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Kyoto

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Kyoto is the biggest tourist attraction in Japan. If you’re thinking of visiting you only need to see two cities to get a sense of the dual sides of Japanese culture. Tokyo represents everything modern, sleek, technological, otaku and inventive about Japan. It’s Japan as it is now. Kyoto is Japan as it was for nearly a thousand years, a city of temples, shrines, museums, historical sites, geisha, parades and festivals. It’s a time machine in city form where every corner you turn unveils yet another shrine, yet another icon of Japanese culture or of its refined past.

So of course it warrants not one but three whole flavours dedicated to it, flavours we’re going to discuss today.

Cinnamon Cookie

Well now, here we have a flavour I’m actually excited about for a change. These are based on Yatsuhashi, a kind of biscuit from Kyoto. I know them more as bridge cookies than cinnamon cookies but they are flavoured with cinnamon so that moniker is accurate at least. Why bridge cookies? Well they’re supposed to resemble one particular bridge in Kyoto due to their slightly humped shape. Although there is an image of these cookies on the packet it’s a bit small so here’s a picture.

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As you can see there is a slight bridge shape to these. Oh and here’s a bonus, they are AMAZING!

Cinnamon is one of my favourite things in the entire world and I am a sucker for any cinnamon flavoured treats. I particularly love Yatsuhashi, and one company in particularly that makes a set of them frosted with either chocolate, strawberry, or, best of all, green tea chocolate.

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If you ever find yourself in Kyoto and see that smiling face above BUY THEM! You will not regret it. Those biscuits are straight up divine! I mean if you can’t trust my opinion when it comes to biscuits whose can you?

I bought a packet every single time I went to Kyoto. In fact I’m not alone there. Pretty much every school kid in Japan has to visit Kyoto at least once because it has, oh, 70% of all the countries important historical artifacts and sites in one city. Similar to Washington D.C. for American kids except the Government these days is in Tokyo. And when those kids visit Kyoto they almost always buy some Yatsuhashi as their Omiyage.

Clearly nestle is enraged at losing this Omiyage battle and so, Yatsuhashi Kit-Kats.

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The packet is okay. There is one clever design element here which is that the red portions of the packet are not straight blocks. Instead they are slightly curved reflecting the curved nature of the biscuit, and the bridge. Beyond that it’s a simple, handsome black and red design with a picture of a Yatsuhashi. It’s still too cluttered but it’s better than some other efforts.

How do they taste?

Well firstly they smell of cinnamon and whilst we have white chocolate it’s speckled with what is either genuine Yatsuhashi fragments or cinnamon fragments. Either way my anticipation is building.

Oh that, that is damn good.

Give me a moment people.

Awwww, awww yeah.

Well, these are delicious.

I’m a little biased on this one. I love cinnamon, I love Yatsuhashi and this tastes exactly like Yatsuhashi. I was always going to like them if they taste like Yatsuhashi. Actually, even better, it tastes like the chocolate covered Yatsuhashi I used to buy. The fragments of actual Yatsuhashi baked into the Kit-Kat chocolate carry all the taste and some of the texture. The rest of the texture is in the chocolate, the wafer is totally lost and really resembles a biscuit more than a Kit-Kat. It isn’t too sweet, it isn’t too sour, it isn’t waxy, and it isn’t soapy. It isn’t really like a Kit-Kat at all really but it is oh so very good. The main taste you get is a sweetened cinnamon with all the complexity that spice can provide really so you get sharp spicy notes, brown sugar notes and deep nutty notes. It’s a rich flavour that hits all the parts of your mouth.

Ultimately it’s a cinnamon biscuit though. Now that happens to be one of my favourite things in the world, your mileage may vary but I’m calling it now, this is my favourite Kit-Kat.

Yep, historic day guys. Note it down, Kit-Kat reviewing has reached its apex, I have found the greatest Kit-Kat.

Shame I only get two in this box.

Matcha Green Tea

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The Ur, the platonic ideal, the number one Kit-Kat somebody thinks of when discussing japan is of course the green tea Kit-Kat. Specifically Matcha green tea, a kind of green tea powder that is incredibly bitter.

I have written about some green tea variant dozens of times as nestle seems to keep trying to reinvent the wheel with it. Green tea tiramisu, fluffy green tea, green tea for adults, etc. But this one here is the original green tea kit-Kat, the daddy of them all.

It’s a shame then that the packaging is a big let-down. Although it goes the smarter route of using an asymmetric design it wastes most of its space with a big old slab of pale green colour. I’d forgive it if Matcha was a pale green colour but it isn’t Matcha is deeply vibrantly green. It’s green like a crayon or a yucca plant, not green like pea soup or a hospital wall and this Kit-Kat by far resembles the latter.

Frankly that pale institutional green colour always conjures up vision of hospitals and dentists for me so it isn’t exactly selling me the flavour here.

Although the Kat itself is worse as they’ve coloured it the green of a very ill person’s stool. This is diarrhoea green. Food should not be this colour. Well, not when you eat it anyway. It does smell nice though. Although faint it has a nice clean refreshing smell that does strongly resemble Matcha.

And it eats just fine. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more. Real Matcha tastes of very little except bitter and the trick with it is to pair it with something sweet to cut the bitterness and release the refreshing tea flavour. Kit-Kat side steps this by adding sugar and making it taste sweet to begin with. That means you mostly have sweet nothingness and a slight tea flavour. It’s waxy but creamy and probably too sweet. It also has a horrible aftertaste similar to what you get with artificial sweeteners. But it does kind of work, it’s not bad whilst you eat it and it does pair quite well with some real tea since it is so sweet.

Our final Kyoto flavour is

Hojicha,

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a kind of green tea that is roasted to turn the leaves brown making it similar to a black tea but with less caffeine. I’ve never actually heard of Hojicha and apparently it is a relatively modern invention created in Kyoto in the 1930’s. Sadly it’s slipped under my radar as I do like the sound of it. Consequently I can’t tell you if this Kit-Kat tastes like Hojicha, just whether it tastes nice or not.

The packet is similar to the green tea, asymmetric but with a big old slab of pale yellow nothing for much of the wrapper. It does one up the green tea as it doesn’t put me in mind of a hospital and it also has a nice detailing on the left side of a rose, evocative of an old fashioned tea room.

 

Well, if the last Kat was ill person’s shit coloured this is just straight up regular shit coloured. Honestly I have to take a photo of this to share it with you all.

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My photography skills can’t really capture the awfulness of it. That is not an attractive colour for a chocolate bar, or indeed anything. Avoid pale browns guys, it isn’t a good look.

It also lies and makes you think you’re getting real chocolate but nope, brown coloured white chocolate. Brown, coloured, white, chocolate. That’s just evil Nestle.

It has no smell at all and a taste that is hard to place and hard to describe. It’s not as sweet as Matcha and actually tastes more like green tea than Matcha does with a much more consistent tea flavour throughout. But there are other flavours in here too. There’s a kind of burnt flavour, particularly in the after taste and something I can only describe as tasting the way rotting leaves smell. That’s not entirely unpleasant despite the metaphor I chose in fact it’s distinctly autumnal.

I like this a lot more than the Matcha and its worth comparing them since they are very similar in taste except this is a touch less sweet, a touch stronger in the tea aromas and also has that added extra something that I’m struggling to place. It has a horrendous after taste though, not only do you get the sweet artificial sweetener taste but a taste of burnt that sits in there for ages. It kind of spoils the rest of the biscuit, fortunately that just means it pairs well with a mug of tea, or indeed some Hojicha I’d assume.

Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is one of the shrines I have most wanted to visit since I arrived in Japan.

You may know it from its appearance in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” where it played the part of a shrine with thousands of torii gates snaking up and down a mountainside. Also it had a cameo role in Seven Samurai as a villager and I think it might be showing up in the re-make of Duel.

Seriously though; it is a breathtakingly beautiful place.

Fushimi Inari is famous for two things. Torii gates and foxes. In fact this is where the name “inari” comes from. Inari is a kind of fried tofu which apparently is beloved of Japanese foxes. I’m not sure why as foxes are carnivores but I’m chalking that one up to the “don’t attempt to understand the Japanese” pile.

The Fushimi part of the name is in dedication to a Japanese goddess of grain. Consequently not only is the shrine complex dotted with thousands upon thousands of torii gates but also thousands of foxes, mostly in pairs with one holding some grain in his mouth and the other holding the key to the granary.

Japanese foxes, or kitsune, are said to have a number of magical powers. As they get older their tail splits into two, three, and eventually nine separate tails. A 9 tailed fox is a powerful demon indeed (as any fan of Naruto knows) but even a regular fox is fond of disguising herself as a human woman, marrying a human man, carrying his child to term and then buggering off again to go be a fox and leave him holding the baby.

Yet they are simultaneously venerated as guardian spirits. Another one for the “I don’t really understand Japan” pile.

My parents and I arrived in Fushimi early of the morning of my birthday! Straight away I got a little birthday treat as the shrine was in the midst of performing a ceremony.

There was much drumming chanting and playing of instruments and a complicated dance involving ribbons and sticks. It was all very professionally done with smooth confident movements but, well, it wasn’t really my cup of tea. It is always nice to see a shrine actually do something though. Far too often they are simply interesting buildings with very tacky shops attached. I like my ancient religions to have a bit of ceremony to them you know; particularly if they feature ridiculous costumes and very ridiculous hats.

Our morning dancing completed we set off up the mountain to begin our hike.

And what a hike!

Seriously, Fushimi is a simply amazing place to go for a walk. The forest alone is a perfect setting for a stroll. Tall, imposing, old trees grow very close to each other so very quickly you seem cut off from the world and wander into somewhere that feels more natural, more ancient, more dangerous and even a little bit magical.  

The thousands of torii doubtless help in creating this impression too. The contrast between these shiny bright orange gates and the greens and browns of the forest could not be more striking. Yet, they seem to fit perfectly into the setting. Maybe it is a feature of the architecture but rather than sticking out like a sore thumb the gates seem like they are naturally suited to the forest. They enhance the feeling of wandering backwards in time, of venturing into historical Japan.

They also seem to evoke an otherworldly, mystical feeling. Glimpsing patches of bright orange in the trees up ahead can cause your breath to catch. Perhaps it is because they are gates that they suggest this dreamlike quality, for gates suggest entering somewhere different and if you wander under a thousand gates you must be wandering through a thousand different tiny worlds.

On a more practical level they also make it really easy to plot a path through the mountain trails, and although the sun was beating down very hard for an April day they also provided a lot of shade for the weary traveller.

I have no idea what impulse caused the priests of Fushimi to erect so many torii gates but I thank them for it because it has helped to construct one of the most pleasant walks I have ever done.

The gates are all donations from people. On the right hand side of the gate the date it was installed is written in Kanji. On the left hand side is the name of the donor and sometimes a small dedication. Most of these names are in Kanji so I couldn’t tell you what kinds of people donate the torii gates but a few were in Katakana (mostly foreign names) and even some Romaji.

Some of the smaller temples in the complex also had cool things to donate. A common feature of Japanese shrines are wooden panels that you can buy, write a wish or an inscription on and then tie to a gate to make your wish come true. At Fushimi they had small replica torii gates for the same purpose.

They also had wooden panels shaped like foxes and people seemed to have taken the opportunity to draw a picture rather than make a wish. Amongst some of the offerings were:

a creepy eye fox

a hairy monster fox

a too cool for school fox

a dorae-fox

and my favourite, a Gundam fox.

Fushimi is more of a shrine complex than one dedicated shrine with many smaller ones dotted all around the mountain. One of the more diverting ones offered a chance to lift one of the holy stones. Apparently they weigh as much as your sins. I can report that may rock was not too heavy to lift but heavy enough that I wouldn’t want to carry it back from the supermarket.

Although I’ve done much worse hikes in Japan it was pretty hard going for my Dad as he had recently injured his knee. Stairs were a particular problem for him and Fushimi had an endless supply of them. Worse, they didn’t just go up and up but tried to trick us by going up until to plunge down for a bit and suddenly go up again. Consequently it took us the whole morning to reach the top where we stopped for a lunch in one of only about two options for food on the entire mountain.

This was unheard of! It is nigh on impossible to go more than 30 yards in Japan without being offered food, what was a touristy place like Fushimi playing at.

Regardless we were grateful for our pretty terrible soba noodles but more grateful for the restaurants wonderful view which took in pretty much the whole of Kyoto.

Once you reach the top there is a circular walk around the top of the mountain before you have to trek back down again. This was more of the same but since same in this instance meant a really enjoyable beautiful trek we weren’t complaining.

We made it down the mountain much quicker than our ascent and went home to get all ready for my birthday party.

Which, sadly, dear reader is a secret from you. Suffice it to say it was very nice to see my family again after nearly two years apart and wonderful to spend my birthday with them.

Next time we’re going to take a break from all this touristy stuff to talk about the real meat and potatoes of this blog. Kit-Kat reviews.

 

Lonely Planet Guidebook 10th edition 2007 has a section in the very front of it giving a list of all the things that one should do in Japan.

Quite a lot of this is stuff that I have already covered on this blog (Tsukiji Fish Market, Sumo Wrestling, Eating vast quantities, staying in a Ryokan) whilst some of it is stuff you couldn’t pay me to do (hike the Japanese Alps, what am I a masochist?).

The very first thing, the number one thing listed in this section is see the temples, gardens and shrines of Kyoto.

And the picture they use is of the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-Ji.

Which would be this.

I don’t know about the number one must see attraction in the whole of Japan but i7ll grant them this. It is very pretty.

You want background, nicked from Wikipedia? You got it.
Kinkaku-Ji (金閣寺, Kinkaku-Ji?) or “Golden Pavilion Temple” is the informal name of Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, Rokuon-ji?) or “Deer Garden Temple” in Kyoto, Japan. It was originally built in 1397 to serve as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as part of his estate then known as Kitayama.[1] It was his son who converted the building into a Zen temple of the Rinzai school. The temple was burned down twice during the Ōnin War.

What’s more not only has it been burned down twice wartime it was also nearly burnt down a third time in the 50’s.
On July 2nd, 1950 at 2:30 am, the pavilion was burned down by a monk named Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He survived, and was subsequently taken into custody. During the investigation after the monk’s arrest, his mother was called in to talk with the police; on her way home, she committed suicide by jumping from her train into a river valley. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released because of mental illness on September 29th, 1955; he died of other illnesses shortly after in 1956. At that time, the statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was burned. A fictionalized version of these events is at the centre of Yukio Mishima’s 1956 book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

What is it about Kinkaku-Ji that seems to invite fire?

Ah, it might be the phoenix statue on the roof. Beautiful and renowned building keeps being burnt down only to rise again in golden colours. Yeah, that’s pretty thematically appropriate but it may tempt fate just a wee bit.

Kinkaku-Ji almost takes you by surprise the first time you see it. When approaching the temple from the bus stop you have to wander through a thoroughly modern Japanese city of concrete, buses and breezeblocks. Even once you reach the entrance and start walking through gardens the actual building itself is completely out of sight. So you start walking through the hedges when suddenly you turn a corner and…

…this greets you. A golden building. A building, covered from top to bottom in gold leaf. That can’t possibly be real right? Golden houses are for fairytales or cartoons. How can you possibly be looking at something covered in gold?! It is obscene in its opulence. It is surreal, it is otherworldly! It doesn’t belong here! How is it you have magically wandered into a fairytale?

And then you notice that there are really quite a lot of tourists here and the illusion is shattered. Obviously you are in modern Japan still. You haven’t stepped 600 years back in time and into some kind of fantasy world you are still in modern Japan. Overcrowded, cramped and hectic Japan.

And yet a Japan that, for all its problems with over crowding, with pushy tourists taking hundreds of photos, with the commercialisation of everything that can be seen, is still capable of preserving this piece of a magical otherworld for 600 years.

That there is a very pretty building.

Like all the finest examples of Japanese architecture it isn’t just the building itself that is so appealing (Though it is pretty impressive nonetheless. It’s covered in real gold!) but rather the way in which it harmonises with the natural world around it. From every viewpoint Kinkaku-Ji is offset by a background of green which compliments the golden colour. Though it is striking it isn’t gaudy, as something covered in gold leaf easily could be, instead it seems to enhance the natural setting behind it in the same way that the setting enhances it.

The reflecting pool is a particularly nice touch, giving a light source to brighten up the golden shine and giving you a reflection that provides two golden pavilions for the price of one.

The grounds around Kinkaku-Ji are really nice as well, very leafy and providing some great shade from the horrible Japanese sun. There is a hill behind the pavilion which provides a nice view of Kinkaku-Ji from the top and some quite spectacular examples of trained trees.

This was a fun little touch too, a kind of early Buddhist skill game. Standing from the path people have to try and throw 5yen coins (which have a hole in them and so are lucky) so that they land in the bowl thus granting good luck and a wish fulfilled. I managed it with not too much effort but Fran had to use every coin she had in her purse before she finally got one in.

We spent much of the time there looking at a Kingfisher we had spotted flying around the rear of the reflecting pool. Kingfishers are one of my favourite birds because they have absolutely stunning plumage. I didn’t even know they had them in Japan but it seemed very fitting for one to live near such a spectacularly plumaged building.

One final thing to note about Kinkaku-Ji is that the gardens, like many other Japanese gardens, make good use of moss. Grass doesn’t really grow in Japan. It is here but it’s only here in scattered places (and of course as bamboo). Being British I am used to grass being EVERYWHERE. One cannot walk 15 feet in England without coming across of some sort in some place. It is the greenest country in the whole world.

Japan doesn’t have grass, so they use moss. This is also very handsome and has a wonderful smell too.

Gold and gardened out we set off for our next destination and on the way were waylaid by the sudden need for lunch.

We ended up eating in a kaitenzushi or “conveyor belt” sushi restaurant.

For those that don’t know how this works (although most of you should have some idea) this a restaurant which has a long conveyor belt wandering through it, usually in a big circle but sometimes in more elaborate shapes, on which small plates of sushi and other foods move by. Diners sit at tables next to the conveyor belt, pick the dishes they want to eat off the conveyor belt as they pass and pay at the end based on how many plates there are on the table.

There is a kaitenzushi place in Kobe that I go to fairly frequently which is typical of the style. Plates are different colours for various prices and things like drinks or special sushi have to be specially ordered from a waitress.

The place we went to in Kyoto though is the most automated restaurant I have ever seen. To begin with there is a machine that allows you to book (from your phone if you so choose) automatically and receive a table number without speaking to a waitress. Sadly we didn’t understand this so one of the staff had to help us out.

Then in addition to the standard conveyor belt set up our table also had a small computer on which special orders could be placed directly and charged to the table.

And there was more than just sushi going round too. You could order ramen, ice cream, fruit, bowls of rice, pretty much anything and it would soon come speeding towards you on a conveyor belt. The computer even set off an alarm when your order was starting to get near to you.

As for the drinks? Why that was the most joyous of all. It necessitated standing up but after that you walk over to a machine, insert 500yen and then, well, this happens.

A beer machine!

I want one!

The sushi was not the best quality in the world but it was dirt cheap and a huge amount of fun. In 30 years all food will be served this way. I guarantee it*

*please note I do not guarantee it.

Bellies full of fish and rice we set forth for Ryoan-Ji.

You want more background from Wikipedia? I am happy to oblige.
Ryoan-Ji (Shinjitai: 竜安寺, Kyūjitai: 龍安寺?, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is a Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto, Japan. Belonging to the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, the temple is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The site of the temple was originally a Fujiwara family estate. It eventually came into the hands of the Hosokawa clan branch of the Fujiwaras. Hosokawa Katsumoto inherited the residence, and lived here before the Ōnin War. Katsumoto willed the war-ravaged property to be converted into a Zen sect temple complex after his death. Later Hosokawa emperors are grouped together in what are today known as the “Seven Imperial Tombs” at Ryoan-ji. The burial places of these emperors — Uda, Kazan, Ichijō, Go-Suzaku, Go-Reizei, Go-Sanjō, and Horikawa — would have been comparatively humble in the period after their deaths. These tombs reached their present state as a result of the 19th century restoration of imperial sepulchres (misasagi) which were ordered by Emperor Meiji.

Essentially the temple has one main draw and that was what we had come to see. The “Dry Landscape” or rock garden.

This is a garden consisting of 15 rocks surrounded by raked gravel. The rocks are positioned such that all 15 cannot be seen at any one time from any one angle. Popular tradition holds that only once enlightenment is attained will the 15th rock become clear.

Alternatively a tall man could stand at the far right back on tip toes and do it too but that is cheating a little bit.

Whilst my father went to take photos Fran, myself and my brother sat down cross legged to observe the rocks and contemplate enlightenment. We had a great time coming up with possible meanings for the arrangement. Did they present a tiger crossing water? The futility of trying to know everything? A mother tending to a group of children? Obviously they were all these things and none.

And there is something genuinely peaceful about the sitting and contemplating. I’ve always quite liked Zen actually and the notion of concentrating your mind on a question to which there cannot be an answer. It is tremendously relaxing.

Sadly our inner peace was shattered by the absolute horde of tourists who had chosen to share this day with us to come visit the temple. One very tall German man who kept shoving me particularly sticks out in my memory. In fact it wasn’t too long before inner peace began to mutate into barely contained hostility. Possibly I need my own rocks and to do a bit more sitting and thinking.

We finished off this particular trip to Kyoto with some ramen and a trip to the top of the train station to admire the night view of the city.

For all these articles and posts about Kyoto I have barely scratched the surface of everything that there is to do there. Hell I haven’t even been to Arashiyama yet which is one of the more famous and popular areas.

In fact next time we shall also be heading back to Kyoto when we go to visit Fushimi Inari.

Most people who come to Japan list “experiencing the culture” as one of the major reasons that they made the trip, be it a holiday or a longer stay. For the vast majority of cultural tourists all this amounts to is eating the food, watching a dance/traditional theatrical performance and touring the temples of Kyoto.

Truly immersing yourself into Japanese culture is an incredibly difficult goal. Numerous obstacles stand in the way of the foreigner who wants to understand some Japanese art. Value and ideological differences, language barriers and the major problem of simply finding out where and how one can learn these things all prove a barrier to the eager student of Japanese culture.

Put simply, it takes a lot of effort to try and learn and take part in tea ceremony, calligraphy, etc and frankly most of the time I can’t be arsed.

However, this weekend I indulged in my most intensive session of cultural tourism yet as I attended a festival of Japanese culture in Kyoto.

My opening diatribe aside this wasn’t really an opportunity to truly immerse myself into a Japanese art form; rather it was a sampler session. Lots of stalls were set up to give we gaijin a chance to try out calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana, etc for a few minutes and see if we had any interest. It was to cultural tourism what a free sample in a supermarket is to a gourmet meal. The speed dating of Japanese culture. Still I had a great time, whiling away a few hours playing games and having fun and I figured I’d relate my hastily-formed opinions of what I did.

Shodo

Shodo is Japanese calligraphy, the art of drawing kanji (Chinese characters) in ink with brushes so that they look astonishingly beautiful.

If I may I’d like to go into a tangent about Kanji.

For those who don’t know Japanese uses three written alphabets. Hiragana あいうえお、 Katakana アイウエオ and Kanji, which are incredibly elaborate pictograms. Whilst the first two function similarly to our alphabet so that a ka sound is always か and か always means ka Kanji works so that symbols mean words. Thus the kanji 来 can be pronounced both rai or ashi depending on the other Kanji around it and the context it is used.

The usefulness and importance of Kanji is currently undergoing something of a debate in Japan in part because the present Prime Minister can barely read it and increasingly young Japanese people cannot use Kanji as effectively as their parents. This is almost universally regarded as an immense shame as the Japanese take huge pride in their culture and how their culture has been maintained throughout the years.

Critics of Kanji site more practical objections to it. It is enormously difficult to learn, both for native speakers and for foreigners trying to learn the language. The difficulty in using it lowers literacy levels amongst Japanese. The changing meaning of certain characters can cause confusion and misunderstanding. It is slow to adapt to the changing world (nearly all modern inventions are rendered into Japanese using katakana, the alphabet reserved for foreign loan words, and so have no appropriate Kanji). Finally it makes using dictionaries very difficult and until recently typing impossible.

Defenders have to fall back on more ephemeral but no less compelling reasons for maintaining Kanji. It looks beautiful. It provides a link to Japan’s proud cultural history. It is crucial to Japanese literature. It provides for layers of meaning and subtlety that more plain spoken language cannot; including the creation of all kinds of puns that the Japanese love so much. And the fact that it is difficult and requires thought and study is sometimes perceived as a good thing. The thinking is that if writing is to have any value at all it must be worth expending effort upon.

And both sides are right. For all that it is difficult and ill-conceived Kanji is beautiful, subtle and deep. I am currently trying to learn Kanji and whilst I am constantly frustrated by it I am equally as rewarded.

So shodo then. Shodo demonstrates the sheer respect and reverence that the Japanese have for their language, and for art in general. Shodo is the correct way to write a kanji, on a sheet of beautiful paper, with a brush and ink. The Japanese love a “correct” way to do something and shodo is so respected that it is even taught as a subject in schools.

My attempt at it was not quite the graceful and poetic painting I had imagined. I sat myself down at the desk, selected a kanji I wished to write (love 愛) and attempted to replicate it on the paper in front of me. Now, I perhaps naively assumed that what I did with my brush would in some way resemble what had been drawn on the paper in front of me forgetting for a moment that I lack even the most rudimentary of artistic skills. I can’t even hold a pencil correctly, let alone use it to try and capture the world. My special skill with drawing appears to be completely misjudging the proportions and distances of objects and producing people with differently sized eyes and noses far too small for their heads. Considering shodo, and kanji in general, is mostly about the correct positions of strokes and lines in relation to each other I was probably being a bit optimistic to think that I would have any talent at this whatsoever.

The instructor obviously agreed and decided to come over, teach me how to hold the brush (you keep your wrist straight and move only your arm apparently) and then manually force my arm around the picture. He seemed to think I would be happy with this but I wanted to try and do it on my own. So I had another go and produced something that in no way matched the order or directions of the strokes he did and looked rubbish. After some discussion I finally got him to write the direction and stroke order down so I had something to work with. I then tried again and again and again to produce something that vaguely resembled love and eventually ended up with this.

Hmmmm, I think I have a lot of work to do.

During all this a very nice woman drew my own name in Kanji. This doesn’t strictly speaking work for foreign names as the syllables don’t translate but she had a crack at doing a-da-mu (アダム) and came up with this.

Which apparently means love, realize, dream.

Although I was crap at it I really enjoyed the shodo. It was relaxing to just try and focus on achieving something so exact. There was a kind of meditative quality to the act.

Ikebana

Fran’s mother teaches ikebana. Being a man I gave traditional Japanese flower arranging a miss but Fran had a go. She reported that it all felt a bit rushed but she managed to make this.

I do like ikebana actually. I prefer the more minimalist Japanese style of home decoration and gardening to the overblown stuff that is more western.

Wearing Kimonos

I’ve worn Yukata before and this seemed to be identical to that but with a proper obi (belt). I think the girls enjoyed it much more than I did.

The Fan Game

Throwing fans at a small target on a pedestal.

Although there were dozens of ways to move the target and thus score points all of them were dependant on you actually hitting the target; something that I saw not one single person do. I managed to hit the pedestal a few times but no luck.

Tea Ceremony

I mentioned above that the Japanese people love a correct way to do something. A formalized order for an activity, but drinking tea?

The Tea Ceremony is probably one of the more famous examples of Japanese art since it seems so bizarre. It is easy for us to grasp how drawing or flower arranging can be construed as an art but the drinking of tea seems a little stranger. Surely you just drink it?

Well no. Instead you prepare it and drink it in a manner which is so incredibly formalized that it becomes a kind of seated dance. The woman running the stall, clad in a gorgeous kimono, served the tea and so did most of the work but even we gaijin had a role to do.

The exact steps were very fiddly and I can’t remember them all but it basically boiled down to this:

. pour hot water into cup
. use tea brush to whisk it round
. empty cup and wipe with a cloth
. spoon matcha powder into cup
. add hot water
. use tea brush to mix the powder and hot water into a lather
. hand to first drinker
. drinker turns the bowl three time so that the front is not facing them
. drinker takes at least 3 sips and downs their cup
. drinker turns it three times the opposite direction and then gives the cup back to the host

However it was much, much more intricate than that. The woman serving was very careful with the position of the scoop for hot water, lids, cups and other paraphernalia which all had to be in a set place at every stage. She also had an incredibly complicated way of folding a cloth over to hold each item before she picked it up.

The matcha itself was much nicer than any I have had before. Much weaker and less bitter. As is customary we enjoyed our tea with a Japanese sweet, a daifuku.

The formalisation and pattern is intended to promote focus. The tea ceremony should be done in a natural setting and is usually accompanied by attempts at composing haiku. Effectively it serves as another form of meditation. Providing mental focus to help enhance the appreciation of the natural scenery; this then can be channelled into a creative activity like haiku or shodo, themselves both simply ways of meditating nature.

Incense Game

Finally we had a go at a smelling game. The leader of this stall prepared three traditional incense scents; moon, flower and snow. We each smelled them and held them in the traditionally accepted fashion (again there is a formal pattern to even how one is meant to smell incense. The holder then gave us a small mystery pouch containing one of the scents and we had to identify which one it was. Sadly nobody playing at the same time as me successfully identified what the scent was, oops.

Although I take solace in the fact that the woman running it described me as a “cool type.”

There were various other stalls there too but frankly these were the only ones that really were worth mentioning.

In conclusion I don’t know if I gained any new startling insights into Japanese culture but I did while away a few hours happily, and frankly that’ll do.

Hello again tonight I aim to finish up my talk about Kyoto.

But first.

BLOODY HELL THERE WAS AN EARTHQUAKE LAST NIGHT!

Alright fair game, it was a piddly little earthquake. It was a 4 on the ricter scale. To put that in perspective the earthquake in Lincolnshire earlier this year was a 5.0 on the ricter scale. The only damage I know was that my friend Laura’s chair fell over.

I mention it mostly because I’m annoyed. You see I slept through the whole bloody thing. This means I have slept through an earthquake and a hurricane and walked through a bloody tornado without noticing any unusual conditions at all. I’m a bit like Mr Magoo, blindly stumbling through a world of disasters.

Anyway Kyoto.

Finishing up at Kiyomizu-dera me and Fran went into the main temple hall and onto the veranda to look at the views. Both Fran and myself have seen the temple hall before and it is largely unimpressive compared to some of the ones I have seen so it didn’t really draw much interest.

By far the most memorable part of the entire hall was this little chap, a picture I took on my last visit.

Isn’t he just adorable. Ah Japan, sometimes you’re so deliciously oblivious you make me smile. Actually he reminds me of Mr Popo from Dragonball.

Although apparently he isn’t even meant to be a black person. He’s modelled on one of the ancient Japanese deities, the one that’s in charge of wealth I think.

Leaving the temple we nipped into one of the tents at the approach to the temple and had some lunch. This was easily the classiest tent I have ever eaten in. For starters we had to sit on tatami in the Japanese sitting position (you know the one, on your knees with your bum on your heels). I had soba (buckwheat noodles) and Fran had udon (wheat noodles) and we both split some tofu.

Now a lot of people badmouth tofu and I’m here to defend it. Tofu is bland and flavourless, yes, I agree but that isn’t the point. It’s healthy and a good source of protein and has an interesting and delightful texture. You add flavour to it. It’s basically savoury jelly. Jelly is flavourless too until you add fruit but nobody ever complains about jelly. Well actually I do, never really did like it, or custard, or cream and I’m indifferent to sponge. In fact when it comes to desserts you could say I’m a trifle picky.

Anyway this particular tofu was great. It was served in a bucket of hot water. You sieved the tofu out of the water and put it into a bowl containing soy sauce, chilli powder and sliced welsh onions (negi). Good eating, actually it’s one of my favourite snacks.

Having gathered sustenance we had a flick through our lonely planet guide to decide where to head next and chanced upon a walking tour included in the newest edition. This promised to take us down some odd, old and interesting streets. Being a fan of winding ancient alleyways I jumped at the prospect and off we set. First stop teapot lane.

Teapot lane is so called because of the vast numbers of potters plying their wares along it. The entire street is given over to touristy shops but classy touristy shops. Cheap tat (which I am not criticising at all because Japan has the best and most interesting tat in the world) was prevalent on the parallel road but teapot lane is full of artworks, expensive but gorgeous teapots and cups, beautiful delicate fans, Yukata and all the other delicate works of art that people associate with Japan. It’s a fantastic place to wander and window shop and Fran was instantly taken with it.

We followed the advice of the guidebook and turned off teapot lane heading towards Maruyama-koen, a park which is famous in the whole of Japan for it’s sakura. The street we were headed down was amazing my dream Japanese street. Thin, crowded, twisty with ornate slated roofs overhanging into the street and everywhere dotted with sakura. Furthermore the shops continued in the same vein as teapot lane, quirky and very, very Japanese. It was bliss to stroll down it and it was very nearly perfect.

Then it got perfect.

As we started to reach Gion we spotted two geisha wandering down the street and after seeing a young Japanese couple get their photo taken with tme Fran plucked up the courage to do the same.

Geisha, sakura, slate roofs, twisty alleys, beautiful pots and a lovely sunny spring day. Perfect.

We paused in our advance to nip into a tearoom and partake of a parfait. A complex Japanese sundae-esque desert. Mine consisted of green tea ice-cream, milk ice-cream, anko (sort of a sweet kidney bean), brown sugar ice-cream, cinnamon biscuits, pudding and warabimochi. I removed the pudding (crème caramel, see “a trifle picky”) and dug in.

Mochi is a very, very sticky dumpling like confection made with pounded rice. Warabimochi was advertised as being “bracken mochi” which intrigued me. What it actually was, was bland jelly. I ate it but I wasn’t happy. The rest of the pudding was delicious though. Green tea ice cream is slightly bitter but fantastically refreshing, milk and anko are a nigh on perfect combination and I would kill for those biscuits again, particularly covered in brown sugar ice-cream.

Japanese people love their sweets, I love certain sweets but it seems that may tastes do not match up with those of the Japanese people. So until then I had never happily eaten a dessert in a Japanese restaurant. But, MY SWEET GOD was that pudding nice.

We ate happily, drank tea, people watched the young girls wandewring by in yukata and spotted more Geisha than I have ever before seen in my life.

Further sated we continued to amble through glorious scenery and eventually made our way to Maruyama-koen.

Hanami can be done in two fashions, we were trying to accomplish both in one day. The first is to amble along lanes underneath sakura looking at the trees. The second and more popular is to find a park and picnic in it sat underneath a sakura tree. And by picnic I mean drink copiously.

Maruyama-koen was packed by the time we got there, absolutely full to bursting with Japanese people of all ages partying wildly. Sitting, dancing, singing, running, playing games. Seldom have I ever seen a Japanese crowd so relaxed and free. Some students had set-up a mixing desk and some speakers and were running an impromptu disco. Well they were, until the police shut them down. Their fun and infectious tracks were then replaced with the same students singing (well, making a sort of noise anyway, an animalistic one) loudly to inaudible songs and inentionally badly, and off key. Nice one mister policeman, this is so much preferable than the music.

We made a circuit of the park to take a photo of the famous “weeping” sakura tree in the centre of the park and then headed off to go get food, drink and join in. Having procured some beers, chu-hi and tako-yaki we started looking for somewhere to sit. There were tarps everywhere but there were also people sitting on tatami and piles of tatami everywhere. I went to grab some tatami and was shouted at by a man.

“hey, hey you have to rent that.”

“oh, never mind.”

Sadly we were on a time-limit to get home and I wasn’t going to rent a tatami for an hour so I put it back.

He then started speaking in Japanese which Fran tried to translate. The gist of it seemed to be that he was inviting us over. We went over to see him and he explained that he rents the tatami and he was inviting us to use some of his for free.

So we sat and chatted (alas awkwardly) and generally had a pretty nice time. He and his friends gave us some free umeshu (a sort of plum wine/liqueur which you drink diluted in summer. It is delicious and Fran is mildly addicted). He also gave us free peanuts despite me explaining repeatedly that I a) had some takoyaki and b) didn’t really like peanuts. I ate some anyway to make him happy.

They were really, really nice people and I wish I could have stayed all night drinking and chatting. The whole thing reminded me of being a student, going to the green festival and just spending a day in a park getting hammered without a care in the world. But we were on a time limit, I had work the next day (in fact I needed to try and get back home before the dry cleaners closed so that I could retrieve my suit) and we needed to get a train back from Kyoto.

Before we left we were treated to one final absolutely magical sight.

I can honestly say that bar some of the stress of trying to get a train home in time (we didn’t manage it in the end and had to get a friend to pick up my laundry) this was one of the best days of my entire life. I will remember it fondly.

Hello again. I hope you like sakura because today’s post is absolutely filled with it. As indeed was Kyoto last weekend.

Ah Kyoto. In my view there’s no city quite like it. Where else can you find a city so large bustling and vibrant and yet so densely populated by interesting historical features. London or Paris may have more attractions and sights all together but they can’t match the way that shrines and temples seem to leap out at you from every corner, the way that you can’t go more than twenty yards without seeing something ancient or scared or both or how you can be in a modern convenience store, step out, turn left and be confronted by an image straight out of pre-meiji-era Japan. Truly it’s one of the best places to be a tourist in the world.

And just to make it even better I was not travelling alone but was, for a change, accompanied by my wonderful and patient girlfriend Fran. During my first couple of weeks in Japan I basically spent all my time wandering around going “oh Fran would love this” or “I can’t wait to show this to Fran” or variations on that theme. Now I finally had a chance to introduce Fran to my Japan. Oddly however I opted to start with something she’d already seen, Kiyomizu-dera. But while Fran had visited this temple before she hadn’t visited it when the sakura was in bloom and that made all the difference.

You might notice that some of the photos in this post are, well good. Rest assured my photographic skills have not miraculously improved overnight and no deals with the devil have been struck. Instead the good photos can be attributed to Fran who will hopefully be sparing you all my amateurish attempts in future. Not entirely alas but at least your eyes will be spared some of the torment I refer to as photography.

Anyway, enough pre-amble. What did we do?

We set forth first by train to Kyoto station and then by foot in the general direction of away from Kyoto station and uphill. This strategy was largely working for us until Fran became intrigued by some “pretty sakura” and we had to be diverted from our path to wander into a smaller temple to look at the sakura.

I have no idea what this temple was called but it was absolutely packed! The main garden in the centre was absolutely full of middle-aged Japanese people and off to the side there was a building that seemed to be some kind of museum. Just before this building was a row of desks and the sort of queue I’d expect to see in a post office or some kind of government building. Only it was a temple. This intrigued me greatly but alas we had no time to waste and I mentally filed it to investigate another time.


And in fairness to Fran the sakura in the temple was very beautiful, but it was nothing compared to the one we were about to go find so I hastened her onwards. However our detour had taken us away from the path we wanted to take and into the biggest graveyard I have ever seen.

Kiyomizu-dera sits atop a hill and on the slopes to the east of the temple heading almost into the heart of the city itself is one, huge, graveyard. It is an intimidating and impressive sight, row after row after row of gleaming marble neatly arrayed and spreading out to cover an entire mountainside. If I didn’t think it was somewhat disrespectful I would have taken some pictures because it was truly awe inspiring.

And what’s more it was quite busy too. You may or may not know this but Japanese people have a very different relationship with their dead relatives than we in the west do. This derives from the old Shinto religion in Japan which holds that souls do not enter any kind of heaven but instead remain on earth bound into natural forms, as stones, trees, etc or sometimes as ghosts. So when famous or important people die a shrine is built on their remains and they achieve a kind of godhood from this. They are a god and they live inside the shrine. This doesn’t just happen to famous people though, whenever a Japanese person dies they effectively live inside their gravestone or a household shrine dedicated to them. In fact a tombstone becomes not merely an icon or marker but a sort of body after death. Japanese people still feed their dead relatives, usually mochi (a kind of rice cake) and offer them drinks. Sometimes they go out and give their dead relatives a wash, giving the gravestone a really good scrub so that it stays gleaming marble and isn’t neglected. Fran has even done this apparently and there were a few people out bathing their relatives on this lovely sunny day. There are even two festivals each year (in the spring and autumn equinox) where the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead are much closer. At these times Japanese people go visit their relatives, drinking, chatting and reminiscing and generally remembering all the things you loved about them.

This I think is quite brilliant actually. I don’t for a second believe in any of the spiritual aspects of this but I think that a festival to celebrate all your dead friends is a fantastic idea. In the west we’re too conditioned to let the dead go and we suffer too much grief and depression because of it. In Japan the dead never really go but continue to be a presence in your life, a postive and happy presence. Visting a graveyeard is not a mounrful ocassion but an excuse to get out and about on a sunny day.

I will say this though. The practise of household shrines is yet another way in which the combining of Buddhism and Shinto into one religion in Japan is faintly ridiculous. In one you live forever in nature, in the other you continually re-incarnate and what happens after detah is a central tenent in both religion that is nigh on impossible to reconcile together. Most Japanese people don’t even attempt to reconcile the two though and seem cheerfully uninterested that their religion doesn’t make a lick of sense. Which is all for the best probably.

All this diversion meant we were approaching Kiyomizu-dera from the wrong side. Typically one wants to start at the left hand side of the temple if facing the mountain and move right and back down into Kyoto city. However we had approached from the right and were at the right hand bottom side of the temple. We could head back down a bit and loop round but we decided to head up the mountain and right to get some photos and then back into the main temple.

Before we did this though we opted to try and beat the crowds that we knew would form by going to drink the scared water early.

Kiyo-mizu literally translates as “pure water”. The story behind its founding is recorded at the temple itself but frustratingly wikipedia appears to have let me down on this one. As I recall a monk in 8th century had a dream to found a temple where a spring was and he found the pure water. Sorry it isn’t more evocative but that pretty much was all there was to the story in the first place. The sacred waters are meant to confer prosperity, longevity and health and fancying some of that me and Fran queued up to take the waters.

To take the scared waters you go into a shrine that is positioned underneath a sort of parapet over which the waterfall flows. This means that technically you’re underneath the waterfall but the actual water is about 3 ft in front of you. To take the sacred water you have to use a large pewter cup on a stick, dangling it in the falling water and then bringing it back in to drink from whilst simultaneously trying to avoid whacking people with the 3ft of wood extending from your face.

Having successfully negotiated the crush of people without causing a facial incident Fran and I headed off to go get our pictures.

And my word what pictures we got.

Easily one of the finest sights in the whole world.

Apparently legend holds that if you plunge from that veranda and survive then one of your wishes will be granted. Apparently, mostly due to the vegetation below, this is eminently do-able and about 85% of the pilgrims who attempted this during the Edo period survived. No word on what proportion got their wish granted but if I leapt off a building my wish on the way down would probably be something along the lines of “oh god I want to live, I want to live!” so I’m estimating quite a high percentage. It also used to be a popular suicide spot (the trick would seem to be to angle your head) so the government put a stop to leaping off for any purpose. Spoilsports.

Coming back into the temple complex proper I was pleased to see that the crowd for the sacred water was now enormous. Is there anything that makes an Englishman happier than learning that he has skilfully avoided an enormous queue?

Looping back into the temple annoyingly we couldn’t enter the main temple from this angle and so had to go down the mountain and come back up again where we detoured into the jisha-shrine that is on the same grounds.

Jisha is the Japanese god of matchmaking and together with his messenger (a white rabbit) they’re the subject of this shrine. The shrine is tiny due to being squeezed onto the same grounds as the much more impressive Kiyomizu-dera but it is the most commercially dense shrine I have ever visited. There is exactly one thing there that doesn’t offer you the chance to part with money and that is the love stones, supposedly a pair of stones about 18 yards apart. If you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed then all your wishes for love will be fulfilled. I would have loved to have given this a go but the place was so packed that I couldn’t even find the second stone despite searching frantically for it for some time. For all I know it doesn’t exist. Maybe it costs 500 Yen to see the other one and it’s rendered invisible until you buy some special glasses.

Despite how much I complain about the rampant commercialisation in Japanese shrines I am still a sucker for them. Thus I ended up buying a pair of charms for me and Fran that promised to “deepen our relationship”. I also had a go at the shrine of some tubby bloke who invited me to rub his belly for small fee in order to get a wish granted. As of yet said wish has not been granted but I live in hope.

Whilst we were in Jisha-jinja some kind of ceremony began. I cannot begin to comment on what it signified or its purpose but I can briefly describe what it consisted of. Firstly two monks emerged from the inner shrine wielding various plants and fruits. They began to chant and wave the plants and fruits over the spectators, then everybody bowed, then they did it again. Diverting but not exactly captivating.

And on that note let’s call it a night. I still have loads more to post about Kyoto and Kiyomizu-dera but it is getting very late for me and bed beckons. I promise you on Thursday I will have geisha, drunks, pottery and racist caricatures. See you then.

Hello people I bring greetings from spring.

Not that it actually is spring here. It bloody snowed on Saturday night and it’s still incredibly cold but Sunday was the 3rd of February and that means and it was Setsubun and thus it is now spring.

Setsubun means the coming of the new season and happens at the start of each new season in Japan. Technically the one in February is called Risshun but nobody calls it that so neither am I.

Setsubun is one of the bigger Japanese festivals and there are a number of traditions that should be observed. The big Kansai thing is to eat maki-zushi (sushi made from Maki) whilst facing the compass direction for the year. This is something to do with the kanji for maki being the same as lucky direction but that’s all lost on me because I can only read about 4 kanji and 2 of those are just the kanji for Japan. Japanese culture is absolutely chock full of kanji puns by the way. They love puns here, not necessarily because they’re funny, they just really, really like puns. However, despite knowing in advance that Kansai people did this I completely forgot to do it and actually had a Chinese on Setsubun. Whoops.

The other big tradition is to eat roasted soy beans. 1 for each year of your life and 1 more for good luck. I did do this but eating 22 soybeans is bloody hard work. Roasted soy beans aren’t bad though. Kind of like peanuts but much more bitter. They go really well with beer.

The final big tradition is to do Mamemaki (bean throwing). People throw beans out of the door of their home or at somebody wearing an oni mask. I have absolutely no idea what the legend behind this is and neither do any of the Japanese people I asked. Wikipedia only says “In the Heian era, a famous Buddhist monk was said to have driven away oni by throwing beans.” So that’s helpful. Anyway the jist of it is that there is some half-legend about two onis that bring plagues and bad fortune attacking a shrine. A monk inside chased them away by throwing beans at them and thus saved his land from plague and misfortune. Now Japanese people throw beans to have good luck in the new spring.

Oni is typically just translated as “demon” and there are a host of magical creatures called “oni” in Japanese mythology but there is also a specific creature known as an oni. Oni’s are giant ogre-like creatures. Roughly humanoid in appearance with curly black hair, two horns, ferocious grins, tiger skin loincloths and big clubs. They’re usually either blue or red.

Here are some oni.


Well rather than doing mamemaki at home I opted to head out to Yasaka-jinjya again to see a mamemaki apparently featuring geisha. Patrick in tow we set out on the loooong journey from Sannomiya to Gion.

When we got there the celebrations had already started and this is what we got to see.

Dragon Dance

First up was a traditional dragon dance. The dragons split off and dance and then come together to fight. This was pretty cool. The flute was really atmospheric and the actual dancing, while not really exciting, was still cool purely because it was something I’ve never seen before.

I have a video of the entire dance but Youtube has been a git again and hasn’t let me upload it. I’ll try and get it up tomorrow.


Taiko Drumming

Much, much more fun. Sorry no video but the sound on my camera is so naff it wouldn’t do it justice. Taiko is Japanese traditional drumming in groups and it’s fantastic. It is impossible to listen to this beat and not want, in some small corner of your brain, to mount a horse and ride to war. It’s furious, driven and mesmerising.




Later on the Taiko drummers started wearing oni masks and did a version of oni attacking the shrine. Some drummers in oni masks started hitting drums (still in rhythm) dancing about the stage and acting like monsters. Not as cool as the pure drumming but again it was nice to get to see something I’ve never seen before.

Geisha

Ah, here’s what I came for. Yes ladies and gentlemen I have now seen a real life, honest to god, geisha. Three of them! And they are gorgeous. Actually gorgeous probably isn’t the right word. They’re not conventionally attractive, nothing is sexy about them rather they’re beautiful, like a piece of art is beautiful. The actual human being kind of disappears behind the make-up jewellery and clothes but what’s left is beautiful. It was really, really exciting to see them, like something from a lost age living and breathing and dancing in front of me. I feel privileged to have seen them.

So did the Japanese crowd too it seems. They went mad for the geisha and tried to mob the afterwards as they left the stage. I guess even if you live in Kansai your opportunities to see geisha are still fairly slim. And they are truly magical to share a presence with.

However with all due respect, their dance was a bit naff.

Following the geisha dancing the geisha and priests (complete with silly hats) started chucking beans at us all and there was a mad scramble to catch them. Despite being tall Gaijin Patrick and I lucked out, so we had to go buy our beans.

But wait, the beans come with some kind of tombola ticket do they. Oooh things are lucking up.

And they were, the prizes included a bike, DVD players, ornate Japanese crafts, food, sake and sweeties amongst other things.

I however won a bottle of cold tea and some freezer bags.

WHAT KIND OF A PRIZE IS FREEZER BAGS!

Patrick at least got some slippers.

And then bar a wander and some food we went home.

Misc.

One thing I have to mention before I forget it is a conversation I had with a student today.

The 3rd Grade (san-nensei) are preparing for their high school exams soon and I’ve been helping the students that will be studying English next year. They have to do an interview in English as part of their exams and they have a list of questions the examiner is likely to ask. I’ve been helping them prepare stock answers and practise speaking in an interview situation.

Today I helped one of my students with her application to keimei high school which is, of all things, a Christian High School (there are almost no Christians in Japan so it seems so out of place here). One of her questions is what does she want to study at keimei and she had written “I want to study christianity habit”. Now leaving aside the issue that the grammar really should be “I want to study Christian habits” I had to explain that habits wasn’t really the best choice of words to go with Christian as it implies that she wants to study nun’s clothes. Cue on of the most awkward and downright strange conversations I have ever had in my life. Have you ever tried to explain what nuns are to someone who doesn’t really know about Christianity and doesn’t really speak English? Saying they were married to god just caused even more unnecessary confusion.

In the end I told her I’d explain nuns with the aid of pictures in her notebook next week. She left still confused but apparently satisfied and we changed the sentence to “I want to study Christian beliefs.”

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