immediately recognized the alarming signal in the smirk: a war was waged towards people like Inoue, an outsider, who dared to explain the real Kyoto. Inoue begins with the history of the Saga region, explains the cultural connotations of the “Raku-chu”(inside of Kyoto) and “Raku-gai” (outside of Kyoto) and articulates the sense of superiority of people who live in the center and their discriminations against people who live in the outskirts. To briefly summarize, the question is all about, “You know nothing about Kyoto if you are not from Kyoto.”


I lived in Kyoto for two years. I visited Japan several times before and spent a year in Yokohama, which made me thought I was used to life in Japan. To my surprise, I had a cultural shock in Kyoto—the food, language, expression, human relationship and custom—everything was completely different. This is not Japan—I told myself—a whole new world. No, maybe it is actually the traditional Japan lost in textbooks. To me, the tranquil lattice windows of traditional “machiya” houses suggested a labyrinth, where the scary “ikezu” Minotaur was waiting at the end of the dark, narrow hallway.


The gap between ostensible “omote-nashi” (hospitality) and “ikezu” is not unique in Kyoto. It is a common phenomenon in tourist cities around the world, where sightseeing spots, products of tourist commercialism, present a different reality with the everyday space, where local social relationships take place. The double structure between the surface and exists in everything. For example, the invention of the “nogoya” structure, which inserts a layer of “hanegi” beams underneath roof beams to share the weight of the roof, enables medieval Japanese temples to build large roofs with slender materials. Invisible from the exterior, one can detect the existence of “hanegi” beams from the traces of nailed joints. Similarly, now matter how complicated and puzzling the surface looks, there is always a passage connecting it with the underneath structure. It is the training and pleasure for a researcher to find the “Toori-niwa (a small garden passage connecting the front and back of a “machiya” town house).


As a passionate researcher, I dedicated myself to deciphering the social and cultural codes of Kyoto by reading previous studies (literature on “Ikezu” and authors from the Kyoto University), conducting oral interviews (rival gossips from paparazzi neighbors) and observing “Ikezu” behaviors in the streets. In the end, I still do not know everything about Kyoto, but have learned a lot about historical methodologies from Kyoto. For example, individual grocery stores and small restaurants outnumber convenient stores and chain restaurants in the residential neighborhoods of Kyoto. Rather than pursuing profits, these small businesses aim to sustain for a lifetime. For decades, regulars at the restaurant chat with the owner while enjoying their coffee and foods. In this way, they establish a special bound by spending time together. Kyoto is a town where people respect individuality and give priority to personal relationship over the popular trend. The historical perspective, which situates one’s thinking within the temporal and spatial context is a common mentality of everyday life in Kyoto.


The studies of the ancient capital have made me enjoy the life in Kyoto. The historical way of thinking, modest life style, not-trendy fashion, delicious and reasonable food, the “Kamo” river, the summer evening festival at “Simogamo-jinja” shrine, “Kami-kamo-jinja” shrine, “Kifune” shine in the rain, Purple Mountain and Bright Water (an expression for place of outstanding natural beauty), practice of tea ceremony in the morning and a misty morning on the “Demachi-yanagi” bridge. The moment when I finally felt Kyoto as home, understood the old proverb, “the place you get used to is the capital,” and gained knowledge of survival skills in the ancient capital, I had to leave the capital and moved eastward.


Like Inoue’s explanations of Saga reveal, Kyoto people are strongly attached to their homeland. Maybe because buildings are close to the ground, or maybe because there are so many families of hundred years, people seem to be locked within their neighborhoods by the invisible “genius-loci.”


As a result, the autonomous association of each neighborhood forms a strong sense of local community, meanwhile, projects a strong rejection towards the outsiders. The rivalry is not only between Kyoto and Tokyo, or between rakuchu and rakugai (center and outskirt of Kyoto). Even within Kyoto, the Nishijin people battle with the Nakagyo people for the “authentic” center of Kyoto. Against the backdrop of strong sense of community, people find their local foods the most delicious, local friends the kindest and their homeland the most livable. They try to guard such living styles for generations. In this way, the locale has become the framework for personalities of the residents—people are categorized by where they come from. Outsiders, who do not belong to any locale, are not accepted because they do not fit in any framwork—just like the floating weeds. This is also why Kyoto people always begin a conversation with the question, “where (which neighborhood) do you live?” followed by the second question, “where did you come from?” These questions are not random chatting topics, but are the touchstones of one’s geo-cultural framework.


That was the reason why I left Kyoto, because I do not feel strong attachments to my hometown. Since my child hood, my family have been moving around in the northern and southern China. After I went to Beijing for my undergraduate studies, I continued my graduate studies in the United States, where I began studying the Japanese language, and then I came to Japan for research. During the past ten years of studying abroad, the international environment, the society and culture of China have changed dramatically. As a result, like a person not able to ride the escalator of progression, rather than nostalgia, I feel futuristic whenever I return home. People also consider me as a “Showa” outsider who belongs to the outdated generation.  


Ten years of studying abroad have engraved my Chinese identity with fragments of languages, cuisine recipes and landscapes from various countries and cultures. I have been, am and perhaps will be “on the road” for a lifetime while being an “outsider” and a “local” in every place. This ostensibly free life style also bears solitary shadows. Having experienced a variety of societies and cultures, Kyoto has made me realize, for the first time, my identity as a “nomad,” who has no hometown but also enjoys everywhere as a hometown. Although I deeply miss the food and nature in Kyoto, I know it is time to move on. I do not fit in a place where people are categorized into stereotypes based on their geographical backgrounds.    


Inoue applies a sociological approach to understand the internal structure of the culture in Kyoto. Not satisfied with the backstage stories or personal experiences, he explores the underlying social and historical reasons that shaped the stereotype of the ancient capital, including the national educational systems and regional differences. His conclusion points out a new possibility that an outsider can see Kyoto more clearly than a native, which is inspiring. In any society, there are various frameworks/stereotypes generated by regions, occupations, genders and races. Studies of societies can either conduct in-depth research in the vertical direction of a single framework, or analyze, in the horizontal direction, the interrelations among various frameworks. A diverse society relies on the coexistence of multiple frameworks and the tolerance towards the nomads who crosses boundaries of current frameworks. In the time of globalization, we see an increasing number of nomads, and we might even be able to define a framework for the nomad in the near future.


On a JR train heading to Shinjuku at 5AM on Sunday, I saw a girl with none makeup just off from work at a hostess club, sleepy high-school students holding training bags of club sports, drunken businessmen who missed the last train, and colorfully dressed mountain hikers. What an amazing crowd. No one cares about other people’s opinions. Indifference in Tokyo also bears a sense of liberation and tolerance. It does not matter whether it is beautiful or not: the incomprehensible is fun. I can live in Tokyo with a Kansai accent and keep my Kyoto peculiarities. I am grateful to the support from Atsumi Foundation, whose events and activities contribute greatly to the coexistence of various cultures, establish a transnational community of international nomads, and broaden my perspective. They have made Tokyo my new hometown. Honmani Argiatoo!


SGRA Kawaraban 503 in Japanese (original)



( Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University in Japanese Architecture and Art, Research student at Ito Takeshi Research Lab, Department of Architecture in University of Tokyo) 



Translated by Kazuo Kawamura

English checked by Mac Maquito