Kyoto part 1: black sesame, beauty and a beer

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Everyone raves about Kyoto…

Pretty much whenever I asked a fellow traveller “Hello fellow traveller, what was your favourite place in Japan?”  They would say something like “Gosh, that’s a tough one Kirstie, but I would probably have to say Kyoto”.  (I think it’s best if you imagine this exchange is occuring on Blind Date.  I’m Cilla, obviously.)

Having been there, I must admit this wouldn’t be my answer.  Hakone, Tokyo or the Kumano Kodo would be.  You may say I can’t pick three, but hey, my blog, my rules.  I’ve gone mad with power.

Somehow I found everything a bit too clean and packaged.  Shiny shopping streets with Christmas lights twinkling away, perfectly manicured temples and gardens, plenty of tourists.  Everything was just a bit too nice.  Not to knock it though.  I mean, we had a nice time during our two whirlwind days there, and more importantly, we ate.  A LOT.  In fact, on our first day that’s all we did.

Sandwiched between luggage storage trouble after the train in from Nara, and a night bus out to Tokyo, Kyoto part one was really only a half-day adventure.  It was raining, so we gave up on seeing the temples and gardens the city is famous for, and instead focused on on the covered arcades in the centre of town.  One of these, Nishiki, houses a food market…

We spent a very happy few hours slowly making our way down the arcade, looking at all the weird and wonderful things on offer, buying snacks and tasting samples as we went.

Those slimy looking things are uri (a cucumbery squash) pickled in sake lees (the yeasty residue from brewing).  We tasted some in Nara when we went to a sake brewery, and contrary to appearances they’re actually very nice.

There weren’t too many veggie snack options, so I mostly had sweet treats.  Poor me.  This meant glutinous rice balls, a chewy rice-dough snack that’s usually stuffed with or coated in something sweet.  We had barbecued ones served with ginger syrup, warm and soft with tasty crispy bits, and black sesame ones stuffed with sweet black sesame paste, yum.

Delicious.

I did find one savoury veggie option: a cucumber on a stick.

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The sign proclaimed COLD!! CUCUMBER ¥100 IT’S verry nice!  And it was.  It was genuinely just a cold cucumber on a stick.  Fair enough.

Arthur had more luck with interesting eats.

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That is an octopus with an egg in its head.  Genius.

Once the market began to wind down it was time to think about dinner.  We wound up in a casual, mismatched furniture sort of place, above a vintage clothes shop.  The menu was veg heavy and they had organic beer, you know the kind of place.   I had a fusiony salad plate with tofu patties, and a black sesame ice cream milkshake, which is the best thing to have happened in the history of good things that have happened.  Arthur had a curry and a beer.  Yum, yum and again yum.

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The milkshake was so good that the keyboard just started typing in Taiwanese in excitement, and I didn’t get round to taking a photo of it.  It was kind of grey.

After dinner we wandered round some of Kyoto’s older streets in the rain.  It was raining so hard that a man popped out of a restaurant and insisted we take his umbrella.  His fancy, black, giant, wooden handled umbrella.  We tried to protest but he was having none of it.  This very polite and good natured, but rather desperate, debate went on for several minutes, and ended with him pressing the umbrella into our hands and backing off bowing.  We bowed lots too, and took our new umbrella with us over the river, to Gion.

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Not the umbrella.

Gion is the best known geisha district in Japan, so I suppose in the world.  You may know it from reading (or watching) Memoirs of a Geisha, which is set there.

Geisha are called geiko in Kyoto dialect, and trainee geisha are maiko.  These terms mean something like ‘child of the arts’ and ‘dance child’ translated literally, while geisha means ‘person of the arts’.

I was surprised to learn that there are still practicing geisha in Japan.  Though there are far fewer than in the past, it’s still a world that’s very much alive, albeit exclusive and illusive.  Gaining access to an evening with a geisha usually involves an invitation from somebody already part of the circle, and also a very large amount of money.

Geisha work mostly at evening parties in traditional tea houses, playing instruments like the stringed shamisen, dancing, and generally providing civilised company.  Not selling their bodies, a rather pernicious misconception, which may have resulted from women calling themselves geisha selling sex to American GIs in the years after 1945.  The Americans couldn’t tell the difference.

I was intrigued to see Gion, though I thought it would take a lot of imagination to see it as in years past, with geisha hurrying between tea houses and wealthy patrons clambering into cyclos after an evenings entertainment.

There I was wrong.  It was rather more subdued than all that, but isn’t everywhere dampened by rain?  The rain even made the whole experience a little more movie-dramatic, after all it was heavy enough to drench you in seconds, which only seems to happen in the movies.  More importantly, the key elements were still there.  The narrow two-storey tea houses, dark wood and traditional Japanese split curtains hanging in the doorways.  The hushed street that you could somehow feel was alive with merriment, behind its closed doors.  No cyclos in sight, but we passed two groups of men in suits exiting tea houses into waiting taxis.  As they exited the (female) proprietor came out and bowed deeply to her customers.  I mean touch your toes deeply, and she remained thus positioned until they were safely in their cab.  The second time she was accompanied by several other members of staff who looked like waiters, and joined her in her back breaking bow.

But that was not all.  As we turned back towards the station side of the river, and our night bus to Tokyo, a kimono clad lady ducked out of a tea house in front of us.  Beautifully dressed, hair fixed elaborately, clutching a cased musical instrument, and clearly in a rush, she was unmistakably a geisha.

I felt like a twitcher who’d spotted a beautiful, famously shy, and critically endangered bird.

Also, like a bit of a creep for staring.

I didn’t try a photo, apparently snap-happy tourists have been bothering geisha in recent years, and who wants to be paparazzied while commuting?

So we slunk out of Gion with no souvenirs, but rather overwhelmed by our luck.  And then, as a finale, we had a beer.

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Our friends from the stand-up bar.  We think his other daughter (the lady’s sister) is married to a Scottish guy and lives somewhere in the North West of Scotland.  Maybe.  We had slight language difficulties.  They were very nice anyway.

Stay tuned for Kyoto part 2, in which gold glistens, we jump in the air, sushi is conveyed, friends reunited, and time is spent appreciating the space between the rocks.

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