Rules of Gion

IMG_3174

The Rules of the Gion district

  1. No smoking
  2. No eating or drinking
  3. No littering
  4. No selfies

And most important: NO BOTHERING THE GEISHAS

 

I didn’t see a single Geisha, by day or by night. I finagled B. to go the Gion district twice because I really hoped to see a Geisha. No such luck – but I did see this sign. Which is at least humorous.

Kyoto: Nara and Inari

Oh, my feet are bleeding tonight. I have a blister on my heel that makes me want to weep a little.

It’s all Inari-sama’s fault, but I’ll get to that.

We left early in the morning to go to Nara. As I mentioned, I was in Japan because I wanted to help a friend complete a lifelong dream. I didn’t know very much about Japan, but after some research I determined there was one thing that I really wanted to see – the sacred deer at the Nara temple. I wanted to see Kyoto, as I am fascinated by religions and spirituality, but as someone who grew up visiting Deer Forest every year, I knew that I simply had to see these sacred creatures.

Getting to Nara required using the trains, which was fine by me, as with the Rail Pass they were free via the JR Nara line. It’s a fair distance to Nara from Kyoto, so it’s better to leave earlier in the morning. The cold crept around my edges, and I lamented how inaccurate all the weather prediction services were about Kyoto temperatures. It got down into the low forties, and took most the day to warm up.

At Nara, we are greeted by a giant screen of an animated dancing deer. In fact, the whole walk up to the temple (maybe half a mile) is full of dancing deer, animated deer, stuffed deer, bobble-headed deer. The holy deer apparently have cornered the market on tourist goods, as they are on everything from socks to sake sets. After a uphill sloping climb, we reached the first series of pagodas and temples, and the first set of deer.

IMG_3111

The welcoming deer did not make a good impression – they were fat, and their antlers were sawed down (an annual ritual done in the fall as I understand). Their winter coats were coming off in patches, reminding me of my German shepherd when he needs brushing. They looked, sadly, rather ratty. In the harsh morning light, I wondered if perhaps I had been misled about the deer, about the site in general. The gravel roads and paths didn’t seem all that impressive, and I saw no markers to the largest wooden structure in the world, Daibutsu-den/ Todaiji Temple.

It turns out, that when entering from the JR Nara station, walking up Sanjodori St., the entrance is a little more modern. In order to get to the actual Nara site, one must walk past the five story pagodas and the Nara National Museum. Things livened up there – more people, more sites, more deer. So if you find yourself in Nara, don’t get discouraged by the ragtag welcoming committee. There’s simply a little more walking ahead of you.

“Deer biscuits” (flat cookies) cost 150 yen – roughly $1.50, and you will want to buy more than one package, as the deer are tenacious. Some are gentle, but true to the warnings there were small herds that figured out that mobbing a person would force them to drop their biscuits faster. There are even signs that warn about these rogue deer. Watching all the people trying to pet the deer, feed the deer, and generally get pestered by the deer, it got me to wondering again about symbolism. Like the samurai teachers last night, I wondered if these sacred deer still held any significance to the people? Were they just touristy gimmicks now, relics to be photographed and fed? Or did they retain some of their spiritual weight?

Then a deer decided my plastic bag might have food in it, and we got into a tug-of-war. I’m rural, so I didn’t panic, though I did get some laughs. Later, I found a nice one that just wanted a chin scratch. We walked to Daibutsu-den together.

 

Daibutsu-den is massive – the world’s largest wooden structure, housing an immense bronze Buddha. I couldn’t do it justice in my pictures – the vast scope of the interior proved impossible to fit into my screen. I’ve burned enough incense across the width of China to no longer find Eastern architecture as new as I did before, but there was something graceful and yet sturdy in Daibutsu-den. B. commented as we left that if I had told him that structure was there, he wouldn’t have been so reluctant to come and see the Nara deer (which he fed all the same).

IMG_3213

I got a yam to eat. I know that sounds utterly simple of me, but I actually missed being able to buy street potatoes.

On the train heading back, I suggested we stop at the Inari shrine, which is supposedly the single best thing to see when in Kyoto. It was along the line, and would save us having to back track on our last day. Brendan agreed.

This is where things took a turn for the competitive. Inari Mountain has a series of red prayer gates, built to bless families and individuals. There was a short walk and a long walk. We opted, after the short walk, to climb. There were fewer people that way, and more options for photos. Then there was an overlook, and wouldn’t it be nice to see the city from the overlook? And of course, there was another landing after some more gates, and then we were so close to the top…you see where this is going. I had not worn my hiking shoes, and a mountain is a mountain, even if it’s decorated with beautiful red gates all the way to the top.

We inadvertently climbed Inari mountain. I don’t like giving up, and even though I’d been walking all day, I wasn’t going to say I almost climbed to the top. No guts, no glory. So up another landing, make an offering at another fox shrine, walk under gates, pause at next landing, pray at a fox shrine. Take a picture. Reflect on tourism and spirituality.

Towards the top, I started talking to the fox statues, started blaming them for teasing me up the mountain. “This is all your fault, Inari-sama!” “Curse you, Inari-sama!”

Inari = fox
Inari-sama = Sir Fox (I made this up, I think. I was very tired, but I liked it)

IMG_3300

Tee-hee!  Climb higher!

Sama is a term of respect, though by the time we reached the summit of the mountain my foot was blistering fiercely and I’d worn a hole in a sock. The view was beautiful, but it is not a climb for the timid. And standing at the top of Inari Mountain, watching the setting sun, I realized that I was only halfway done. I still had to descend. Thank goodness the Japanese put vending machines everywhere. Seriously, everywhere. And while there isn’t always water, there is usually a tea or juice. That saved my spirit.

The saddest part of the day was again at the close. The path down deposited us not at the main gate, but in a residential area strangely detached from everything. I worked out how to generally get back to the main site (and the train), and there were still food stalls out. Famished, I went to buy a custard fish (which is a cake shaped like a fish filled with custard). The man wouldn’t sell me the last one – he was closed. My face did nothing to persuade him.

So now I sit on my tatami mat, fishless. My foot is bleeding, and my legs hurt. According to my phone, I walked tens of thousands of steps, and climbed almost seventy flights of stairs. I might have overdone it on day three.

I am a completionist. It’s why I’ll never finish Skyrim.

Between the two, Inari was more beautiful, but those Nara deer were far easier to handle.

Kyoto: Bamboo and Samurai

Note: This is retrospective, as I’ve been back for a little while. It will flip-flop on tenses, so please be patient.

I woke with the sun full on my face – our AirBnB apartment has windows that face full east. It was a glorious, golden morning – though chilly at the end of March. My goal for this first morning was simple: to get to Arashiyama.

B. had a different first goal – to get breakfast. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m traveling with someone again. I forget the small things. Luckily there was a café on the ground floor of our building. The women inside spoke no English, but there was a menu that suggested we could have “tea and egg” for about three dollars. Toast was an extra dollar, which I ordered. As far as breakfasts go, it was surprisingly Western. The guidebooks suggested fish and noodles for breakfast, yet here I was with macha tea, a hardboiled egg, and two thick slices of white toast.

Sated, I pulled out my makeshift map (a collection of photos I took of my computer screen when it was connected to wifi), and determined that we should take the electric trolley near our apartment. According to the map, it would drop us off exactly at the Arashiyama forest. If you’re in Kyoto, I recommend this trolley – it is called the Randen Railway Arashiyama Line. It’s inexpensive (200 yen), and its final stop is in fact Arashiyama. There’s a tourist office that has great maps for free, so it’s a good first stop.

(Looking at the map, there is a second Arashiyama line that connects to the JR San-in Line, which might be easier if you are staying in central Kyoto.)

 

I loved Arashiyama bamboo forest. It was exactly what I was looking for in terms of serenity and gentle tourism. This would be the first place where I observed the rituals for entering temples and cleansing one’s hands and mouth, as well as how to pray at a shrine. The forests are tall and have a wonderful sense of ease about them. We paid a fee to enter Tenryuji Temple, which was lovely. I was disappointed, however, that it lets you out on the main road and not back into the forest. Be advised of this, as you will lose a good portion of the bamboo walk if you go on this particular side adventure.

Having satisfied my desire to see a towering forest of bamboo, I took B.’s lead and went to visit the “Monkey Mountain” across the river. Did I have a desire to see monkeys? Nope. I don’t like monkeys all that much. I admit I grumbled about going, but not wanting to be selfish I put on a brave face, and climbed the steep hill.

And I saw monkeys. You can feed the monkeys through a screen. You cannot touch the monkeys.

I also saw a geisha – this was after the monkeys, back down by the river. It was only for an instant. My brain didn’t have enough time to register what I was seeing before she and her handlers were out of camera range. But she left an impression, with her white face and jingling hair ornaments. I decided I would try to actually see a geisha properly before I left Kyoto.

We ate in the Arashiyama district, at one of the many noodle places lining the main street along the forest entrance. In retrospect, this was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip – tempura vegetables, noodles, tea. Simple, but delicious, and not from a convenience store.

IMG_3012

That night, we had samurai school. I purchased a two-hour session from Samurai Kembu (purchased through TripAdvisor). Though I was tired, the actress in me delighted in learning the stances and movements of the samurai. We were the only two who opted for a second hour (we joined a larger group for the one hour lesson, which was basic cuts and stances), and so we got to learn a bit of choreography and fan movements. When it was done, I got my samurai certificate. I’m pretty sure this means I get to carry a katana with me on planes like the Bride in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

I wonder if those teachers ever get really tired of us – the tourists playing samurai. They have dedicated themselves to mastery of a proud tradition, and then they get old ladies who keep dropping their scabbards on the floor. I wonder if that fatigue translates across any reenactment of an historical art.

They let us keep our tavi socks, which was pretty cool. I recommend this company, though don’t expect a lot of love. They are very…prompt.

We slipped next door for a tea ceremony – where we were tourist swindled. There are terrible things that happen to people on a daily basis, and I won’t pretend as though this mild injustice even deserves to go on the radar. Having said that, there is nothing that gets me angrier faster than being treated like a mark, especially when I see it coming. So this café’s poster says “Order a drink, tea ceremony fee is waived.” Feeling like this is a good bargain, we go in and order our sakes. The atmosphere is friendly, and the people are conversational in English. The tea ceremony is nice – the woman has never done one before, and she is clearly nervous despite us being the only two in the place. We have two glasses of macha tea, and a cookie.

The bill includes a tea ceremony charge. When we mention the poster, it is explained that if one orders a drink, the tea ceremony fee is waived, but then a cover charge for entering the establishment is substituted in its place. In essence, we were going to pay for the tea ceremony one way or another. While Brendan was willing to write this off as bad translation, mentally I was not so forgiving. The level of English competency, and the quickness of the explanation, meant that we were not the first to point out this discrepancy.

Ultimately, I can’t be too upset – I got to see a tea ceremony, drink some sake, and generally soak up a successful first day in Japan.

That cold night, my muscles are pleasantly sore from walking, and my tatami mat and blankets are pleasantly warm. I don’t watch nonsensical commercials with B., but I hear him chuckling as I fall asleep.

I love it when an itinerary works. Tomorrow we go to Nara (the only thing that was a “must” on my list of Japanese sights to see). And I am so excited!

IMG_2821

Shaking Dust

And so it was I shook the dust from my feet, took off, and crossed another ocean.

IMG_2704

I randomly agreed to be B’s bucket list travel buddy, as Japan is his 30th birthday present to himself. I’m paying it forward in a way. Just as I asked people to accompany me on my dream trip, I am now helping a friend. Japan, though beautiful from what I’ve seen, has never been on my list of countries I simply had to visit. It’s difficult to explain. On some level the memories from my family who’d fought in the Pacific Theater did not create a positive connotation. That history, though old and not directly related to me, does create an energy. Plus I’m only moderately interested in anime and manga. The biggest draw, when the trip was presented, was the opportunity to learn more about the shinto religion, of which I have a general affinity. (See, even my strongest interest is not enthralling.)

Alternatively, I’m being very self-centered and traveling again because the wanderlust has not left my blood. This trip provided me an ideal reason to leave my sweatshop job and reassess my goals.

The sheer magnitude of residual excitement from friends who’d been, however, had a strong effect. Those who’d been provided me pages of necessary stops, top sites, personal favorites, general guidelines, and food recommendations. Japan made a strong impression with them, so I’m hoping I’ll get to see what they mean during this trip.

I will say it’s nice to go somewhere and have no reason to be there, other than tourism. B speaks some Japanese, and is so excited to go that I plan on relying on him to be the leader (another rarity).

*LATER*

Fourteen hours is a long time to be on a plane. I don’t know if it’s the longest I’ve been on a plane in one go, but it’s certainly up there.

I arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport, and got through security and customs with minimal hassle. Finding the train station proved to be just a little convoluted, with signs pointing diagonal down and then up again after I’d gone down. Patience is the best thing to have in these situations. Patience, and a willingness to retrace one’s steps.

The longer wait was getting my JR rail pass validated. You must buy the pass before you arrive in Japan, and then they give you the actual pass at the JR counter at the airport. It turns out that you cannot get a rail pass if you are a Japanese citizen or have been a resident for any length of time. It’s a bit pricey – the most expensive thing I bought in preparation for the trip – but it allows for almost unlimited rail travel throughout the country, as well as major subway lines in the major cities. No brainer.

It was my idea not to start in Tokyo, since most advice from friends who’d been suggested that there was not that much to see in Tokyo in terms of shrines and temples. Our trip is as follows: Kyoto, Nagoya, Fuji, Tokyo. So I had to find B. at Tokyo Station. Though I had printed out a map, and had asked ahead of time for a recognizable landmark, it was crazy. The station was a sea of people, all moving independently and in concert somehow. I tried to make myself streamlined with my two small roller boards, and took cover behind pillars when I needed to reorient myself.

IMG_2707

The bell. I needed to find the Gin-no-suzu.  I knew not to leave floor B1. There are…5 or six levels total to this labyrinthian station, and my map was not quite to scale. Any scale. Everything is mochi stands and pastry shops.  Then B. texted me to say that he couldn’t find it, that he was going outside, then that he found it after all. He’d already been in Tokyo a day, and this defeatism did not sit well with jet-lagging me. I found the bell using the overhead signs, and saw B. first.

Aside: This is a game I play with most people I know. I love to try and find them before they find me. It’s like pretending to be a spy, except no hiding.

Gin-no-suzu is touted as a “popular meeting spot” in Tokyo station, but it was so small I wonder how it got that reputation.

So together we boarded a high speed train for Kyoto.
Reminder: I have to write a post about high speed trains.

This is the first trip where I have used AirBnB to secure our rooms. I’m used to hotels, or recognizable locations. This apartment is residential, and as we arrive in the dark proves very difficult to find. B.’s gps is not being friendly, and eventually I have to call our hostess, who instructs me to go to the Japanese 7-11 (kombini, I learn, is the word for convenience mart), whereupon she instructs me to give the phone to the cashier, who in turn walks us out to the building, which is next door. This is in flagrant violation of the gps map, which had us walking down alleyways.

Stereotype proven day 1: I did not feel unsafe wandering around Kyoto in the dark, save for the lack of sidewalks and the speedy cars.

It’s late when we arrive, and I write this in exhaustion. I am sleeping on a mat on a tatami floor, and there is a welcome basket of sweet crackers that I forgot I missed. The country has gone by in an evening blur of condensed buildings, stretches of green field, hints of water, and tile roofs that make me think of other places I have been.

Tomorrow brings dawn and tourism!

IMG_2729

 

Haven’t Forgotten

I’m working in Purgatory.

Purgatory, in case you were wondering, is beige. It’s beige and there is no art on the walls. There is, however, a camera that watches how often you get up from your desk, measures the time of your stretches, and calculates how long it takes for you to use the restroom.

For all that China drained me and made me sad, at least there I could hop on my scooter in the afternoon and go driving on my own. Not at this place. I’ve found a job that requires me to do the exact same thing every day. I mean that literally – the exact same task everyday. I’m working on a white collar assembly line, and nothing is expected of me except to fall in line and never deviate.

I thought this is what I wanted. I know now that is not the case.

So, readers, this gal is taking her moxie and going to shake things loose. I feel a wind in the air that’s calling me out from this soulless, oppressing box that has not even a motivation poster to cheer me. I think it’s time to smell the wind, chart the stars, and move on.

Wish me luck!