Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's Arrived...My Seventh Trip To Japan

Hi all... well, there's good and bad news. I'm boarding a flight to hot, HOT Japan later on this evening (that's the good news) - but I completely failed in my quest to get through my "back story" in time for the trip. Not even close. Whilst I enjoy re-living my previous trips through the creative experience of blogging... alas, I just didn't have enough time.

So... there will be a small intermission whilst I transit to my second home in beautiful Sapporo... and things might be a bit on the go-slow-it's-a-holiday-after-all mode. And there will be plenty of catching up to do with my gorgeous gal, T-chan, and my gorgeous little boy, L-kun. Unfortunately it's a night flight... eventually getting to Sapporo (via Tokyo) around midday. I always end up feeling like a zombie by the time I get there (hope not to scare L-kun too much with the whole brain dribbling out the mouth look).

Anyhoooo...mata ne!... and see you all on the flip-side.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gion Geisha Spotting, The Sport of Tourists

27th October 2006 - Well the sun is setting on this, our seventh full day in Kyōto... and we're in one of the most quintessential parts of the city. Gion. Specifically, the wonderful street of Hanamikoji Dori. We had quite a long day... whew... and we were exhausted. TIme to sit down and enjoy a nice treat...

The goofy-looking guy below had a matcha-flavoured parfait....

My gorgeous wife had a "fruits siratama"... but for all of the nice atmosphere, her condition of not being able to taste or smell (a side-effect of being pregnant for her) meant that it was all a little disappointing and frustrating. A very painful experience to lose your taste - especially when there's so much yummy food around.

After we finished our yummy snack, we headed out to enjoy the atmosphere of Gion. One of the many character-filled, and charm-flooded streets of Gion. We're in the heart of old (and very traditional) Gion here. The quiet before the storm. Gion is one of the Hanamachi (flower towns) which are the traditional homes of geisha. There are five such districts in Kyōto: Gion (Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi), Pontochō, Miyagawachō, Kamishichiken, Shimabara. Ok...let's see what we can find. We waited for about 15 mins as the sun slowly set.

Then from out of the shadows... walked a geisha (well - here I have to admit that I can't specifically tell a full geisha from a senior maiko). She certainly carried herself with a grace that we expected from the stories/movies/imagining life back in the colourful pre-Meiji days of Kyōto.

There's a very good website Immortal Geisha the goes into the history and general information... and explains some differences between geisha and their apprentices, maiko. Actually geisha are more correctly called geiko in the Kyōto area.

When I first saw her, I have to admit that I was a little worried by her young stalker - who stuck steadfastly to her footsteps. I had thought originally that she was like a geisha groupie - but I think the reality was a little different however...

I have to admit, geisha (or more correctly maiko) spotting is strangely exciting. It's like combining a visit to the art museum with joining a tv game show.... you're just not entirely sure from which door an amazingly costumed/made-up maiko will appear from next. We waited a little longer. I think T-chan was just as curious as I at this stage (but about 10x more tired).

Then, as we waited, another appeared... from a side alley. This on the other hand is definitely a maiko... maiko are generally aged between 15 and 21 - by the age of 21 you're too old to be a maiko and instead are called a full geisha. The maiko stage (whilst not necessary) is held in high regard by those who know these things.
This was starting to turn into some sort of nocturnal wild-life hunt. and by this time, the street had begun to fill with quite a few tourists (hey... I admit that we were tourists as well) hoping to catch a glimpse - and capture on film - this supposedly elusive of creatures.

Clearly - they're not as elusive as first thought... In actual fact, it turns out Friday night in Gion is a good time to go maiko spotting. Just not the best time to take photos.

There's something oddly bizarre in this photo (at least to me)... the combination of maiko, tourist and ojisan (I hope that wasn't an obasan on the motorbike... it can be hard to tell sometimes). Like little dijoint images thrown randomly together.

Now this maiko had style... and poise.

I have to say however - for me, the maiko or geisha attractiveness is not in the gaudy trappings, or the make up (or even the attractiveness of the women for that matter)... it's the sense of the moment in time that they keep alive by their very presence. As if, for but a short instant in time and space, a hole opened up to another era, through which you could glance something that most probably has no good reason to still exist in this day and age. I'm glad it does exist however.

Here's a slightly blurred capture of the nape makeup from behind. Oops - a little smudged. Must have been in a hurry! You can also see the red fabric around the collar that denotes her as a maiko.

It was a strange time out in Gion that night... and I have to admit that I felt a "gamblers bug" for the first time. There was something alluring about staying that little bit longer... for one more glimpse. What outfit or hair piece would come next? To be honest, some maiko were clearly unhappy with the admittedly over-intense attention of some photographers (I wouldn't of course put myself in that category). Others however clearly enjoyed the attention. They certainly had no doubts who the people were here to see.

The maiko would suddenly appear from out of one of the doors of the tea houses (ochaya), and then walk along the streets and alleyways of Gion briefly before disappearing behind yet another door. Closed to our eyes.

Hmmm... we're outside one of the larger teahouses houses on Hanamikoji Dori.... known as the Ichikiri Ochaya and suddenly a car pulls up - the driver sitting expectantly but patiently. The tourists gather.. waiting... wondering... who will come out. The excitement by this stage had reached a palpable level. Seriously - I wouldn't have thought there could be such extreme interest in this before I had experienced it myself. Oh,,, and that young lady looks a little familiar... stalker-like familiar. It was at this time that I realised that she actually worked with the geisha. I wondered if this is the sort of work you do to become a maiko?... There is a term called shikomi, which is a servant to the geisha... typically a young girl wishing to become a maiko.... so here I guess is a future geisha in the making... or was she really just a stalker?

The one myth I can lay to rest... the idea that geisha don't smile or laugh is definitely no true. There was much laughter and smiles all around. The maiko in the front seat is quite junior given the amount of skin showing around her hairline (which is her natural hair) and also the fact that only her lower lip is painted.

These women were having a good time... and maybe that's because of (or inspite of) all of the attention now focussed on them by I would imaging 20-30 tourists (including Japanese) who were waiting patiently at the door step of the teahouse.

This is my favourite shot of the whole night.

And here we get to see the stark differences between geisha (left) and maiko (right). It's not the most comfortable of footwear. I imagine that's part of the training - to learn how to be elegant walking in shoewear (the thick soled shoes are called okobo) like that must be quite demanding. We can see here the overall lack of ornamentation worn by the geisha (both in terms of hair pieces and fabric pattern). The shorter sleeves on the kimono is another give away (maiko's kimono sleeves typically go to their ankles). And of course - the privilege of seniority is apparently you get to wear more comfortable shoes (geta rather than okobo).

From the back you can see other differences - most notably the difference in neck line. The maiko has a distinctive gap in her alabaster white make-up around the nape of her neck. Her hair is tied much higher, and here her obi is quite a lot longer and more flashy. And then... before you know it... they've gone, into one of the many exclusive establishments in Gion... not for the likes of you or me.

Well - that was an adventure. T-chan eventually gave me that look as to say, "ok - you've had your fun for the evening... now get me some food!" Hmmm... I think T-chan's enthusiasm for geisha-spotting had started to wain. We found a nice little restaurant and had a simple dinner. We were both famished. Ok... it was not the most up-market of restaurants... but within our modest budget it was a nice meal. Especially for Gion.

That night, foot-sore and exhausted I started to set down the day in my diary. It was a fun day today - very busy, but full of different experiences. Thank you T-chan for being such a thoughtful, loving and very indulging wife, partner and friend.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Chion-in... A Room With A View

27th October, 2006 - Our final temple for the day.... Chion-in... and I have to say that we'd most probably hit our "historic temple" limit. Don't get me wrong - it was a great day, but we'd been walking for long while now... and guess what... more steps.

Late in the Heian period, a monk by the name of Hōnen (see Pure Land Buddhism), who had been a student in the Tendai school of Mt Hiei (Hiei-zan), rejected the esoteric teaching in preference to the nembutsu movement that allowed for the immediate salvation of the people – indeed his changing views were heretical to the Tendai teachings. He taught the Pure Land (Jodo Shu) Buddhism at the site of Chion-in which would later become the head temple of the sect.

The temple is famous, amongst other things, for the largest sanmon in Japan of it's type. The upper level of which holds sacred statues and paintings - and it's possible to climb up (for an entrance fee). But be warned... the stairs leading up to the top platform are steep... and I mean steep. Like about 60degrees steep. There's not much to hold on to either - so if you've got bags etc, you need to be very careful. The other thing is that you need to leave your shoes at ground level.

Now you're not supposed to take cameras.... and being sensitive to such things I didn't.... which is a shame as the views are great, and the top floor is amazing. So how... I hear you ask... did I take these photos?... Well, the honest truth is that these photos are from the poster out the front of the sanmon. Hmmm - hope i'm not infringing copyright... but the posters are on full public display. It was definitely worth the admission fee... for the view inside as well as outside. It's not easy to get a feel for just how tall the sanmon is. It's massive.

It's funny that before I came here, I'd never really even wondered what it was that they kept in these giant gates. It was a very pleasant surprise.

The main temple are up a very long flight of stairs... after the steep climb up to the top of the sanmon, this wasn't so intimidating as just tiring. Now back to some good ol' history....

 With the continued antagonism between the monks from the famous Enryaku-ji on Hiei-zan and Chion-in, the temple was put to the torch in 1227, with the remains of Hōnen having to be secreted out of the temple just in time (as he was buried above the Hondo).

The temple was re-built in 1234, with sponsorship from the Imperial family. The hall was once again destroyed in 1633 – this time re-built by Tokugawa Iemitsu. Patronage for the temple has been strong throughout its long history. The efforts of the monk Hōnen were extended by Shinran, whose teachings with respect to the nembutsu would found the Jōdo Shinshu (see True Pure Land Buddhism) sect.

As you can see from this photo (below) - the afternoon was coming to a close - and in fact the temple was closing to the public as well. Time to take one last photo and for us to be on our way. T-chan was very tired by now and looking forward to a sit down. I wasn't pregnant, and I was tired! She suffered a lot during this trip... and she's one in a million.

Time for a change of scene....
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yasaka Jinja - Gion We A Go-Go

To Maiko or not to
27th October, 2006 - Leaving Kōdai-ji, we walked past one of the many traditional houses - when suddenly we came across this rather dramatic sight. At first we thought, it's a bit strange seeing a maiko (apprentice geisha or geiko in Kyoto dialect) just standing around admiring the autumn sunshine. Something was a bit odd... The reality is that this one of the places where you can pay to become a maiko for a day - or at least an hour or so.  Part of the attraction seems to be, being the main attraction. And why not... There's always plenty of people (including myself) willing to oblige with suitable oohs and ahhs and the click-click of camera shutters. Did I mention that my wife had even toyed with the idea?....

It's about 1.8 km, an easy stroll, from Kiyomizu Dera (A) all the way to Yasaka Jinja (C). We continue on from Kōdai-ji (B) a short distance later we arrive at Yasaka Jinja, or is more commonly known, Gion Shrine.

View Larger Map

Yasaka Jinja is one of the most important and beloved of all the Kyōto shrines. It was supposedly first established in 656 AD, and is dedicated to the Shinto gods, Susa-no-o (brother to Amateratsu Omikami) and his spouse Indahime-no-Mikoto, and five sons and three daughters.

The shrine can be entered from the south through this giant stone torii... one of the largest such stone gateways in japan. Though the main entrance is to the west (see further below)
Torii entrance to Yasaka Jinja
One of the things (make that two of the things) that jumped out to us where these drums? To be honest we had no idea what they were, why they were - or even how they were. There are no major festivals on in Yasaka Jinja at this time (that we know of)... so if anyone knows the answer, please post a comment and put us out of our misery. I know these are not normally here however, and they certainly do make for a distraction. Gold and silver... sun and moon?
Now that's what you call drums...
Today the shrine is most popular due to it’s relationship to the Gion area, and more importantly the Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri which occurs at the beginning of July and runs for 1-2 weeks). The festival began after a plague hit Kyōto in 869, and as the legend goes, the head priest of the shrine lead a group of devotees to the shrine to pray for Susa-no-o’s mercy – and the plague was lifted. That was lucky!

One of the most striking features within the shrine is the roofed stage area where religious ceremonies and dances are often performed. It makes for a dramatic sight at night (but alas... we had other plans for the evening).
Ceremonial stage.

The shrine itself owes a lot of it’s architectural design to Buddhism, as at this time there was a gradual melding of the two religions, to such a point that the shrine itself was administered by Buddhist monks. Most of the buildings now date from 1654 reconstructions. The most important building is the honden or spirit hall where the resident gods reside. The bells that hang from the front are for ringing... like a door-bell... to let the god know that someone's about to send a prayer their way.
Yasaka Jinja Honden

The main entrance to the shrine actually sits on Shijo-dori (facing the Gion district) and is entered via the Ro-mon gates, complete with it's Korean Lion-Dogs (koma-inu... or shishi in chinese) that are traditional guardians to many shrines. These fierce mythical animals are definitely the sort of sentries you'd like to see... but they can be a bit too ... er... direct... (legend goes, they throw their young off a cliff to toughen em up). Now there's some good parenting advice. Though it's impossible to tell from this figure, like the Nio guardians themselves, one dog has it's mouth open pronouncing "a", then other has it's mouth closed pronouncing "un"... the sanskrit form of the alpha and the omega.... the start and end of all things.
Yasaka Jinja's Ro-mon gate.

Just down the road from Yasaka Jinja is Mauyama Kōen. As one of the larger parks in Kyōto, this park is  famous for it’s cherry blossoms, and the weeping cherry tree (below)  illuminated at night.... when by all accounts it really is worth seeing. During the day... well... it's not the most attractive of trees. I'll take their word for it... and unfortunately we couldn't wait around to see. The park was the home of the 12th century poet Saigyo. It was a turned into a public park in 1871.
Weeping cherry tree
It is also famous for the gardens of Ogawa Jihei (1860 – 1933 AD) who rejuvenated many of Kyōto’s gardens – and was noted for his use of water sourced from the Biwako canal. On this day it seemed popular with high-school girls... it's like a by-gone era of innocence. Or a school excursion.

Whilst Maruyama isn't the best of gardens in my opinion, it's a favourite meeting place and a good location to catch your breath after a long day. Unfortunately for us - and more importantly for T-chan who was starting to get tired - we had a couple more things to do before we could call it quits.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kodai-ji... The Temple of Names...and Tea

27th October, 2006 - Continuing on from Kiyomizu Dera, we came to one of the un-expected highlights of the day. Kōdai-ji (also known as Kōdaijusho-zenji). We had done a little research on the temple, but didn't have high expectations... we were pleasantly surprised.

Having some fun with the Tibetan prayer-wheels. I know it's a little juvenile, but it was fun to get them all spinning.... and there were those little red arrows to show you the way.

Originally developed as a nunnery in 838 AD, Kōdai-ji was most strongly known for the connection with Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and more importantly with Hideyoshi's wife who is affectionately known as Nene...

One of the interesting aspects of ancient (and not so ancient) Japan is the trait of name-changing. It was not uncommon in Japan to adopt a new name for each different phase of a persons life. For example, Nene... (or is that Yodogimi... or is that Yodo-Dono)... also took on the new name of Kita-no-Mandokoro when her husband Hideyoshi became Kampaku (or chief advisor/regent to the emperor). Following the death of Hideyoshi in 1598, she took on the customary role of a Buddhist nun - and her honorary name was Kōdai-in... ah... now I start to see where this is going. Except that her Buddhist name was Kogetsu-ni... Following her death she was given the name of Hikari no Tenshi. Now seriously... enough is enough.

What is even more confusing is that history often confuses people... for example, you will often read that Hideoyoshi had several wives... and that it was the woman known as Yodogimi that had Hideyoshi's son (Hideyori). However - both Yodogimi and Nene are often described interchageably.

Seven years following the death of Hideyoshi, Ieyasu gave the nunnery to Nene, indeed financing much of the building. By 1604, the temple refurbishment was completed, and the Kōdai-ji established proper in 1605. Unfortunately there now remains only a few of the original buildings. Much of the temple was destroyed by fire in 1789... and in fact this is actually a sub-temple of the Kennin-ji

The dry-garden of Kodai-ji with it's twin mountains.

Talk about a view from a window... ok - it's on the ground view, but what a window.

From another angle.

The garden is famous for it’s "turtle and crane" rock arrangement. Er... don't ask me.

The Founder’s Hall or Kaison-do overlooks the garden designed by Kobori Ensyu, and is considered one of the finest gardens of the period. The ceiling of the front part of the building actually came from Hideyoshi’s private ship; just one of the many relocated elements that have been incorporated into this temple. The building is dedicated to the founding priest, Sanko Joeki.

Within the gardens exists a sanctuary memorial hall (Otama-ya) ... hiding up in the treeline...dedicated to the memories of Hideyoshi and his many-named wife. This building has examples of the famous lacquerware specific to Kōdai-ji of the Momoyama period.

The small pavilion on the  is known as the Kangetsu-dai (or the moon-viewing pavilion)... designed, as the name suggests, to allow the viewer to look out at the reflections of the moon upon the pond.

The following building has an interesting combination of Japanese and apparently chinese influence. I love this sort of detail in buildings... and I have to say that it's not so common to see it in Japanese structures.

Between the Kaisan-do and the Otama-ya spans a covered walkway known as the Reclining Dragon Corridor (Garyoro) – known for long graceful scaled appearance. Walking up the covered pathway... we get to enjoy another aspect of the temple grounds.

The temple is also famous for its teahouses, in memory of Hideoyoshi’s involvement in the establishment of the tea ceremony in Japan. On the upper slopes you can find a number of tea-houses... incluing the Shigure-tei, a unique two-story tea-house. This was also moved from Hidyoshi's dismantled Fushimi castle.

Back near the ponds you can also find the Iho-an Tea Hut... The Cottage of Lingering Fragrances... I hope they are nice fragrances! Actually, this photo is from the rear of the cottage.

There's quite a connection between Kōdai-ji and Tea in more ways than meets the eye. Nene's husband, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was a huge supporter of the tea ceremony. He was the major patron and friend of the Tea Master Sen-no-Rikyū. The story has a dramatic ending however when Hideyoshi ordered Sen-no-Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) which he did following his final tea-ceremony. It is somewhat ironic then that Kōdai-ji is so famous for it's tea houses.

The mysterious bamboo forests of Kōdai-ji... There's definitely something both soothing and somewhat disturbing about these forests. Kōdai-ji certainly had a nice garden, quiet and restful - and it's not as busy as the nearby temple of Kiyomizu Dera. What it lacks in grandeur it makes up in quiet confidence.
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