Geisha Girls, Shoguns and Zen

On our last day in Kyoto we experienced a couple of things that Japan is perhaps the most well know for: Geisha girls, the Shoguns and Zen meditation.

Meredith and I first went off to learn how to do Zen meditation. (Mark didn’t join us since it requires that awkward sitting position on the floor which kills his back). We were the only people in the class which was a good thing, because otherwise I might have giggled during the meditation.

As had been the case in all the temples we went to in Kyoto, we had to remove our shoes before entering. Mark and I were always getting into trouble over this whole removing our shoes thing because we couldn’t seem to get the rules down about where we could or could not step with our shoes on or off and where we could or could not sit to put them back on. The trick was you had to put one foot onto a slightly raised wooden deck and remove that shoe while continuing to stand on the ground with the other foot. But then once you had one shoe off, you couldn’t put that foot back down on the ground, it had to go up on the deck while you tried to get the other shoe off that was still on the ground. Then you walked on the deck over to cubbies to store your shoes and then walked up into the temples. The Japanese (and Meredith) were really coordinated at this maneuver; Mark and I were always looking for a place to sit down, but that often violated the rules in some way too. I’m telling you if you step on a surface in the wrong order you will bring the wrath of some tiny Japanese woman down upon you!

So, the monk who taught the class had been to the US for college: Rice College undergrad and University of Arizona graduate school.  He spent more time talking about the health benefits of meditation than the spiritual side; perhaps they’re trying to reach a wider audience. It was a beautiful day with birds chirping and gentle breezes. Technically you’re supposed to be focusing on your breathing, not the fact that it’s all gorgeous and nature-y. It was very relaxing and I enjoyed talking to the monk and I didn’t have to make silly embarrassing noises like the time a couple of years ago when I was forced to meditate with a large crowd of people after a violin concert. I am ready to live in the moment!

This bell was saved from being made into munitions during World War II

The Buddhist monasteries in Japan and this monastery in particular have been great protectors of Christians in Japan over the years. During the period (1587 – 1850  I think) when Christianity was illegal, they hid and protected Christians and this monastery hid this bell for the church down in their basement. And then during WWII, the monk’s grandfather who gave us the lesson was the one who kept the bell hidden from the government so it wouldn’t be used for bullets.

In the afternoon we visited Nijo Castle which was right across from our hotel and was originally built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence for numerous Shoguns. There are 6 buildings on site and 2 gardens.

This is technically the palace

Detail over the door

All the rooms are empty  now, or perhaps they were never really full to begin with–that whole tatami mat thing.

You know how you hate it when you have a squeaky floor joist? Well these guys intentionally put in squeaky floor joists or Nightingale floors as they are called, so they would know when someone was coming and no one could sneak up on them. Paranoid much?

However once the visitor got close to the Shogun’s personal office or living quarters, the squeaks disappeared. If you got that far, you had run the gamut of all the security controls, so you were considered safe–and you could be as sneaky as you pleased.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside so you’ll just have to use your imaginations–think big empty rooms with tatami mats on the floors and paintings of birds and trees on the walls.

There was another beautiful garden outside

Saturday night, we heard about a couple who spent beau coup bucks recreating a Japanese garden they saw somewhere. If you had unlimited funds I could definitely see the appeal of doing such a thing. We’ve seen such beautiful gardens this week and they’re all so much better planned than anything I could ever come up with!

A cute happy couple we took pictures for

Apparently this garden makes people break out in wild fits of scribbling, judging by the number of these signs they had posted.

There actually was a "castle" with a moat, seen here, but it was closed to the public. Not a turret in sight, though

That evening we took a guided tour of the Geisha or Gion district. All of these pictures will be dark as it was dark outside.

There are now about 300 geisha or geiko as they are called in Kyoto, down from about 3000 in their hey day. The girls go to school first for about a year or so to learn manners and dancing and singing, the tea ceremony etc.

This was a board showing when and where each of their classes were meeting

They then become apprentice geiko or maiko to an okiya (sort of a house mother) for 3 years. You can recognize a maiko because the obi (the big belt) on her kimono in back goes all the way to the ground and her hair is her own, not a wig. That means that she must sleep at night with her neck supported by a wooden “pillow” so as not to ruin her elaborate hair-do which is done up about once a week. (anybody’s head itching yet?) This is a very expensive time in her life as she is acquiring her kimonos and combs, etc which cost thousands and thousands of dollars, (the obi alone can cost $20,000) thus making her in debt to her okiya whom she must pay back after she becomes a geiko.

Combs and hair ornaments for sale

My favorite. Can't see the entire price tag, but it's at least $1500 if not more.

Spotted--a maiko! Another reason to want to graduate to a geiko--with a long obi on, this whole outfit can weigh 20 to 30 lbs!

There’s actually someone who’s job it is to dress them in these outfits as they may change them a couple times a night if they go to several parties at different tea houses. The tea houses in the Gion district are very exclusive and you can only go to them if you are invited. Once you become a patron of a tea house you never, ever go to another tea house except as someone’s guest. (If you do, no more tea for you!) The most exclusive tea houses cost $10,000 an evening.

Of course everyone wants to know if there’s any hanky panky going on with the clients and the geiko. Our guide assured us that there most definitely was not and if you do any research on the web it indicates the same thing as well. Having actually been to the some of these parties, our guide said that the geiko play silly games (think duck, duck, goose), sing and dance for the clients, converse with the men and basically allow them to relax and let their hair down.

Duck, duck, goose, huh? Maybe that’s why we weren’t supposed to take the clients’ pictures?

Geiko on their way to a job, perhaps

These clever screens keep prying eyes out, but allow a full view of the street and all that is going on, from the inside the house

Do you see the curtains in front of the door?

Curtains of various lengths hang across the front of a great many of the doorways of the restaurants and stores all over Kyoto. I was totally flummoxed as to their purpose and quite frankly they rather intimidated me. Was this a sign that the business was closed? Were they there to make me bow when I came in? Do they want me to go away? Have they just washed their curtains and they’ve hung them out to dry? To me, they were a sign that the proprietor did not want me in his establishment.

Our kind guide explained that they mean the business is open. The curtains are a tease, sort of like the back of a woman’s neck–“if you part the curtains, you can see a bit of what I have to offer, but you must come all the way in to see everything.” Wow. They were being coy, but I took it as being stand-offish and unapproachable. I wonder if they have stimulus overload when they come to the States, the way we are so “in your face”? (Think auto dealerships.)

Pretty street in Gion

We couldn't decide whether to book an appointment at this hair salon, or the one across town called "Oops"

Our guide for the night

In the morning it was time to say good-by to Kyoto and our hotel.

We think more hotels should put in a Zen rock garden to disguise their ugly roof top views

Even though it's not white, I think this is a wedding dress. There was a young man standing by who looked distinctly groom-like.

She was definitely a bride. Unfortunately she took off her stiff white headpiece before we could get a picture. Think "Flying Nun" without the side wings.

One last picture by the water fall

Bikes--never managed to mention this earlier

Everybody rides bikes here and they do it on their own power, unlike Shanghai where everybody retrofits their bikes with a motor. When I say everybody, I mean little kids, young women with a child in front in a carrier and one in back, men in business suits, young men, and elderly men and women. It’s hard to tell people’s age here because gray hair isn’t that prevalent (we did see a number of older people with purple (yes, purple) hair–apparently meant to disguise the gray…um, no) and of course people in Kyoto are supposed to be among the healthiest on the planet, but I think some of them were at least in their 70’s if not older riding around on bikes. Unfortunately bikes are ridden on the sidewalk, which makes it pretty harrowing for the pedestrians, or at least me, but they all seemed to know what they were doing, and they go pretty slowly and there were no collisions.

Before we had to take the train to the airport we briefly stopped at another craft museum which had work by students of a craft school. There were some pretty good pieces there, but no photography allowed.

so many things I like about this picture that Mark took on the train

Coming home we were greeted by these: Kind of Japanese-like, don’t you think?

elevator flowers

Kyoto is done. What will I tell you about next??? Stay tuned!

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About DECRYPTKNIT: knitter on the loose in Shanghai

Hi, I'm Marisa Newhouse, a former pharmacist (for a brief time during the Reagan administration) who's real calling was probably anything that has to do with cooking, plants, literature and especially knitting; hence my last and favorite job, working at Woolyminded, a wonderful yarn store. But now, I have moved half a world away to Shanghai where my husband will be working. Lots of people are interested in what we will be doing here and I have always kept journals of our travels, so I thought I'd do it the modern way and keep a blog.
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