Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day two in Kyoto - Golden pavilion, Manga, Geisha, and probably the best Sushi I've ever had

We started our second day, like our first, with an amazing breakfast put together by our wonderful staff at Hotel Mume. In addition to feeding us another great meal, they also helped us figure out where we were going, how to get there, where to eat, and even where to pick up tiny batteries for mom. Hisako-san and her staff are truly the most amazing at providing service. It's lovely!

So, we were off and running this morning because it was a lovely day and I wanted to make sure to return to the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple during a bright day. Well, we got it. It was sunny and gorgeous and mom completely understood why I wanted to return. Of course I got many shots of the pavilion, and I probably also got some repeat shots from my pictures two years ago. But this time with a better camera! Anyway, besides just walking around and ooo-ing and ahhh-ing, there isn't much to tell, so on with the photos.

Mom, looking all stylish while we wait for the bus:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

Just as I remembered, Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

The phoenix on top:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

Mom and Kinkakuji:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

The only hiccup in us getting around was the insane number of school visits:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

We saw the first few leaves changing:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

And I got a couple shots of some other neat areas of the overall site:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

Of course there are more photos (and more of the entire day, too) posted up on Google+

Upon leaving Kinkakuji, we hopped on the bus and headed downtown to get to a shop mom had read about, in search of a gift. Which I won't mention, but it put us right in the middle of downtown Kyoto. Once we were finished in the shop, we didn't really have time to do a full temple or shrine plus travel, but we looked at the map and saw that the Kyoto Museum of Manga was right nearby. We had both heard great things about it, so we decided to head over there.

I will say that the central "intro to Manga" exhibit of the museum does a great job of explaining the history, practice, importance, and forms that manga comes in. That said, the real amazing feature of the museum is of less interest to a non-fan, and particularly one that doesn't speak Japanese (though they do have other languages!). Basically the whole thing is a library. And you can read some of the most famous manga in books, right off the shelves, from every decade going back to the 1960's. Even though I wasn't about to sit down and pull off a book from the shelves, it was still a really great idea to see. So we were glad we went, but it was probably a bit wasted on us.

After that we wanted a quick bite and the museum lady mentioned an Udon shop. Noodles? I'm sold! this is a cafeteria style place where you order your basic noodle dish (hot or cold), and then you can pick up your own tempura or other accessories for your meal along the way before paying. A very handy system and a cheap meal that was tasty!

From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

And that was our morning (into early afternoon). After food we returned to the hotel for a quick rest and putting our feet up. Then we started Part 2 of Day 2.

But let's go back to Sunday night... when we first arrived at our hotel, our hostess immediately told us that the annual performances of the geisha going on this week, and the Gion area (where we're staying and a most famous of districts) was having performances this week. She asked if we wanted tickets and we jumped at the chance to see this famous art form from these amazing women. Well today was the day!

In fact, those from Kyoto are actually called Geiko (not Geisha) and their apprentices are called Maiko. They both have painted white faces and red lips and other red makeup as well as gorgeous kimono and amazing hairstyles. But the Maiko have the extra decoration in their hair, longer sleeves, more decoration in the kimono, some exposed color on the back of their neck, and a lot of youthful exuberance.

My mom and I arrived at the Gion Kobu Kabukai for the "Onshukai in Gion Kobu" performance and I immediately felt underdressed. In addition to the geiko all dressed up as we were walking in, there were plenty of other women in just-your-standard-dress-up kimono, and many gentlemen as well.

The walk over, through Gion, had busy streets with people getting to the performance:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

I snapped a couple of this lovely meiko in all of her decoration before entering the theater:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

In addition to feeling underdressed, my mom and I, two little Americans, appeared to be the only two foreigners in the audience. I'm sure there were Japanese tourists from outside of Kyoto, but we were the only westerners anywhere. Which was just as well as the program, tickets, and announcements were all in Japanese.

During the performance, the kimono designs, of so many colors and gorgeous decoration, and the many beautiful sets (though simple), made for an eyeful. Plus the decorated women with their hair and makeup... they were a sight to see. And don't forget the people watching in the audience as laypersons as well as other geisha watched the show!

Also amazing to watch were the accompanying women musicians. Several singers and several playing the shamisen. Truth be told, it was much like the stereotype of the shamisen (stringed instrument) and women making very strange singing sounds to tell a story, with the occasional hit of a drum and a deep voice yelling, "Ey-yooooo". Which, as it turns out, once you get used to it is very soothing and meditative. Almost a bit too meditative, my mom and I decided, because at 2.5 hours of performance, it was getting a bit difficult to stay alert during the longer numbers!

But the kimono design and the focus of the women made it worth it. We didn't even know the stories, but one could tell that a head tilt, a lifted arm, and the turn of a wrist meant something. And the use of fans and other accessories to accent the dance and story was lovely. Plus all of the colors and decoration. Just gorgeous!

And now's about the time when I would love to be posting pictures of the amazing performance of these women, with all of the slow and careful artistry in their dance. And pictures of the many musician women who accompanied the geiko and maiko. However, not a single person in the audience was taking a photo, so I took that to mean that either there was a rule against it written somewhere in Japanese, or else it was a cultural norm not to take photos. Either way, I wasn't going to break it. So, you'll just have to google search geisha dance to find some examples!

That said, I did get one shot of the stage, before the performance started:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

Once the performance finished, we wandered back across Gion, seeing a couple of the geisha run off into the night with some of the gentlemen. I did catch a quick shot:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

What we were really walking towards was the sushi restaurant recommended by our helpful hotel staff. They had also made reservations for us, and given the chef some specifics about things we liked because, we were told, they don't speak English. Fine enough with me! When it comes to sushi I don't care much.

We had to compare a photo to find the place, because it's not written up anywhere and has no English anywhere either. But we found it!
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

Upon entering Sato (the restaurant name and also the chef's last name), we were greeted by the nice waitress and showed to the sushi bar, which seats 8. There was only 1 other upon our arrival, and only had 3 people there when we left.

Sato-san immediately made us feel comfortable, speaking to us in enough English to welcome us and take our drink order. We got sake to start with. He was doing all of the sushi making directly in front of us, while his 2nd chef did the cooked dishes, tempura, and some other prep work off the the side. Watching such an experience chef and artist is well worth the price of admission, and then when you get to eat such amazing results... simply heaven!

To start with we had a "sesame tofu", which was a small tofu cake with a green swirl to it, topped with sesame paste and a little fresh wasabi (Sato-san was grating the wasabi root in front of us). This was super tasty, a little sweet, and had a texture similar to mochi. Yum.

Next up was a plate of sashimi. We had maguro [tuna], eel (lightly grilled and ribbon cut), and red snapper (I think? there were a couple of fishes we didn't know, even though Sato-san was kind enough to look up several foods in his dictionary to find the English word). In this group our favorite was the eel with some tasty sauce on it. Still, all of them were good.

After the sashimi appetizer, we had a full plate of many small dishes. There was a fresh soup with mushroom, some kind of fish, and ginkgo nut, an eggplant lightly pickled, barbecued barracuda (OMG this was AMAZING), abalone with tomato and mustard in an endive leave (also amazing), a whole chestnut roasted, edamame, some little bit of fish cake(? fish eggs? Still not sure what it was, but it was also tasty).

From the plate of many dishes we were on to tempura. Five pieces total, with a couple small bell peppers, and two tasty fish. The tempura batter was light and delicious and the pieces just melted in your mouth. One of the fish was red snapper and it was good. The other fish was... something that starts with a "b" that I had never heard of, but it was amazingly tasty and a really great treat.

Then, after all that, we actually got to sushi (nigiri, to be more specific). The chef put a tiny amount of soy sauce in a dish in front of us, and put the serving plate on top of the bar. Thank goodness I had learned about how eating sushi really works from Aki-san all those years ago! One by one, Sato-san served us each one piece of different fish, putting it on the serving plate, giving us time to eat it, and taking his time to make each one right. We had maguro (tuna), red snapper, squid, toro (tuna belly which is OMG good), egg omlette, mackerel, uni, unagi, salmon roe, and finally sea eel (so light and good).

And here's the thing. Those first many dishes are ones I'm always happy to eat and have no problem with. Squid isn't always good for me, but this one was velvety like I've never seen. Alright, I can live with that. But then he put down uni in front of us. Now I've tried uni multiple times in multiple states in the US, at some of the best sushi restaurants I've been to and never liked it even a little bit. But I was not about to refuse to try it from this amazing chef when we're sitting right in front of him for the whole meal. So I tried it. And it was absolutely delicious. It was smooth and light, not at all fishy, not at all stinky... just light and fresh and very good. Who knew! And the salmon roe was almost a similar experience, because it too usually means salty and bad texture to me, but this one was light and sweet and not at all fishy.

The final sea eal we had (anago... not the same fish as unagi) was also one of these bites of food that makes you glad to be alive. It was light and flavorful and sweet and just melted in my mouth.

As if all that weren't enough, we watched Sato-san prepare a lovely light dessert: asian pear, peeled plum, blueberry, and grapefruit jelly on top. It was very light and flavorful, and just the right thing to end the evening.

We paid our bill (which was an extravagence, but TOTALLY worth it), and my mom and I floated out onto the Kyoto alley, savoring the amazing experience.

Once again, however, you'll notice a lack of photos. We discussed it when we sat down and agreed that we'd rather savor the intimate experience rather than whipping out cameras. You'll just have to go there and try it out yourself!

On the final walk home, we went down my favorite street, yet again, and were able to see across the canal into some of the restaurants. We were fortunate enough to see even more geiko entertaining and I was able to get this one shot of her face:
From Kyoto Day 2 - Oct 4, 2011

It's an odd little world, but there's something so mesmerizing about it. Despite tales and possible historical happenings, geiko do do not sleep with the gentlemen they take care of, and are held in very high regard. They are also somewhat elusive to the general population, and we were very fortunate to get to see so many of them and also see them perform.

All in all, this was a pretty amazing day in Kyoto. I think it may have summed up the best of what Kyoto has to offer and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

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