Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The ultimate Japanese blunder

So after almost nine months in Japan I have made the ultimate Western blunder in the worst possible place.

Removing shoes.  At a temple.

I have not carried a Kyoto guide book with me since returning to Japan in September.  With a day off from work I decided I would do some extemporaneous exploring.  I found myself in the northern part of the city where I happened upon the Eizan train line.  I remembered taking a funny little two-car electric train last year to or from Ryoan-ji Temple.  Unfortunately the train I was on last year was not the Eizan; it was the Randen.  Similar trains.  Completely different lines.

This was not really a problem.  I found a stop on the train map with a temple I'd never been to and set out into the light afternoon drizzle.

Jisso-in Temple, originally built in the 13th Century, is way off the tourist map.  Except for a few autumn foliage obsessives who come to see the trees reflected in the high-gloss floors of the temple, the place is fairly empty.  It is set in the foothills of the Kitayama mountain range.  Iwakura, the name of the area, gave me the distinct impression of a mountain ski town somewhere.

Despite my nonchalant approach to this outing, I did want to know if the temple before me was indeed Jisso-in.  I walked up to the ticket window and inquired.  The woman inside said something brusquely in Japanese accompanied by some fraught gestures.  I looked down and realized I was standing on a small carpet with my wet shoes.  I stepped back and apologized.  She was still agitated.  Huh?  What?  Oh shit!  It was not my wet shoes or the carpet.  I was standing on the low, slatted platform where one removes one's shoes before entering a temple.  I stepped back onto the concrete, removed my shoes and approached the window again in my stocking feet.

Next I slaughtered the name of the temple.  I asked (in Japanese) if this was Jisho-in Temple.  The first woman was apparently so outraged she asked her younger colleague to deal with me.  This more calm and attractive woman corrected me: "Jisso-in".  I repeated what she said, or thought I did.  She said it again, emphasizing the s sound.  I said it again.  She said it again.  And again.  And again.  I took my ticket and slunk away still trying to pronounce the name of the temple correctly.

I hoped the beauty and serenity of the temple and garden would whisk my mind away from my faux pas.  But I could not enjoy anything after that.  I was too embarrassed.  Even as I write I cringe when I think about my gaffe: wet Doc Martin boots in the no-shoes zone.  How could this happen?  I've never done this before.  The shoe removal area is always so obvious at temples.  It is impossible to miss.  Ugh!

I cursorily made my way through the temple and gardens, returned my stockinged feet to their big, ugly boots and moped back to the train.

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