Friday, March 26, 2010

I wanna take you to a geisha, geisha, gei-sha!

On saturday morning we took a shink from Osaka to Kyoto. This was perhaps unnecessarily flashy of us, since the two cities are not far apart, being parts of the same sprawling urban conurbation (which also includes Kobe, but is still dwarfed by the monstrous Tokyo-Yokohama megacity). Before leaving I made sure to grab some takoyaki (octopus dumplings) for breakfast, as these are to Osaka roughly as Yorkshire puddings are to Yorkshire. This meant that I had succeeded in eating all four Osaka specialties as recommended by Wikitravel. Gotta catch 'em all.

Our hotel in Kyoto was in a prime location, literally across the street from the main station. This convenience didn't come cheap, though, as we were each paying 7500yen (£54) per night. Because the rooms had been booked for a party of two couples, I had to share a double bed with one of my (male) travelling companions, which was less than ideal.

Kyoto, being the former capital of Japan and having escaped the devastating firebombing (not to mention atom-bombing) of World War 2, has an astonishing number of historically significant sites. There are so many breathtaking temples, shrines, castles and gardens that we experienced a kind of sightseeing paralysis at first; we didn't know where to start. Eventually we settled on Fushimi Inari-taisha.

Japan tip: It can be difficult to distinguish between temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto) but there is a simple system (gotta have a system). If it has one or more torii (gateways, often painted red) leading up to it, it's a shrine. If not, it's probably a temple. Following this method, one would be in no doubt at all as to the nature of Fushimi Inari-taisha. It's USP is that it has more torii than any other shrine, literally thousands of the things, forming long corridors of archways. More toriis than a Conservative Party conference. You see, Inari is the god of wealth, so each torii is donated by a Japanese business, which inscribes its name in a commendably tasteful manner on the reverse side of its gate. It is difficult to convey in words just how many vermilion archways there were. Like most major shrines or temples, Fushimi Inari-taisha is not a single building, but a large complex of sub-shrines covering a considerable area, all linked by torii-lined pathways.

Next up was Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple (no torii) covered in actual gold. It was an unseasonably summery day, and it certainly looked majestic gleaming the sunshine. Religion is (correctly) regarded as nothing more than superstition by most Japanese people, which allows for some shameless cashing in. At Kinkaku-ji were numerous stalls selling amusingly specific good luck charms. As hardened capitalists, we were dubious about the merit of buying the 'traffic safety' charm for 400yen (£2.90) when a 'dreams come true' charm was only 500yen. Maybe it makes your dreams come true in an ironic, careful-what-you-wish-for way or something. However, I enjoyed the place where you were encouraged to toss coins into a bowl from four or five feet away, in what is presumably the ancient precursor of Wii Sports. Those aluminium one-yen coins are light; you really have to factor in the wind.

I bagged some yatsuhashi (a tasty rice-based confectionery for which Kyoto is famed) as my all-important omiyage (souvenirs) to give to my friends and colleagues back in Akayu. I also sampled some matcha ice-cream, another Kyoto specialty. Matcha is powdered green tea, as used in tea ceremony. I would recommend the matcha and vanilla combo; the sweetness of the vanilla offsets the bitterness of the tea nicely. Refreshed, we got on a long, slow, crowded bus ride back to the vicinity of our hotel. In a city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site it is perhaps churlish to complain about the mass transit system, but that's what I'm going to do. The subway network of Osaka was a dream, but trying to get from one temple to another in Kyoto was an exercise in tedium and frustration.

I will say this however: Kyoto's main station is an architectural marvel, resembling a grounded mothership from the 22nd century. The trains seem almost incidental alongside all the open-air plazas, avant-garde sculptures, and extensive arcades of eateries. I attracted the derision of my companions by saying that I found it more impressive than the temple we had just come from, but I stand by that. Temples don't do anything, they're just sterile relics of the past. This place was a work of art and a functioning railway station, which counts for a lot in my book. One of its functional elements was an Irish pub running a Belgian beer promotion, so that was the evening's sustenance and entertainment sorted out.

First on the agenda for sunday was Kiyomizu-dera, another impressive temple (no torii) featuring a supposedly sacred spring (the water type). The spring water pours down from three channels, which according to some sources respectively confer wisdom, health, and longevity on the drinker. The catch is that greedily drinking from all three will curse you, so you must be selective in your blessings. If you ask me, longevity is clearly the dud in that line-up. In a surprising display of restraint, the temple was trying to distance itself from this Blind Date-esque nonsense. However, they weren't above a bit of gimmickery, as they also had two 'love stones'. These were positioned around 10 metres apart, and if one could walk from one to the other with one's eyes closed, one would find true love. This doesn't sound too hard on the face of it, but when we were there the place was so rammed with tourists that you couldn't see the other stone even with your eyes open. I decided not to try.

We then went on a somewhat aimless wander, where we happened across a five-storey pagoda which, as far as I could tell, wasn't even mentioned in my literature, which goes to show just what an abundance of historical buildings the city has. In the vicinity of this structure were several women dressed as geisha, or more accurately maiko (apprentice geisha) as every Japanese person I've shown the photos to has instantly corrected me. Other members of my party (which had now swelled to five, having attracted another ALT from Yamagata) were blown away, but as ever, it fell to me to be the sober voice of skepticism. I had done my homework, and knew that Lonely Planet estimated that the geisha and maiko in Kyoto numbered less than 200 these days, and it was extremely rare to see one without paying an exorbitant sum for the priviledge. I also knew that dressing up as a maiko and strolling around the geisha district was a popular activity with tourists, and surmised that this is what we were seeing. Two strangers on Flickr have been strangely quick to confirm this hypothesis for me.

I had been taking more of a back seat on holiday planning in Kyoto, and with the addition of our new member, I more-or-less retired as leader. From this point on, some decisions were made that, let's say, wouldn't have been made on my watch. Despite my protestations based on time equaling distance over speed, we set out on foot to the silver counterpart of the previous day's golden temple. When it became clear that we would never make it before it closed, we recovered the situation rather well by going to the nearly Heian Jingu shrine (one very large torii) and its beautiful gardens, though I couldn't help but think how much more beautiful the gardens would be when the blossom kicked in properly in about a fortnight.

Our party was snowballing by the minute (we reached a peak of eight people, then stabilised at six) and the resultant inertia made it difficult to organise anything. After much dithering we decided to go to a 'geisha show'. (I should point out that it is a common Western misconception that geisha are prostitutes; they are highly trained artisans/entertainers who are held in the highest regard in Japanese society. Incidentally, the first syllable is pronounced 'gay', so my title pun is legit.) The show featured brief snippets of various Japanese art forms, including a segment with two women dressed as geisha performing a traditional dance. Again, I very much doubt they were the real thing. The show was alright - I'd never seen bunraku (Japanese puppetry) before, so that was interesting - but at 3150yen (£23) for an hour, I felt that it was a bit of a fleecing. Also, it was aimed squarely at tourists. Maybe this is just snobbery on my part, but I don't like being made to feel like a tourist; it's patronising. I would rather sit though an incomprehensible and somewhat tedious three-hour koto-fest where I'm the only Caucasian in the room than have some prepackaged Japanese culture selection box served up for me.

The patronising and fleecing continued at 'Ninja' restaurant (sorry, 'restaurant and labyrinth'), which I had picked up a flyer for out of amusement, but which Team Yamagata somehow decided to actually eat at. Credit where it's due, they had put a lot of work into presentation. A black-clad waitress animatedly yet stealthily led us though fibreglass caverns to our booth, encouraging us to shout "Nin-nin!" to open a secret door. The menu was full of what I suspect were Banzai-style willfully dodgy translations like "metamorphosis of chicken" or "tofu enigma". The food was shockingly overpriced for what it was, but it was very interestingly presented - the appetizer for instance was shiruken- (throwing star) shaped black crackers with pate. At the end of the meal, the 'master ninja' entertained us with magic tricks. Then as we left, our ninja waitress shouted "Wait!" and ran up to us, dramatically crouched, and as if drawing a weapon, unfurled a scroll that said (in English) "Have a nice day".

I guess some people love these kind of theatrics, but it really isn't my scene. I always imagine that the staff of a place like that must resent having to do these cheesy routines, and must view their customers as the very worst kind of morons. Also, all the fourth-wall-breaking details really bother me. Why would a ninja have Western playing cards? Isn't that a glaring anachronism? Am I to believe that ancient Japanese spies really unwound with passion fruit cocktails after a tough day of feudal espionage? This is why I can never partake in sexy roleplay: "This conduct is totally unprofessional for a secretary! Don't you realise you're perpetuating some very negative stereotypes of your occupation? Can you even touch type?" etc.

Ok, that's Kyoto covered. Next, I go it alone in Tokyo, and the wheels fall off my travel plans.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff. I was talking about Geishas just tonight, and defending their honour. Those two people on Flickr must have been following you closely - weird.