Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Wandering Ghost in Kyoto

It's been 3 weeks already since I returned from my visit back to Japan. It was an unsettling experience to wander as a visitor through the town I called my home for over 5 years, a place where almost every street corner held some old memory. I had many things to do, such as meeting old friends, co-workers and clients, shopping for items I can't find in Korea, and filing my tax return. But despite my busy schedule, I was struck with a feeling of being aimless and adrift.

No longer having either a home address or a place of work (I stayed with a friend in Hirakata), I spent much of my free time wandering past the old sightseeing spots of downtown with my map in hand, snapping photos of the autumn foliage just like a regular tourist. It had only been 3 months since I moved away, yet already the whole place felt palpably different to me. Walking through a quiet neighborhood near twilight on the first day, it occured to me that this must be what newly-dead ghosts feel like.

I visited my old neighborhood, and even let myself into the entryway of my old apartment building using my old key code, which still worked. My umbrella, which I had left behind at the foot of the stairway, was still there. On my way out a woman walked in and took her mail out of what used to be my mailbox; already my old apartment had found a new tenant.

Over the next few days I visited my former grad school as well as the school where I used to teach. I ran into some old friends and former teachers; most of them were unaware that I had moved and simply exchanged bored pleasantries. They don't realize that I'm a ghost, I thought wonderingly.

Perhaps being a ghost in Kyoto made me more aware of the presence of the town's other spirits. One in particular seemed to be stalking me throughout the week. I'd always known that Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the most famous heroes of the Meiji Restoration, had been assassinated in Kyoto, somewhere near the Shijo-Kawaramachi intersection; but although I must have walked by the spot a dozen times, I'd never noticed the little marker until I happened upon it during my recent visit. There was a sign which said Sakamoto had been attacked on that spot in 1867 by a gang of anti-reformists, and that his remains were entombed at in Kyoto at Ryozen Gokoku Shrine. In all my years in Kyoto, I had never heard of this shrine, and I thought noncommittally that it might be worth looking up later on.

Then, a few days later, I was walking through the Kiyomizu area of southeast Kyoto, idly thinking I might like to revisit Kodaiji temple, when I saw a sign advertising some sort of WWII memorial 300 meters uphill. Having nothing better to do and curious about what sort of war memorial they might have built in the largely pacifist city of Kyoto, I followed the signs and found myself at none other than Ryozen Gokoku Shrine.

This shrine appeared to do double-duty as Sakamoto's final resting ground and the major site in Kyoto for WWII memorials. A winding path led up the hill past several interesting statues, plaques and other memorials to various units from Kyoto which had served in the war. Of particular interest was the memorial honoring Dr. Radhabinod Pal, an Indian jurist and apparently the only judge serving on the International Tribunal for Japanese war crimes who ruled all defendants to be not guilty, on the grounds that he believed the tribunal to be illegitimate. As a result, he seems to have become something of a hero to the conservative movement in Japan.

Dr. Pal's memorial at Ryozen Gokoku

Other plaques along the path listed the names of all Kyoto residents killed in action in the war, along with some plaques inscribed with poems by their surviving comrades and other plaques emphasizing the sacrifice of individuals caught up in the war.

Plaque reads: The Showa era, from its beginnings in the worldwide Great Depression, through the Manchuria Incident of Sept. 18, 1931, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, and the Nomonhan Incident of May 12, 1939, led up to the outbreak of the Great East Asian War with the powers America and Britain on Dec. 8, 1941, which, by its end on Aug. 15, 1945, had developed into a great conflict which gambled the fates of all our people, over an enormous battlefield covering half the world, in which over 4 million soldiers fought a bloody struggle against the overwhelming might of the Allied armies. During this time our homeland was burned to the ground by repeated air raids, 100 million people were made ready for an ultimate battle on the homeland, the atomic bombs were dropped, and the Soviet Union entered the war, before at last the Emperor's decision to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration brought 15 years of terrible war to a close.
This war took the lives of 2.5 million of our people, and remains an extremely tragic and painful memory. Those who returned alive had to live with the stain of defeat, overcoming indescribable shame and suffering, and dedicated themselves on behalf of their fallen comerades to the recovery of the homeland, achieving unparalleled development. When considering the peaceful condition of our homeland today, and recalling our memories of bygone days grown thin with the passing of history, we must remember the cause for which those born into that generation sacrificed their youth, education, work and family, which was the belief that theirs was a fateful struggle to deliver Asia from colonialism. This truth will be born out by history...

A Vietnam Memorial-style list of Kyoto's war dead

After the war memorials, the path led further uphill into a wooded area filled with tombstones, where finally I saw the resting places of Sakamoto Ryoma and his deputy Nakaoka lying side-by-side. Most of the crowd skipped the war memorials and came directly here. It was clear from observing the visitors that Sakamoto has become sort of a patron saint of young Japanese men and manliness. There were stone tablets where visitors could scribble little messages and doodles in magic marker. I saw several which said things along the lines of "Please help me to be a more awesome man!" Also more thoughtful entries such as this one, which reads "The Japan of today exists thanks to you."

All in all it was one of the more interesting historical sites I've seen in Kyoto, and I found the bizarre non-sequitur of WWII stuff thrown in with Sakamoto Ryoma intriguing. It further supports my belief that no matter how long you live in Kyoto, you can always stumble across something else worth seeing.

Sakamoto Ryoma's shrine, looking out over Kyoto from a wooded hillside

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