A Zen experience

Urban Psychedelia

Arriving in Honshu is entering the most developed part of Japan and also the coldest from a human perspective. It is the true gateway to a couple of centuries later, where every day the most advanced technology in the world is cooked and gives way to the delirium of the most extravagant consumption. It is a very strong contrast considering that only two months ago we were cycling in a space and a time that felt beautifully prehistoric and now, in one so futuristic, that I think it would leave without words to the very Filippo Marinetti, or perhaps it represents in a reliable way his vision of the rupture with the past and I would dare say, with the present.

In Amagasaki, a quiet suburb halfway between Osaka and Kobe, we find a place to stay in the home of Shingo, a cycle-traveller and exceptional human being that today owns a cosy little bar in a quiet neighbourhood of narrow streets and traditional houses, away from the hustle and bustle of the future. It was a blessing after spending so many days camping in public parks.

From his small oasis we were able to explore Osaka, the third largest city in Japan, where everything turns into tomorrow, the future. Overlapping freeways, speed, consumption, excess, luxury, glitters and neon lights erase all traces of stars in the sky. The machine and the movement at its best. Dotombori is the district where consumption has no limits and hordes of people come and go carrying more bags than they can carry. It is a constant display of power, vanity and self-centeredness.

I remember a great lecture in my first year of university, dictated by my great mentor, Arch. Alberto Bellucci. In it, he showed us photos of a small Argentine city where the streets were full of signs hanging from the city's buildings facades. A horrendous urban scenario. To that excess of advertisement, where one owner of a business puts a sign bigger than that of the business across the street, and the one next to that one, puts an even bigger one in order to be noticed, blocking the city's buildings completely with visual filth. Alberto defined as "the screamings of the city", a metaphorical term but so adjusted to reality that I never forgot it. In Osaka, the term came up once again to my mind. If that small Argentine city of Alberto's photographs screamed, Dotombori leaves us deaf, dumb, and blind.

There, everything seems to be about shouting publicity and beating the company on the opposite side. Blinding visual contamination, entire facades of buildings dressed in trademarks and lush models. I kept wondering who could work or live seeing through his window the rear side of so much psychedelia, I guess the one behind the boob of some top model.

It is clear from the beginning that Japan does not fear energy crises and squander all the light that is lacking in many countries of the world. The facades of very high technology change colours, again and again, making them "dance", day and night.

The one that at one time is of one or several colours, the next moment is of others, and everything moves, nothing is still for more than thousandths of a second. Everything changes all the time, nothing is equal from one second to the other, neither the buildings nor the people.

History in a shop window

After a few days in Osaka, we pedal the 60 km long urban continuum to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. Kyoto ...... I will close my eyes and imagine that I am there some centuries ago, it will be in autumn and I will sit in one of its gardens whose beauty in itself will surely elevate me spiritually. From there I will see a city of samurais, shoguns and geishas. In the morning I will walk through its dozens of exquisite temples and in each of them I will feel closer to enlightenment with the monks who will come walking in their wooden sandals producing a 'clack-clack" sound. I have no doubt that upon my return, I will tell you that I have just been in the most beautiful city in which I have ever been.

It is more than obvious that the present reality of Kyoto is far from such idyllic images but also far from the images that I had illusively had in my mind before arriving. Kyoto receives annually nothing less than the derisory sum of 50 million tourists from Japan and around the world, and autumn is the second season with more visits after the Sakura season. This is not by any means to say that Kyoto is ugly because its fame is more than well earned. The old part of Kyoto is really a city wonder, it is an open-air museum Japanese-style of immeasurable beauty as much as Rome it is to in Europe and in autumn it is dazzling.

However (and here comes the spoiled adventurer who usually has the whole place to himself) it is impossible that the experience is not tainted by the horrific hordes of mass tourism that collapse in an extraordinary way all that the city has to offer. I am also going to give a little credit to the Japanese and say that considering the excessive volume of tourists, they handle everything more than well. One shouldn't expect less anyway. We shouldn't forget that after all, we are in times of capitalism and the magical spirituality emanating temples, Zen gardens and palaces yield billions of yens and even the most orthodox monk seems to have the sign of the yen shining in his eyes.

Kyoto is a wonder, but almost all of its history is nowadays behind a shop window and entering each premises has a price. It is not high, everything is between 4 and 5 US dollars, but if you expect to see all that Kyoto has to offer, a couple of days of walking can set you back 400 dollars at least, just to see its biggest attractions. If your budget does not allow it, you missed it, and you miss quite a lot thanks to that.

If you do not pay, you do not see it and there is nothing one can do but to make a selection and compromise, as simple as that. Kyoto is, first of all, a big business. It sells temples, palaces, zen gardens, sanctuaries, museums, although it is indisputable that it sells quality because everything is extraordinarily beautiful.

There are certain spaces that are free and magical. They give the wallet a break and logically, there are few or no tourists there because obviously, the tour bus takes them to where they have to empty the credit card faster. Thus, in these free ones, every garden is an oasis. Everything one reads and sees in photos of a Japanese garden is real. The sense of peace transmitted to one by the very fact of just being there in one of them is difficult to describe. It is as if their millennial designers had found the recipe to elevate the soul through the perfect manipulation of the elements of a garden.

The colors of autumn only increase the visual and sensory stimulation in them. I have been in the Canadian autumn twice at least and after having seen it, it is really hard to be surprised, but the Japanese tree species are like an atomized version of those found in the West. A Japanese tree may have 25 leaflets in the size of a single leaf of a Canadian maple, providing textures and transparencies of a much greater density. Its branches are not straight but intricate and the trees shorter. The colours sift the light and stain it red, yellow, orange ... almost like a kaleidoscope.

As you walk through the alleys between temples and palaces, the branches change color. Sometimes they are yellow. And two steps later, they are red. And later are all the colors at the same time, it's unreal, it's so beautiful that it's hard to believe. Kyoto doesn't lack crystalline green rivers, the picturesque raft even for a silly tourist tour and of course the autumnal trees always framing the perspectives.

The night is the time to visit Gion, the district of geishas that today seems to have very little to do with that enigmatic space described by Arthur Golden and is now, of course, mostly a tourist place. Even so, geishas still exist and can be seen in action at night entertaining drunk entrepreneurs in one of the district's restaurants and during the day escaping tourists trying to take a photo. The streets of Gion are equally charming, with their restaurants in traditional, perfectly preserved wooden houses. Japanese style at its best.

So we spent a couple of days in Kyoto, a city that despite everything, should probably be one of the most aesthetically beautiful cities I've ever visited. It is a Japanese open-air museum and it does have a price, but it's worth visiting. From here, we would embark on the 500 km long journey to Tokyo, but not without going around the entire Fuji-san.