Today I went to Higashi-chaya, a part of town that has very traditional architecture and maintains a quaint 17th century feel. The road is stone and free of cars, the buildings are wooden with sliding doors and you remove your shoes when you enter, you can buy gold-leaf crafts and try sake-ice cream, and several shrines are spread throughout the area.
Today was rainy and a Thursday, so it wasn’t at all crowded. However, typically the neighborhood is SUPER packed. Filled to the brim with Japanese and foreign tourists alike, not unlike Higashiyama in Kyoto–a similarly traditional part of town filled with crafts. It is a very beautiful and peaceful area, but I’m certainly glad that it wasn’t filled with tourists today like it normally was. Even though it was so empty, I think I saw as many foreigners in this tiny neighborhood in one day as I’ve seen the whole rest of my time in Kanazawa. Now don’t get me wrong, Higashi chaya is a great place to spend an afternoon. But Kanazawa has a lot more to offer, and I was surprised that people tended to flock here over all the other great places. I’ve also been to a similar neighborhood in Seoul and it was so filled to the brim you had to squirm through the streets. Why are areas like Higashi chaya here and Higashiyama in Kyoto such tourist traps?
I think it’s that neighborhoods like this are “classic Japan”, “typical Japan”, and fit the conceptions of what the historical Japan was like. Anyone who wants to get a real taste of Japan should supposedly go to neighborhoods like these. And while I definitely don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with going to areas like Higashi chaya, I think people are missing the mark even though their intentions may be in the right place.
The thing is, Higashi chaya as most people experience it was more or less invented for tourists. Higashi chaya actually has a pretty interesting history–chaya houses are traditional houses of entertainment (the only 2 story buildings allowed) where geisha would perform songs and dances. And you can see geisha performances in Higashi chaya if you go at the right time. However, you probably wouldn’t know this simply by going there. For most people it’s just a great place to see some old architecture and buy some souvenirs.
I’m not trying to criticize Higashi chaya. I think any place that preserves history in any way is important. However, it’s important to understand the place that you travel to beyond what meets the eye on its own. That’s why I’m so glad I only have gone to Japan after studying Japanese language for a year and history for another. You don’t need to take classes to try to delve deeper into the places you travel, but it’s worthwhile trying to probe beyond the sense of stereotypes and what is “typical Japan”. Higashi chaya probably isn’t typical in any way. It’s completely unique, representing a specific cultural moment for Japan. It recreates the chaya houses of the Edo period. And I think that experiencing that special cultural moment is more worthwhile than the souvenirs (although I must say there is some pretty nice stuff…).
Slideshow of the past week:
In order: Koto (traditional Japanese harp); Kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi); Roll-your own-sushi dinner with my host family; Park near my host family’s house; various photos of a temple near my host family’s house