Thursday, August 27, 2009

Kyoto, Japan


Our final leg of the trip was to Kyoto, which used to the be capital of Japan (prior to Tokyo. Notice how they sound like the same word, but backwards?). Kyoto is very different from Tokyo and Osaka. It's a large city, but it's not a business/financial center like Tokyo, nor is it a manufacturing center like Osaka. Mostly, it deals in tourism. It has many shrines and castles, and huge swaths of the city were untouched by the bombing in WWII. It's also smaller, geographically, than the other two cities. We rapidly discovered this when we went for our first walk. We had marked the map and headed off... and suddenly, we were in the right place. Just like that. Kyoto is very, very walkable. We only took the subway twice, as we were heading out to the outskirts.

The first night, we got our tourist on. We had been visiting loads of sites, shrines, temples and markets, but hadn't done anything super cheezeball touristy. I forced Brian and Andrea to come with me to this crazy theater thing called the Gion Corner Theater. It was in the Gion part of town, which is where the geisha's neighborhood is located. It was a theater that showcased seven different artistic skills that geisha use, learn or know about. There were a metric sh*t-ton of Italian tourists there. Two giant touring buses unloaded on the front steps and we were hearing more Italian than Japanese in and around the building. They started with showing the audience what a tea ceremony for a foreign visitor would look like, as a woman prepared tea for two Italian teenagers. Then two older women on samisen played a song, and a third put together an ikebana flower arrangement. After these three activities were done, a man in a vibrant "chinese warlord costume" came out and did a very halting, dance with symbolic arm motions as a whole band of older gents performed ancient, traditional Japanese instruments and drums. The dancer's costume included a lion mask! Next, two geisha came out and did a dance to traditional Japanese stringed music in their kimono and full makeup. Next up was a humorous play (in Japanese, but very physical comedy), of a kind that used to be performed in between the very symbolic and serious Noh plays. Two serving men were tricked into being tied up by their master, so they would be unable to secretly drink his sake stash while the master was gone. The servants find alternate ways to still drink the sake and much hilarity ensues. Finally, and I was very excited about this as we had missed our opportunity by one day in Osaka, they performed a Bunrakku puppet play. Bunrakku was the blue collar theater, back in the day. It involves large puppets (half human size?) that are operated by several performers all dressed and masked in black, against a black background. One guy operated her head, one her legs and one her hands. The puppet was gorgeous and very intricate and the movements were incredibly lifelike. I enjoyed this performance the most. All in all, while the theater was tourist-tastic, I enjoyed seeing all these performances.

After we went for a walk around the Gion neighborhood, which was beautiful all lit up at night. Many of the houses are still the traditional, two story, wooden and paper screen style from pre-WWII. It was so heartbreakingly beautiful, I never wanted to stop walking around at night. We eventually found a place to eat in one of the beautiful buildings, and had a tasty meal with all kinds of different little plates of food. I like the (cook at your own table) mushrooms with garlic butter, the spicy octopus salad and the charcoal grilled shrimps. We walked home past all the little shops, and through a teeny, tiny little alley that was filled with beautiful, subtle restaurant fronts, lanterns and paper lights, fountains and pebble work. The teeny alley was many two-three people wide and not available for cars or bikes. Some of the side branches were even smaller (and lower headroom).

the next day Andrea and I went to Kyoto Castle, which was really gorgeous. It had enormous stone walls and moats and gardens. The castle itself was more of what we would call a palace. It was all wooden, with sliding screens. The screens had been painted with very intricate gold leaf, with peacocks, hawks, tigers and flora. We didn't walk into the rooms with the tatami mats, but rather around the perimeter on the wooden "nightingale" floors. the nightingale floors were built specifically so that they would squeak when someone walked on them, so alerting the guards that someone was coming. It was a very different kind of squeak. We walked around the garden afterwards, as the castle was closing and the grounds themselves would be closing soon. We saw some guys in traditional edo-period costumes coming into the park, and were very curious about what was about to occur after the tourists left and the park was officially closed. Never found out though. It was super hot this day, and man... after looking around the garden, I barely made it back to the hotel without expiring from heat exhaustion. It was funny, in one of the resting ("lounge") areas in the park, there were the ever-present vending machines, but these were all empty. Except for the last choice drink which was a grape fanta product in a can the size of a wee V8 can, that included some kind of jelly-like bubbles at the bottom. Not very quenching, I tell you. Later that evening, we went out for noodles and a funny, little place around the corner that wasn't all touristy. The guy at the counter was very helpful, but I still ended up accidentally ordering curry noodles for Andrea (she really doesn't like curry). Whoops. My cold soba noodles were decent, though.

The next day, we got up a little earlier in the morning and headed on a walking tour of Kyoto city landmarks that Andrea had found. We took the subway down to the southern part of town and started heading north on foot. (Again! Amazing how foot friendly Kyoto was compared to other cities). We walked up and up and up a hill, past a cemetery with an amazing view of Kyoto. It happened to be the beginning of the weekend of Oban, the Japanese day of the dead. So this particular day was the day that people went out to the family plots and refreshed flowers and gifts, and scrubbed markers and such. There were a lot of people out. The path eventually led us to the (almost) top of a hill, where there was a complex of Buddhist temples. There was a water shrine as well, where people were lined up to drink or wash their hands in the water. I thought I read that it was devoted to unmarried girls, with some kind of it-will-help-you-find-a-happy-marriage deal associated with it, but I'm not sure now. It was way up in the hills and had a couple really nice views of Kyoto. There were also little stone half people/gods/? that were all over the grounds. It was kinda like the upper torso of a person. They were super worn, though, so it was hard to tell. A lot of them had red... well, bibs? aprons? tied around them. Very picturesque.

We climbed down this hill and walked onto a merchant street, selling lots of tchotchkes and snacks. We stopped in a place that sold bowls, sake sets and tea cups because they had a little cafe upstairs. We had some cold beverages, and Brian had ice cream. It wasn't as hot this day, but very very very humid. It was fun to people watch. For some reason, the guy outside our shop kept pouring water onto the sidewalk in front of the shop. It didn't seem very dusty, and didn't seem like it would be cooling anything down. We were a little confused. We kept walking down funny side streets, stopping in shops, getting snacks and just looking around for a long while.

Eventually we hit another spot where there was a temple that had been built to honor a widow's husband. Three of the original buildings were still onsite and functional. One was very beautifully painted on the inside ceiling. The whole complex was gorgeous, with pine trees, bamboo, a pond and little wooded areas. There was an old covered wooden corridor/bridge called "The Reclining Dragon" as it curved up a hill, and the roof tiles made it look snake like. We crawled around there for a while, and then headed back down the hill.

At this point, I was pretty much done for. We caught a cab back to the hotel. Our cab driver was super friendly and pretty hilarious. He knew we were American, and asked if we were from NYC (which was a common question!). We tried Portland, then Oregon, then Seattle all with no recognition. We tried West Coast... but couldn't remember the word for west. So we ended up saying we were from California, "Oh! Cali-For-Ni-Ah. yes! yes!" Brian used his smidge of Japanese to say that it was very hot, and comment about the streets being small (as we almost took out a lady's poodle when going around a zigzag corner). He was very agreeable, laughing at our use of Japanese and pointing things out along the way, "old, old...very, very!" like antique shops.

The next day was check-out day for Kyoto, and I'll leave that to another posting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love your narrative and your pictures! Almost as good as going with you!