Temples and blossoms and shrines, oh my!

Part 2 of 2

The next day in Kyoto we planned on taking a scenic boat ride down the river. After multiple bus and train transfers to get there, we found out the tours were cancelled due to a rise in the river from heavy rainfall. The woman at the tourist desk was nice enough to recommend an alternative “romantic scenic train ride.” Although in her broken English, we couldn’t quite figure out where this train ride was. We found a ticket counter and flashed our romantic scenic train ride brochure only to be told “sorry, full all day.” So much for romance. But we soon discovered you a never far from something cool in Kyoto. We found yet another
 temple with a beautiful garden, walked through a bamboo forest, and found our way out along the river. Cherry blossom viewing, or hanami as it’s known in Japan, was in full effect around the river and the apparent happening place to be.

Hanami has been a Japanese custom dating back to the 7th century. Aristocrats would visit the blossoming trees, known as sakura in Japan, and write poetry about them. It has since evolved into more of a festival. In various popular sakura sites, friends and families come out to sit under the trees and have picnics while admiring them. In the most popular spots you’ll find many food vendors along the way selling lunch and treats, including seasonal sakura-flavored wagashi. Starbucks even sells a special sakura-flavored coffee drink this time of year that I have yet to try.

Where we, and many others, had our lunch

After enjoying some udon noodles under the sakura, we took a little break from hanami to go check out some monkeys. Nearby there was a “monkey park” that, while we weren’t really sure what it was, sounded promising. I always enjoy a good monkey experience. We paid our entrance fee and proceeded to walk up a beautiful tree-lined path. Then we continued walking, and walking, and climbing. We quickly realized we were climbing up what I consider to be a small mountain with a mixture of steep incline and steps. With no monkeys in sight, I was beginning to grow disappointed…and exhausted. Fred grumbled something about the Japanese tricking us up the mountain. Finally near the top, we spotted monkeys hanging out in the trees grooming each other. We were given strict instructions not to make eye contact with the monkeys for fear of attack. I’m glad that sign was in English.

Monkeys abounded at the top of the mountain, roaming around freely in search of human eye contact. You could buy food to feed the monkeys with, but you had to stand in a protective building and feed them through a wire fence. Good call. Besides the monkeys, the top offered a beautiful view of Kyoto. Two birds with one stone. I did not, however, see bird or deer.

We couldn’t leave Kyoto without visiting a tea house. Tea is a big deal. There is a full-blown ceremony that goes along with tea preparation and serving. I took a class awhile back about the traditional tea ceremony and learned the components and its significance to Japanese culture. I’ll elaborate on the tradition in a future blog posting. At one of the many temples we visited there was a little tea house for the tourists to try some traditional tea and wagashi. While it wasn’t a tea ceremony, the server still kept some formality in presenting the tea to us, bowing appropriately and rambling off some stuff in Japanese. When she left, a young British guy next to us graciously translated. She had thanked us for coming and told us about the tea she was serving and the type of wagashi that was locally prepared. We bowed and thanked her in Japanese.

Closing down the tea house

We made our way back to Gion prepared to further explore the unique nightlife. The streets really come alive at night. It’s not unusual to see women dressed in beautiful kimono for the evening. Another group of women roaming the streets were dressed a little more provocatively. They were either leisurely strolling with much older men in suits or hurrying along by themselves as if they were late for something. Many of them would pop into one of the many clubs along the streets. From the exterior, I assumed these clubs catered to an elite few as they were manned with intimidating bouncers at the entrance. We found out later that many of these clubs are hostess bars. Patrons essentially pay a premium to be able to have their drinks or food in the company of beautiful women who get paid to look good and be entertaining. I read online that many of these clubs are members only and charge hefty membership fees. I can only imagine what some of the membership perks are.

In addition to the hostesses, there are also still traditional geisha in Kyoto. The biggest Western misconception is that geisha are prostitutes. While some prostitutes may falsely refer to themselves as geisha, real modern-day geisha do not exchange sexual favors for money. There was a time in history, however, when this line was more blurred.

Today, true geisha are strictly well-respected artists and entertainers whose job it is to amuse men and boost their ego with their sophistication and absolute femininity. In a nutshell, men traditionally don’t expect to get those types of things from their wives. Wives are conventionally subservient and their sole purpose is to have kids and keep the house in order. If men crave affection, witty conversation and fun, they turn to a geisha. I see a lot more Japanese women my age working though, so I assume this traditional opinion is in decline. Interestingly enough, high ranking geisha are among the most powerful business-women in Japan.

There are two types of geisha in Japan: geiko and maiko. Geiko are the seasoned geisha and maiko are the apprentice geisha. However, it is the maiko that attract more attention in the streets. They wear more elaborate kimonos and makeup than their veteran counterparts who have already proven themselves and don’t need to be as showy.  We spotted two maiko walking down the street alone. Fred sprinted after them in hopes of getting their picture while I hung back pretending not to know him. Being the polite person he is, he asked in Japanese if he could take their picture first instead of obnoxiously clicking away. They told him no way. Looking it up online afterwards, we learned they generally say no to photo requests because they are on-the-clock and trying to their next appointment on time. The website essentially suggested ambush geisha photography. Trying that style the second night, Fred was successful.

Ambush photography

Besides stalking geisha, we also found the night a good time to check out one of the many illuminated cherry blossom events. We went to one of the castles we missed during the day. The event was so popular that people were literally wrapped around the castle to get in. It was worth the wait, however. They set up strategic lighting to illuminate the gardens and buildings to create an enchanting effect. If it weren’t for the cherry blossoms, castles can be downright scary in the dark. And I’m pretty sure Fred took a picture of an ancient Japanese ghost.

Do you see the ghost??

Overall, Kyoto was a beautiful experience. I hope to make it back in the fall to see the leaves change color. I hear this display rivals the sakura. Plus there are a million other things I still want to see there. If you are interested in visiting Kyoto (and I strongly encourage you do), I suggest visiting me and Fred first and sleeping off your jetlag in the comfort of our Okinawan home because Kyoto will need your full attention. This is, of course, unless you don’t know me. Then it would just be awkward.

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