Sunday, August 15, 2010

from Kyoto and Hikone: Sunday

I’m asked (in Ocean comments) about family life in Japan. I’ll say just a little, but in that “little” you’ll find a lot:

Japan continues to adhere to traditional gender roles, more so than perhaps any developed country and more so than any number of countries we think of as rigorously stratified along gender lines. Though women enter the labor force, they rarely work in managerial positions (10% of those in managerial positions are women here, compared to, say, in USA, where the number is closer to 40%). And it’s not a question of an absence of laws promoting gender equality. The cultural beliefs are such that women are well suited to care for their children at a young age (and to care for the grandparents). Women who seek advancement and are denied opportunities because of family obligations will not sue their employer because Japan is not a litigious society.

There. In a nutshell. The separate worlds of men and women. And so it is heart warming for me to see, on a train speeding to Hikone this Sunday afternoon, scenes like this one.


Six years ago I did research here on child custody and placement decisions following divorce. At the time, I predicted, merely by observing a new involvement of young fathers in childcare, that Japan is likely to reformulate its standard approach to the placement of children after family dissolution. I haven’t done a follow up on this, but I would guess now that I was too hasty in my assessments. The force of cultural factors cannot be underrated.

And speaking of role divisions, in an unusual move of taking initiative, Ed suggests we go on a day trip to Lake Biwa. It is the largest freshwater lake in Japan and it is a short train ride north of Kyoto. It remains warm and humid here and Ed is hankering for a refreshing swim.

I like Sunday outings. It’s a chance to see how a country approaches a day off from work (recognizing that this Sunday is somewhat unusual as you are supposed to visit relatives and honor the souls of their ancestors – it is the Obon week-end in Kyoto).

But we are late to start. Figuring out how to get to a respectable beach by the lake takes a while (its southern half is significantly built up and its northern shores are far and not easy to reach by pubic transportation). Finally, Ed has a plan.

We take a train to Hikone – about halfway up the eastern shore, visit a castle there and then investigate Lake Biwa swimming opportunities. Ed thinks there may be a small beach there and the water quality appears to be good.

On the train (which is fairly crowded, but it’s only a 45 minute ride and gradually passengers disembark), I remind Ed that I have not had breakfast yet and I am feeling especially morose about postponing my morning cup of coffee for so long (it is now almost 3 p.m.).

And so the first thing we do is visit a cafĂ©, where I now officially begin the day with a deliciously brewed coffee and a pastry with figs. It’s 3:30 and I am ready to tackle the day.


The castle is surrounded by a moat and a walk along the water’s edge here is in itself quite attractive. Cherry trees and old pines line the walkway and black swans and the beloved cranes occasionally appear against the large boulders of the castle wall.




We are told that the castle gardens will be closing within the hour and so we head there first.


One goal of tourism here (which is geared mostly toward the Japanese) is to promote and safeguard traditional Japanese customs, including music, and the loudspeakers ensure that even those whose hearing doesn’t measure up have a full appreciation of the melodic twists and turns.


The garden is small but quite pretty. It’s not empty, but it’s not families that we really see. Sure, some, but it’s mostly young coupes and older people. Again I spot a crane, watching us, ready to take flight if anyone comes near.


From this vantage, you can see, as well, the castle towers.


As we leave the bridges and the ponds and start the climb up the hill, I am again impressed how high heels make their way along these rugged grounds (the spikes and wedges are extremely popular among young women, especially young women on dates). At one point, a damsel seems so in distress about making her way down a step, that even Ed (yes, that's right), who wears blinders to such womanly nonsense, offers a hand to help her make the transition from one step to the next.

We climb not only the hill, but also the steps leading up to the turret and then up to the castle tower itself.

The views are nice enough, but the cityscape dominates. The hills and mountains to the north are lovely and the lake looks pretty during these near evening hours, yet you are distracted by the grand sweep of commerce and urbanization. Hikone is not a big city by any means, but it’s big enough to take over the landscape here. The best view is toward the north, along the lakefront.


But the castle itself is quite lovely in its simplicity.


Indoors as well. The beams and rafters give a warm woodsy smell to the interior and as always, we all remove our shoes before entering, so that you hear only the muffled shuffle of feet along the older floors.

Outside, those who need relief from the heat can pass through a misty tent to get refreshed.


I’m getting quite used to the humid weather, but Ed is still thinking a swim might be nice and so we make our way down, past a lovely show of water lilies, just below a bamboo grove..



...all the way to where the canal empties out into the waters of the lake.


The sun is slowly receding. If ever I feel I am in South East Asia, it is now, on the edge of Lake Biwa, watching the hopeful fishermen casting their lines into the dark waters of the lake. Something about the light, the dense moist air, the breeze pulling in a fragrance like no other...


I wait to see if anyone brings anything in. One young man does.


And now Ed finds his searched out beach of sorts. There is a grassy stretch and it is incredible to us that it should be so nearly empty on a lovely Sunday afternoon and evening when the waters are indeed clear and the air is fragrant with summer.

He swims, I watch the sun set over the hills across the shore.


And soon the sun sinks behind the hill, and the sky now is a splash of blazing color.


It's time for us to head back. We walk to the train station along streets that are nearly empty. The wait for a train back isn’t long. We are in Kyoto by 9 p.m.

And I think it’s about time we have some sushi. It is unfortunate that most of my information on eateries is on places that are in the heart of the city. I am sure there are hundreds of good sushi places in town, but we head back to the hub only because I know where to look there. I find the friendly and pleasantly noisy Tomizushi just behind the halls of the now closed Kyoto market.

We sit again on tatami mats and eat a plate of sushi, sashimi and rolls...


...and they are all predictably superb even if not always predictable in the presentation (take, for example, the grilled salted prawn, which comes to the table with her top grilled, but her bottom raw).


On the walk home from the subway, for the first time there is a visible moon. The cicadas are quieter, the night air feels less sticky. I’m left wondering if a typical Japanese family takes much of a vacation in the month of August. My students tell me that, like in America, vacation time is limited here. Perhaps, then, Sundays, too are mostly at home days. Cooking days, or shopping days, or tend to your wee garden days. Maybe.

a Hikone house -- one with a delightful flower garden