Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happy New Year!

Now that the Spring Equinox has come and gone, I think it's well past time to post about our New Year experiences.

On the day before NYE, the four of us walked out of the Gion District, across the Kamogawa River, and to the nearby Nishiki Market. I was expecting something along the lines of Seattle's Pike Place Market, if maybe a bit bigger. Instead we found miles (yes, miles) of covered streets that were packed wall-to-wall with people, containing stores and stalls that sold all manner of often-unidentifiable food and related items. It's hard to describe how packed it was; we didn't have any basis for comparison, but we assumed that the crowd was due to pre-New Year preparations and the holiday break, rather than being representative of normal traffic.

We knew that we wanted to bring back one of the highly-acclaimed knives from the Aritsugu knife shop. The shop was easier to find than we had anticipated, though no less crowded than anywhere else. Wendy and I picked out a chef's knife that we liked and they polished it, then stamped a phonetic 'Miller' onto the blade in katakana. By far the nicest knife we've ever owned, it was also surprisingly inexpensive; now that we can see how high the online ordering prices are, I wish we'd bought several more at the time!

After the market, we walked back to the apartment, rested for a bit, then went out for a simple dinner at a neighborhood izakaya. We did hit one bar before retiring for the evening; good thing, because it almost broke the bank! We found a nearby bar, not gaijin-oriented but not unfriendly either, that was run by a woman who we surmise was a retired geisha. She was remarkably precise and unwaveringly polite, but our ~1oz/25mL shots of Japanese whiskey ended up being $25 each. Thankfully we realized that after one and quickly left to return to our "home" bar!

On New Year's Eve, we all took the train out to Nara, a nearby city and the location of a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Since Forest works for UNESCO, you'd think she could claim this was all work travel, but no.) We were particularly interested in seeing Tōdai-ji, a huge Buddhist temple and the largest wooden building in the world.

Tōdai-ji and the surrounding areas were in full preparation for the coming NYE festivities, so we saw food stalls and other merchants setting up everywhere. Nara is also apparently a home to a large population of urban deer, so much like on Miyajima, we had to watch where we walked and watch what the deer tried to get into.

The temple itself reminded me of a large aircraft hanger in its immensity, but was at least as ornate as anything else we'd seen. The biggest surpise was that the current structure is 30% smaller than the previous, which was destroyed by fire in the late 1600s.

By the time we returned to Kyoto, all the main streets in Gion were becoming crowded as people streamed towards the Yasaka and other local shrines. After some champagne at the apartment to celebrate in Western style, we joined the throngs and wound our way up the hills. In Japan, on New Year's Eve and for the following several days, it's traditional to visit the shrines with one's entire family, in part to pray for peace and prosperity in the coming year and in part as a huge social occasion. In Kyoto, home to the largest number of surviving pre-WWII shrines, the locals take that particularly seriously. In our quiant Gion district it had been easy to underestimate the population of Kyoto; that night, though, it was obvious what a huge city it was, and everyone was trying to go to the same small parks! We found it curious that there wasn't a big event at midnight, such as bell-ringing or fireworks (I have to believe that fireworks are discouraged around so many old wooden structures).

Eventually we toasted the New Year over beers in a tent that had been set up for the occasion, and then found our way back to our apartment for our first sleep of 2009!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Geisha Glamour Shots!

For my birthday Forest had arranged for us to get geisha makeovers! That is definitely not something you get to do every day at home, or ever!!! We were excited and headed out to find the studio which proved to be much harder than we had anticipated. Even with the exact address written down locals in the area could not figure out where this place was. We asked a waitress at a coffee shop (which would turn out to be just 2 blocks from the studio!), delivery men- who you would think knew the city, and even called the studio for additional directions. In Kyoto we saw a lot of people dial the phone number into their phones which would then give them the address and the area of town that the location was in. This was also true of cab companies which just asked for the land line and then showed up on time.

Once we did find the studio they had us change into plain white dressing robes. I'll just say that Japanese women are much more slight in build than American stock ;) Forest and I were bound and strapped tight into these little robes!

Then the makeup was applied- creamy white base, bright red lips, heavy black eye liner. Was this a geisha makeover or had we stumbled into the mime makeover studio? Of course Forest and I found this all very funny and started giggling uncontrollably which led to me having tears of laughter which smeared my eye makeup which got us a firm lecture from the makeup lady! We are trouble.

After the makeup was applied we picked out a kimono from a rack we were led to. The women wrapped us in layers and layers of garment. There were more lightweight robes to be put on over our dressing gown, then the heavier kimono. Then various sashes, ties, belts, etc. were pulled incredibly tight and tied. Finally a large headpiece of hair and hair ornaments all set in a metal cap of sorts was set and tied upon our heads. Oh lord, if we hadn't already been giggling...

We were lead to the photo studio (and walking in these things is crazy hard!) where each of us were given our own photographer. Mine posed me and had me hold things that were very geisha like I assume. She spoke no English but would hold her hand where I was to gaze. My make up woman had already told me that I was to smile very small for this look. There were umbrellas, Japanese balls, high heeled wooden shoes, etc. Each time she took a photo she would get excited and exclaim "OK! Very Good!" if she liked it or "Oops, Sorry!" if she didn't.

The photo shoot was actually a blast! It was much more fun that getting our make up done as we expected. They even shot a few of Forest and I together, they let us do a "free style" as they called it and we flashed peace signs. They loved that!!

The studio mailed us our professional photos just last month, they are actually pretty good- much better than these here. I'm happy to show them to you next time you are over, I'll entertain you with drinking games and witty banter as well, for that is the way of the geisha! :)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kyoto walking tour

Our first morning in Kyoto we took a 1/2 day, 4 mile walking tour of part of the city with local guide Shihoko. She layed out a plan to show us just a few of the temple and shrine highlights of this amazing city.

As we had stayed up a bit late and slept in we hadn't had any coffee/tea. When we asked about grabbing something she took us to a Starbucks! She said it was the only shop that did "to-go", oh well.

As we walked out of our Gion neighborhood Shihoko pointed out the Geisha school and tea houses. Also she showed us the apartments where the geisha live and the small wooden plaques hung outside showing who lived inside. There are so few geisha left in Kyoto and they were all living just steps from our apartment!

We started off at the beautiful Yasaka Shrine, a very popular shrine on holidays. There was lots of activity as everyone was getting set up for new years eve. Shihoko was great at explaining what everyone would be doing that evening and also what people did in general when visiting the shrines. She also helped me to shake a lucky number out of a wooden box and then turn it in to receive my fortune. The fortune she read to me was the best she said! Money, love, health, etc were all to be mine! Now that was worth a couple of yen for sure!

Onward to Chion-in Temple and the massive gates that welcome you. There was a service going on inside and Shihoko took us in to watch for a while. The buildings were so old and beautiful. We learned how the smoke from the incense was thought to make you more beautiful and smarter so we stood in it for a while. I'm pretty sure it worked!

From the temple we walked through the beautiful Maruyama park and then through part of the Higashiyama neighborhood. I can't say enough about the beauty of this city. The buildings, parks, streets, etc are charming and so interesting to look at, truly foreign to our eyes. As we walked through the crowded streets we gasped as we saw a geisha standing silently and posing for pictures. Shihoko told us later that Japanese tourists will pay to dress up and walk through parts of the Gion. This girl looked really good but what gave it away I guess was her being by herself as well as being out at this time of day (early afternoon) when most would be in school.

Perhaps the most impressive of the sights that day was the sprawling Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We climbed the steps through massive orange gates up to a height which gave you wonderful (although hazy) views of Kyoto. Here sat the pagoda and other surrounding buildings. We walked with thousands of people towards the temple which is a huge wooden structure built completely without any nails. It sits 13 meters (about 42 feet) above the ground and the site is over 1200 years old! There are many different shrines and statues on the grounds, each with their own story. One of the things I enjoyed the most was watching worshipers line up at Otowa-no-taki to catch the flowing spring water in cups and drink it for health and prosperity.

Our last stop of the day was at Sanjusangen-do, the temple of 1001 Buddahs. Unfortunately you aren't allowed to take pictures inside but I found this website that has some great images. Once you take your shoes off you enter this massive building, surprisingly quiet for the number of people inside, lit very dimmly and smelling of incense. The site of all those statues with their real gold is amazing! The temple is also know for training the best of Kyoto's archerers and you can still see marks in the beams where some of the arrows stuck.
Walking around Kyoto with a local was such a great way to get aquainted with the city as well as learn a little of the customs of the people. I would highly recommend Shihoko should you ever go!

To see all the photos from our walking tour click here!

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