By Deborah Howell

Once again we’re on the move. The Sumituro Museum of Art is tempting as we drive by, but our time is limited on this final day of our sightseeing so we reluctantly give it a miss. We would, however, recommend it to anyone visiting Kyoto.

PHOTOS: Kyoto, Day 2

Hotel Okura, Kyoto. Our last night here, so we’re living it up. Our rooms have a river view and a mountain view, with the city nestled between. There’s a pool but no time to swim, as we really want to see as many sights as possible on our last full day.

Since it’s Saturday and most of the major attractions are packed with people, Yuki opts to take us to a lesser known Manshuin Retreat

(residence) for painting, writing, and tea ceremonies for the Imperial family. We learn always to try to look up at a Buddha and not down (if

possible) so we kneel. Yuki is right. The eyes of the Buddha look closed from above but from below you can see that his eyes are open and you can connect with him one to one. It’s surprisingly moving.

The Imperial crescent of 16 petals is displayed throughout the residence. So, perhaps the second or third son would come and enjoy this place to stay at and use as a place of meditation and relaxation since secondary sons have no imperial duties like the first son has.

The current emperor and empress are very much adored by the people of Japan. They’re known to have gentle and kind souls, and are highly regarded by the public.

A word about koi ponds: the most valuable koi (carp) are the tri-colored ones: orange, black and white. At certain times of the year, fish are brought to these ceremonial ponds and are left to enjoy a good, well-fed existence. It’s an offering of sorts, a giving back for all the fish that people eat during the year.

A word about doors here: they slide from right to left. A couple of times I thought doors were locked when I tried to push or pull them open and then I remembered that they slide. Just so you know.

Now we’re taking a cab along the river to a different neighborhood called Gion to do some sightseeing and window shopping. We brought only carry on luggage, so sadly no big purchases! Only tiny gifts for friends and family. We pass an ornate Kibuki Theatre and learn that this type of entertainment is still popular–so popular as a matter of fact–that it’s a platinum ticket. Very very difficult to score one.

We ask what American actors are famous and well liked in Japan. Tom Hanks. That’s all they can think of. They ask us about Japanese actors popular in the US and all I can come up with off the top of my head without checking Google is Ken Watanabe. And the director Akira Kurasawa. Pathetic!

The ladies here are encouraged to rent kimonos and get their hair done and visit the sightseeing spots. It really does make the city so much more picturesque They get their kimonos and hair done in elaborate up dos (some with flowers and tiny paper cranes) for about 20 dollars and then they also get in free to the temples. (There are over 100 temples in Kyoto.) It really is so pleasing to the eye and such an uplifting feeling to see these women and girls all dolled up in their yutakas and hair ornaments, enjoying a green tea ice cream cone or taking selfies.

Some take it up a notch, hiring a man-powered rickshaw to travel around in and a professional photographer to document their special day. I really want to take their picture but feel it would be rude.

Then I see Hiroko taking photo after photo and all her subjects are giggling and enjoying the attention, so I start snapping away, too.

The streets of Gion are a riot of color. It’s a stark contrast to our countryside ventures where we had most streets and shrines nearly to ourselves. We climb the many stairs to a massive temple built over

1200 years ago. I know you must be thinking that all we do is visit temples and shrines, but really it’s the journey to these holy spots that’s the real joy. The people watching, the small shops, the wooded walkways, the thousand year old trees are the real experience. The shrines are the icing on top.

We stop at a restaurant for shaved ice with condensed milk in strawberry and green tea flavors. Totally delicious. I wonder out loud if shaved ice originated in Japan or Hawaii. Yuki said that as a boy he spent a lot of time in Hawaii and there was no such thing as shaved ice back then, but it’s been available in Japan for about 150 years, so I think Japan can claim it as its own invention. They put the ice in caves in the winter so it has a particular flavor and texture.

There are countless small green spaces, parks, ponds and nature areas within the city center of Kyoto. We watch a wild heron on a rock in one such pond and I swear he poses for us! He stretches his wings wide and holds them there like an opera diva making a grand entrance. He certainly knows how fabulous he is! Deer bowing, herons posing–this is how I’ll remember Japan.

Our last dinner is in an interesting restaurant a couple of blocks from the Hotel Okura. Hiroko tells us it’s Japanese style so when we knock on Blake’s door to grab him, he’s dressed for dinner in the white Okura bathrobe. “I thought you said it was Japanese style,” he scratches his head.

By now, that means just throw on a kimono. “I thought this was our kimono.” Close. But still a white bath robe, so better change into western clothes or the hotel might think you’re trying to steal it!

The restaurant consists of a bunch of individual tatami rooms, one for each party. The bonus here is although the table is only 6″ off the ground, there’s a hole underneath the table so our legs actually have a place to go. Yesss! This is far more comfy than trying to sit cross legged on the floor for two hours.

The courses begin to come. We haven’t seen a menu in two weeks. You just accept what is served to you and listen carefully to the explanation of what everything is. Halfway through the meal, a man knocks and enters the room, bringing a small CD player with him. He explains that we’ll have a special visit from a Maiko girl, who will perform two dances for us.

The girl enters the room in spectacular makeup, hair, and gorgeous kimono. The silk bunting on the back is 20 feet long. The first song she performs is called “Sunset Music,” and we all drop our chopsticks and watch in wonder. Her small, slow moves are so entrancing we’re instantly hypnotized. How she manages to look at you without making eye contact is a marvel. You see a thousand years of history and discipline unfold before you as she works her fan just so. We are riveted.

After her second dance, we clap enthusiastically and say arigato over and over again. We think that this is the conclusion of our time with Suji but surprisingly, she takes a seat at our table. Even more remarkably, she accepts our offer of a glass of sake and answers our many questions in perfect English with a slight New Zealand accent.

She tells us she spent four years there from age 12 to 14, when she made the decision to become a Maiko dancer.

The training to become a true Maiko is intense, to say the least. You have to be between 15 and 20 and have the exact type of hair that can be worn in traditional fashion 7 days a week. There’s a special pillow made of wood that Maikos sleep on to preserve their hair style, so once they get into perfect position on that pillow, they very rarely move until morning.

They are not allowed to date, nor marry. After they turn 20, they can no longer be Maiko girls but can either go back to civilian life or continue on to become Gaikon (women) dancers. (The oldest Gaikon dancer is now 80 years old!) Maiko dancers are only found in Kyoto, and there are only 70 of them.

Their schedules are packed since they’re in constant demand. They get up a 7, go to work, return to their boarding house for koto lessons and training in singing and other fine arts, then right back to work, dancing for various restaurants and functions until 12 or 1am.

They are not allowed to eat anything after they dance unless they’re expressly hired as a dinner mate. We feel terrible eating course after course in front of her as she kneels politely for almost 2 hours at our table.

We’re all entranced with Suji, and find out all sorts of things. Like if she gets sick. There’s really no one to fill in since there are so few Maiko dancers and such great demand, so she works even when she’s sick. No slack. :(.

They’re not allowed to have cell phones or computers but she does get to watch a small amount of tv from time to time. 3 times a year she gets a few days off to visit her parents. Other than that, it’s 7 days a week, 24/7. No such thing as a weekend.

Her dance troupe has traveled to other countries to perform but when we ask if there’s a chance they’ll come to America, she answers that it’s unlikely, since American demand is more for Kibuki dancers than Maiko dancers and that the Kibuki style troupes get most of those trips.

With all of this discipline, training, learning new songs for each season, and sacrifice, you’d think these girls would be paid handsomely. Not so. Their “house” gets most of the proceeds and the girls are left with the pocket change they make from tips. It seems awfully unfair, but who are we to criticize a system that’s been in place for centuries?

Suji tells us her dream is to travel to Brazil. And that yes, she’ll most likely continue the dance lifestyle after she turns 20 next year and become a Gaikon. It’s been an extraordinary experience talking with her, sharing sake with her, and getting a rare glimpse into the Maiko lifestyle. We give her a couple hundred bucks and wish her well as she rises gracefully to attend her next appearance. It must be exhausting meeting so many people every day and answering the same questions over and over. Such is the life of the modern day Maiko. The nearest thing I can compare it to in America is life in a nunnery –but nuns don’t have to perform.

I think of her returning to her house late at night after dancing and entertaining all day, and then carefully taking off her white face makeup and lipstick (the color red made from an actual flower). I envision her placing her lovely neck on the special wooden pillow that preserves her perfect coif, and I imagine her dreaming dreams of Brazil, her special kimono hanging perfectly on her door.

After this mesmerizing experience with Suji, we head outside the restaurant to the garden, which is utterly spectacular, and walk its bridges and admire its trees and water features. Amazing that these places exist right smack dab in the center of one of the busiest cities in the world. It’s a perfect spot to reflect and look back on what’s been a thrilling 2 weeks of travel throughout Japan.

The next day Yuki and Hiroko drive us to the train station. On our way there, Hiroko and I cling to each other’s arms. We’ve bonded tightly , having spent every moment together and sharing every meal together for the last 15 days. It will be hard to let each other go. We hug and hug and hug, and then off we go, hopping the bullet train to Tokyo.

We’re whizzing along at 150 miles an hour. This baby flies! These trains actually go up to 200 miles an hour–sort of like being on a jet 30 feet above the ground. Maybe some day we”ll have these in the US if we can get past the lobbyists preventing them. I have to laugh.

Usually you’d really try to avoid using a rest room on a train. But on the bullet train–the room is clean and yes–the toilet seats are heated.

Til we get these fabulous trains in the US, we”ll gladly look forward to our next trip to Japan, hopefully in the near future. We ask Blake if his dream since he was 7 to come to Japan lived up to his expectations. “It was way, way better than I even imagined,” he replies with a smile.

Mission accomplished. Now the 14 hour flight back to LA, and straight back to work to start paying for all this pleasure! We flew into Japan after a typhoon, avoided three more while we were there, and are just missing another one on our way out. Feeling lucky, blessed, and buoyed as we always do after experiencing new countries and cultural experiences.

Sayonara for now.

See more of my adventures through Japan here.


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