Trip Start May 29, 2008
102Trip End Dec 19, 2008
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At this point, we realize that we're carrying coins around like they're nickels but, literally, you're holding $5 and you could easily misplace it. Had to put the high dollar ones in the family safe a.k.a. bra.
We visited a Traditional Teahouse called Nishijin Tondaya . We got lost for more than an hour trying to decode the Japanese characters into English to find the right place. Eventually, we were able to utter enough Japanese words to have someone give us the right directions. Finally, we found it only 40 minutes late. 4 generations lived in this teahouse, which also sold kimonos made by the women that live and work in the house. We also were able to enjoy a traditional Tea drinking ceremony. We had to take off our shoes and scooch through a couple of shoji doors to get to this room which overlooked their zen garden. It was extremely peaceful and the whole ceremony was very slow and relaxing. Every move the woman made in preparing the tea, washing the wares, and pouring it was deliberate and methodical. Our session was only 30 minutes but the woman that prepared our ceremony told us that it typically lasts for about 4 hours. The whole ceremony reminded us of a scene from Karate Kid II. Check out the pics.
The next day we visited Nijo Castle. Same story we've heard time and time again on different rulers quarters. Of course, he had to have his concubines, etc. The castle was made out of bamboo and other squeaky woods for use as a "nightingale".
For dinner that night, Rachel had a Wagyu beef craving again so we looked high and low for Matsunashi beef like we had eaten in Tokyo. Interestingly, teppanyaki was not as popular in Kyoto as it's more known for its seafood. Not to be denied, we found one on a cozy alley off the main strip. This little alley was one of the cooler alleys we've been to with all kinds of eclectic restaurants that seemed to have a very intimate setting. We were not disappointed. So tender and marbled. It was a superior part of the cow than Kobe. We paid about $55 for a small amount of steak, but worth every penny.
In the morning we had to head over to the Gion area. Rachel was to be a Geisha for a day. There was this studio that will make you look like a Geisha complete with an outfit you choose, doing your makeup, hair, and teaching you how to walk on the awkward platform shoes the Geishas wear. It took about 45 minutes to prep her and I didn't get to see her until she was already outside. When I saw her, I had to blink a couple of times to figure out if that was Rachel. She looked more like a Geisha than even some of the real Geisha that I've seen. It was really amazing to see that. The professional photographer walked around taking pictures of Rachel in different street scenes in Gion. Already, people started crowding around Rachel and taking her picture. At first, it was like a group of 5. Then the photographer let us roam as we wished throughout the traditional Gion streets. We went up to an area where they had a huge white Buddha to take pictures. I got every angle and tried to make her pose like a Geisha would pose. Again, more tourists came up and started taking pictures of her and then with her. These were Japanese tourists from another part of the country. They were loving it though. I still don't know if they thought she was a real Geisha. She could've fooled anybody. We eventually walked into another area of town and another woman got all giddy and had to take pictures of Rachel. This woman really thought she was a Geisha and, after taking a close-up pic with Rachel, said you're not Japanese! Later on, we had the biggest crowd of probably 30 or so snapping away. This crowd definitely thought Rachel was a real Geisha. One of the women (a tourist not from Japan) was talking to Rachel in Japanese and confused at why Rachel wouldn't respond. It was such a fantastic experience. We fooled everybody and Rachel got her 30 minutes of fame. There's plenty more where that came from.
The Gion area that we were in was truly amazing. It had all kinds of shops, restaurants, and studios of the most authentic Japanese goods and services. It really captured Japanese culture without corporate agendas or capitalistic overtones. The small buildings were literally attached to each other and looked crammed from the street view but through creative space design and architecture they were able to open these spaces up to seem full of life. Most buildings seemed to do this quite well. They are extremely resourceful in almost everything. Gion was a really neat area to visit.
Later on that evening, we decided to see if the "real" Geisha were any match for Rachel. We had to go to an off the main drag sidestreet to try and catch these Geisha walking to one of their performances. The Geisha try to be clandestine and will normally not pose for anyone, so if you see one it's a pretty momentous occasion. We waited in the rain for about a half an hour before we heard some commotion. We started getting excited and got our cameras out. Rachel saw this woman walking down the middle of the street. It kind of looked like Cameron Diaz or Kate Hudson. Nope it was just Cameron Diaz. Of course, Cameron Diaz has to follow us to Kyoto, Japan because she can't think of any original spots in the world to visit on her own. Sure Cameron, just follow us. She's on this blog reading this right now. I'm kidding Cameron - you're the best. We love "What Happens in Vegas." Actually, she was supernice. I went to take some pics of her and congratulated her on the movie. She was not snobbish or arrogant - just open and thankful. Pretty much Cameron stole the Geisha's thunder. We think she might have come out of one of the Geisha shows.
Eventually, the "real" Geisha started coming out walking to their performances and would quickly slip into their halls not stopping for pictures. We managed to catch some in their walk. After seeing them I think Rachel could hang with the most authentic looking Geisha.
The next day we went sake tasting. Grapes, wheat, potatoes, and other commodities can't have all of the fun - we had to get rice into the liquor fermentation picture too. We went to Fushimi where they have some of the purest water in the world and, naturally, the best sake in the world. Better water makes better sake. Fushimi is the sake capital of Japan. I don't know the exact number of sake breweries but off first count looking at the sake tour map it looked like there were close to fifty. It took forever to find the tasting room as we showed up to their distribution center asking the guards if we could taste sake. It's kind of like arriving to Budweiser's brewing plant in St. Louis, Missouri and asking security if they'll let you drink beer. "Yeah, buddy just jump into one of those big vats back there and drink your way until you empty it." Hehe. The guards at the sake plant were kind enough to not laugh us off the lot and showed us on the map where there tasting room was about a kilometer into town.
We arrived at Gekkeiman . It was one of the first sake breweries in this region and definitely one of the most popular. They had a small tour area where you could see how they make sake. It's a pretty intricate process. The sake here has the double advantage of using the purest water in Japan and uses Japanese sticky rice (only produced in Japan) which, apparently, has a higher starch/carbohydrate content which enhances the fermentation process and makes for a better sake. So pretty much we were in the holy grail of sake making country. Nowhere else could you get sake like this. By the way, Rachel and I don't like the normal sake because it's too harsh. We usually only drink the nigori sake which is sweeter and smoother. We were blown away by their normal sake. It was delicious. Very smooth with a slightly sweet finish. We tried three different "varietals" of sake. Good stuff. Next sake brewery, we were able to each get our own cup of sake as oppose to a taste. Rachel's sake had real gold flakes in it. Japanese glam! All of these sakes were so exceptional. They would all blow anything we've had back in the States out of the water.
For lunch, we had to try a popular chicken skewer restaurant that was renowned in Japan. You wonder how a chicken skewer restaurant could be popular - well, try this place out and wonder no more. We had to order more as was becoming commonplace in Japanese restaurants for us. I don't know if you can ever have too much of a good thing in Japan.
Later on that day, we finished off by visiting Royanji Rock Garden. It's the most popular garden in Japan. It's essentially a Zen garden with rocks and meditation house. The garden has small pebbles surrounding 15 large, oddly shaped rocks. The pebbles are raked every day in a certain pattern to create a really interesting effect that surrounds the rocks. The surroundings of the zen garden were very interesting too. They had these pipe-looking trees jetting out all over the place and we were there at the right time to see sunset piercing through them. Made for a wonderful picture and great experience.