Thursday, August 07, 2008

Journe to Japan III: Kyoto and the Geisha

After three dull days of meetings in Otsu at Lake Biwa, we relocated to Kyoto, which has much more to offer in terms of sites, sounds, smells and people watching. Otsu was clearly a Japanese resort area, designed for Japanese. This meant there was little to do other than lay by the pool, bike or boat. All of these are fine recreations, but I couldn’t easily do any of these for fear of being seen skipping out on the meetings or potential dinner conversations that I was there for in the first place.

Our new diggs were a major upgrade at the Grand Prince Hotel of Kyoto. The hotel was located in the mountains, along a cedar-lined winding path. I was overcome with the fresh smell of cedar, something like jasmine and fresh, clean air (seemingly hard to find in the stifling Japanese summer). The shade of the trees and buzz of the cicadas added to the ambiance… this place was heavenly.

That evening I had to return that night for a special “congratulatory thanks and working dinner” with my fellow collaborators of the conference. I managed to navigate the transport system alone (took the subway, a rail line and a cab to get there). The dinner was traditional Japanese style, or kaiseki, in which multiple small dishes are served. It started with boiled tofu, sashimi, then sushi, tempura, Kobe beef, a pork dish, broiled salted fish, then moved on to Udon noodles, pickled Japanese vegetables, rice and concluded with some various fruits. The dinner was served over a two hour period, and I enjoyed the surprises each dish held. Although I’ve gone pretty much vegetarian over the past several months (still eat fish), I broke my self-enforced ban on meats and gave the Kobe beef a try. I’m so glad I did. The cows are massaged daily, fed beer and from all of this have the fat actually marbled into the meat, instead of separated as we see in American steaks. It literally melted in my mouth and was one of the best things I’ve ever had.

The following morning we hit the streets of Kyoto for a short time before I’d have to head back to Otsu for the evening. We went to Nijo Castle, which was first completed in 1603. Though low-lying and more functional than aesthetic, it was impressive none the less. We were mesmerized by the “nightingale” floors – the floor boards were designed to creak, making a sound that is similar to a nightingale’s song. This would alert the inhabitants of any intruders. We saw these boards at several places through out our travels.

From Nijojo we wandered the streets until we found a shopping and dining district, Teramachi. On pure accident we stumbled into a tiny sushi shop. The owner and (I think) his wife, plus one local were the only people there. They served us right on the sushi bar, and encouraged us to eat with our hands (I stuck with chopsticks, not a big fan of holding raw fish). The sushi was incredible. I’m going to miss it when I get back to the States.

My evening plans were to head back to Otsu one final night for the concluding banquet. I had been invited to sit on an honorary panel as part of a ceremony which included drumming on a beer barrel with wooden spoons. I ran out the door, walked to the subway, and jumped onto the Biwako line train just in time to make it to the dinner… so I thought. In actuality, I jumped on an express train that did not stop in Otsu, but went many kilometers beyond. Crap. It took me over an hour to get back to Kyoto, at which time it was too late for me to get a train to Otsu in time. I went back to the hotel, sad about missing the ceremony and conclusion of this project I'd been working on for more than four years.

When I got back to the hotel, I found that Jason had found ways to amuse himself while I was away, including Japanese whiskey, an in-room massage and that he had booked us for an onsen the next day. An onsen is a Japanese hot sulphar spring, and this one was on the other side of Kyoto, high in the mountains. The baths at this one were indoor, as well as outdoor, but all communal. Meaning lots of naked (though sexes are separated). I was not thrilled with this idea, given my heightened self awareness of my body (here in Japan I’m pretty much a sumo in comparison to most people). Thankfully we ran out of time so we didn’t make it up there to try it out. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed (once in a lifetime experience) or thankful (no nudity in public for me – yippee!).

The next day we woke up early and headed out once again to be Amerikajeen tourists. We stick out like sore thumbs here, and people often look at us and giggle. Some won’t sit near us on subways. I was feeling pretty self conscious about it all until I read that the Japanese are very shy and are afraid we’ll ask questions and they won’t be able to answer. Ohhh. That explains it. I’m glad I don’t stink (as much).

The weather is incredibly stifling here, hitting the 90s by 6 am or so (it gets light around 4:30). The humidity is unbelievable, and we found we broke into a sweat just walking out the doors of the hotel. We ended up walking over 8 hours that day, seeing historic sites (the Imperial castle grounds), visiting shrines and temples and stumbling into an area where Geisha still live and work. We caught a glimpse of one on the streets, but she was quickly surrounded by tourists (mostly Japanese) and squeals, and she ducked into a door and vanished as quickly as she appeared.

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