Written by Rana Hajj
NNA - When you first visit the vibrant capital of Japan, Tokyo, you are instantly taken aback by the city’s startling skyscrapers, gigantic and colorful anime and digital billboards, cutting edge gadgets, and even its high-tech washrooms! Your mind teleports to the future and starts wondering whether the number of robots has already exceeded the number of humans in this part of the world; however, the statue of samurai “Kususnoki” soon appears to drift your thoughts away in a totally different direction. You instantly leave the future and start wandering in the past.
Gazing into this powerful statue with utmost awe, you travel back in time to the 14th-century, when Kususnoki fought for Emperor Go-Daigo with stanch allegiance. He helped the emperor regain power after defeating the “Kamakura” shogunate in the “Genkō War”. Nevertheless, Kusunoki’s ultimate act of samurai loyalty was demonstrated a few years later when he obediently approved of Go-Daigo’s flimsy plan to face a coup and knowingly marched himself and his army into devastating death.
Fact is, one rarely comes across statues in Japan, and this is because the Japanese are beautifully humble beings who avoid gloating about their achievements no matter how great. However, the influential statue of Kusunoki at the East Garden outside Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is not an attempt to boast the legendary Samurai’s military virtues, but rather more a tribute to his epitomized loyalty, courage, and devotion to the Emperor. His unremitting constancy rendered him a god-like patriotic hero and a patron saint to World War II kamikazes, who saw themselves as his spiritual heirs in sacrificing their lives for the Emperor.
As you keep venturing towards Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, the sound of pebbles crunching under your feet takes your soul on a journey of purification -- as per “Shintoism”, the indigenous religion of the country, which has survived as Japan’s state religion in fusion with other faiths, such as Buddhism. Following this practice, you’re instantly promoted to a higher level of humanity and a deeper level of connection with high-mindedness and values.
With a humble and purified soul, you marvel at the magnificent Palace which is located in a large park-like area located in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo and contains buildings including the main palace, the private residences of the Imperial Family, an archive, museums and administrative offices. The inner grounds of the palace are generally not open to the public. Only on January 2 (New Year's Greeting) and December 23 (Emperor's Birthday), visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds and see the members of the Imperial Family, who make several public appearances on a balcony.
The Palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle, which used to be the seat of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan from 1603 until 1867. In 1868, the shogunate was overthrown, and the country's capital and Imperial Residence were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo.
The fastest land transportation route to the first imperial capital of Koyoto is Japan’s cutting-edge network of high-speed railway, the “bullet train”. Once you arrive at the station, you cannot but be amazed by the jaw dropping genius of modern Japan that has excelled in designing this iconic invention. The spaceship-like trains are literally and metaphorically time machines that facilitate your whirlwind journey to and fro Japan’s past and future. The needle-nosed bullet train travels at a top speed of 285 km per hour and is referred to as “Shinkansen”, meaning new trunk line; it was initially built to connect distant Japanese regions with Tokyo, but it has now also become a landmark attraction for tourists from across the globe.
In Koyoto, the bullet train makes a stop in the year 1603 and drops you off in the region of the majestic Nijo-jo Castle, which marks the beginning of a 400-year-long golden era of Japan’s history. This castle, which was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, had been built by the first of Samurai leaders – the Shoguns, who had managed to put an end to a long period of civil war in 1603.
Inside the castle, the nightingale floors sing to you the cautious power that the Shoguns wielded over Japan and its emperors for much of its history; the squeaky floors had been designed in a way to alert the occupants of the palace to the presence of intruders. In 1867, the 15th shogun handed the rule back to the emperor, ushering in the Meiji period, during which Japan developed very rapidly from a feudal society into the modern democratic nation that we know today.
One of the most interesting everyday life practices of the elite shogun warriors was the tea ritual, which later became what is known today as the “tea ceremony”. Not so far from the palace, and amid the hustle and the bustle of the urban streets of Koyoto, you are offered the opportunity to experience a little bit of “Zen in powdered green tea” in one of the city’s many traditional tea houses; some of the tea houses are also located in Koyoto’s historic areas of Gion and Higashiyama.
“Ichigo Ichie”, Japanese for “one time, one meeting", is one of Japan’s best known traditional cultural practices. This expression strongly resonates with the tea ceremony members, who firmly believe that their meeting is a once in a lifetime experience. This serene tradition has been passed down to the people of Japan by samurais and Buddhist monks who resorted to this ritual seeking clarity, discipline, and patience.
To get a taste of the full Zen experience, you have to venture further back in time to the ancient Japanese capital of Nara, where you are kindly welcomed and greeted by more than 1000 wild Sika deer that wander freely up and down the streets of this amazingly spiritual city. The Sika deer roam serenely all across the city and are historically believed to be spiritual beings that commune with the gods. They live in and around the Nara shrines and are protected by the state because they are deemed messengers of the Shinto gods.
After a spiritual walk with the Sika deer, Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple complex, one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, welcomes you with the world's largest bronze statue of Buddha. The temple also serves as the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism, and is listed on UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara", together with seven other sites including other temples and shrines in the city of Nara.
It is time for the bullet train ride back to the future, maybe a few decades from now, at Tokyo’s museum of Emerging Science and Innovation; it is a time when science manages to eliminate all the potential natural and human risks that threaten the survival of our societies. It is a time when humans no longer have to worry and fight over earth’s resources thanks to the adoption of a new technology called “fusion” and successful attempts to create an “artificial sun” on earth. It is also a time when humans can even grow environment-friendly plastic in a field, and when robots become reliable household members.