Well, I have been so busy this month that I am now over a month behind with my blogging! Yesterday I arrived in the glorious United States of America after a gruelling 3-flight journey from Tokyo, but you will have to wait a while to hear about my American adventures as I must first update you on my last beautiful month in Japan. When I left you last my friends had just arrived in Japan and we had enjoyed a spectacular sakura-filled day and evening at Himeji…
The next day we awoke bright and early and made our way by car to Kyoto. The drive took a little longer than anticipated so we missed our first appointment of the day (a tea ceremony in Gion), so spent the afternoon wandering round this district to kill some time before our next and very exciting appointment.
On our travels we caught sight of an enormous Bodhisattva within what we assumed was some sort of temple complex.
Intrigued, we paid the ¥200 entrance fee and entered the gate. The ‘temple’ was in fact Ryozen Kannon – a war memorial commemorating those who died in the Pacific War, Japan’s last war. The statue which had piqued our curiosity is a 24 metre tall concrete and steel image of the most venerated and popular Buddhist deity, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or Kannon, goddess of mercy. In case you didn’t already know (I didn’t) a Bodhisattva is a being who has prolonged their own eternal enlightenment in order to stay behind to help everyone who suffers in this world. Images of Kannon abound in Buddhist temples the length and breadth of Japan; this particular statue was completed by Hirosuke Ishikawa and unveiled to the public in 1955. The information leaflet we were handed at the entrance gives some idea of just how colossal the Kannon is…
Weight: c. 500 tons
Height: 24 m
Face: 6 m
Eyebrow: 110 cm
Eye: 1 m
Nose: 106 cm
Mouth: 90 cm
Also at Ryozen are a mausoleum and a monument to the Second World War’s Unknown Soldier, as well as a shrine and the Homa Hall which together enshrine the Bodhisattva Aksonhya. Not to mention the gorgeous cherry blossom!
Next it was time for something I have been looking forward to ever since I knew I would be visiting Japan – a Kimono dressing experience! Although the company I had booked our appointment with claimed they had ‘hundreds’ of kimonos from which their guests could chose together Siân, Thomas and I stretched their kimono collection to the limits. As the three of us are all rather larger than your average Japanese person, between us we had only 7 kimonos to choose between. Probably just as well really – I’m not renowned for my decisiveness! It was an amazing experience and really interesting to see just how many layers go on behind the outer façade (the number of ties and belts which went around my waist must have reached double figures) and also to learn how it feels to wear and walk in kimono. I must say I rather liked the way it felt to wear – the obi and other ties around my waist held my posture in good position so it was not possible to slouch and as a result I felt rather elegant for a change! The shoes (wooden ‘flip-flops’ called geta) were designed in such a way that I could only take very small steps, but again this contributed to a strange feeling of elegance. The only trouble is that I loved the experience so much that I want to buy a kimono now and a good quality one is very expensive!
The kimono company thought us so unusual in our appearance that we made it onto the company website too!
After a changing back into our civvies we headed to Nijo-jō castle for a night time illumination event. Nijo -jō was constructed in 1603 as the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu and its Ninomaru Palace is a designated National Treasure. The castle buildings are quite impressive and the cherry blossom, which was the focus of the illumination, was pretty special too! I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy the illumination or not (the Kew Winter Wonderland event was rather on the ‘Disney’ side and I thought this would be somewhat out of keeping with this gem of a Japanese cultural property) but it was so sensitively done and the sakura so artfully illuminated that I was utterly blown away.
There were even traditional Japanese harpists playing to help guests get the most from the experience.
Dinner that evening was a bowl of delicious soba noodles in one of the Porta Dining restaurants below Kyoto Station. Soba and udon seem to divide opinion in Japan, and the question of which is ones favourite is an excellent conversation starter. I am most definitely a soba girl!
Our first stop of the day on Thursday morning was Toji Temple, which I had been wanting to visit ever since Phil and I visited Tofukuji in Nara back in January and I read that the pagoda there was the second tallest in Japan after the one at Toji in Kyoto. Like much of Kyoto the sakura was at full pelt so I had a hard job deciding which was more mesmerising, the pagoda or the weeping cherry, and I spent rather a lot of time trying to frame both in one picture. Meaning literally ‘East Temple’ Toji was originally built in the late 700s when the capital first moved to Kyoto at the beginning of the Heian era. The five storied pagoda is of course Toji’s most famous feature and at 57 metres tall it is indeed the tallest in Japan.
Next we took a taxi ride to the Nanzenji district with the intention of taking a boat ride along the sakura-flanked canal. Unfortunately tickets must be purchased in advance so we missed out on the bus ride but enjoyed wandering around this rather beautiful area of Kyoto.
There were plenty of reasonably-priced eateries in the area too, so we took time over a rather delicious set lunch (oh how I will miss the set lunch when I leave Japan – I love all the little separate compartments of pickles and other food curios).
Then it was back to Gion to the Kaburenjo Theatre to watch the spring Geisha dance, Miyako Odori.
I can’t tell you how excited I have been about coming to watch this dance. The tickets were rather hard to obtain and I have Tomoko to thank for helping me to obtain them. If anyone reading this has plans to visit Japan then I urge you to make the effort to see one of the annual Geisha dances – you won’t regret it!
Geisha traditionally only perform at private functions, but in 1872 a spring Geisha dance for the public was held in Tokyo, a few years after it became Japan’s capital city (interestingly Miyako means ‘capital city’ and Odori ‘dance’, so the name reflects the dance’s early history). The following year and every spring thereafter the dance has been held at the Kaburenjo Theatre in Kyoto, with four performance taking place four times a day for the duration of April. When I booked the tickets I decided to go for the extra special tickets which included a tea ceremony prior to the event.
We even got to take home the dish our ‘sweet’ was served on as a souvenir!
As we were shuttled from the tea ceremony to our seats we had time to view the theatre’s beautiful tea garden…
…as well as the exquisite kimonos produced especially for this year’s dance.
Naturally our path also passed through the Miyako Odori shop where I was unable to resist purchasing a couple of mementos of the experience. Finally we were led to our seats, which were on tatami mats in one of the theatre’s balconies.
The performance lasted around an hour and featured eight dances, taking place in gradually changing seasons, with the first and last dance featuring spring and sakura. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the performance – ‘spectacular’ and ‘enchanting’ don’t quite cover it but I can find no better words in the English language to describe the experience. Sadly photography was not permitted during the performance, so instead I will share with you some of the photos from the event website http://www.miyako-odori.jp/ . For anyone interested a video showing highlights of the Miyako Odori can be viewed here http://www.miyako-odori.jp/miyako/index.html but it really doesn’t do the experience justice.
After this we had time to explore the Gion area further and to enjoy what must be some of Kyoto’s most scenic sakura spots.
The cherry blossom was so spectacular that there was even a wedding shoot taking place on the day of our visit, so I was fortunate to get some rather lovely shots of couple in traditional dress beneath the pretty pink blossoms.
On the advice of the very friendly taxi driver who drove us back from Gion to Kyoto Station we decided to pay a visit to an Izakaya for dinner; Izakaya are Japanese pubs, the origin of which is pre-Meiji era. Visitors to early saka-ya (sake shops) would stand and drink sake in what became known as Tachi-nomiya, meaning ‘stand and drink’. However, when some saka-ya owners upturned barrels for their guests to sit upon they were renamed Izakaya, meaning ‘stay and drink’. Izakaya, which can be recognised by the positioning of a glowing red Japanese lantern outside the entrance, often serve yakitori – skewers of chargrilled chicken and vegetables, and that was our choice for dinner that evening. As none of us are particularly squeamish we tried to be as adventurous in our choices as possible, choosing not only sasami (chicken breast), negima (chicken and leek) and shiitake (mushrooms) but also motsu (gizzards), hatsu (heart), gengotsu (deep fried cartilage), tsukune (meatballs) and rebá (liver). The liver was absolutely the winner – oishi!
After all our travels we thought we deserved a little rest and recuperation so the next day we made our way north to Kinosaki, one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns. There are seven onsen in Kinosaki and visitors don their yukata (lightweight cotton kimonos) and hop from one to another, partaking of the delightful hot spring water. It was raining when we arrived but we enjoyed a pleasant stroll around this pretty little town with its willow- and cherry- lined canal.
We also took a trip on the Kinosaki ropeway to marvel at the view from the top of the mountain.
As well as being famous for its onsen, Kinosaki is also part of a region associated with the famous snow crab. The snow crab season draws to a close at the end of March but fortunately there were still many places serving this Japanese delicacy. We’d read that the best place to try deliciously fresh snow crab is at one of the restaurants housed above the town’s many fishmongers. We took the advice of the guidebooks and enjoyed a delicious set lunch in just such a restaurant, sampling snow crab in all manner of cooking styles – grilled, boiled, tempura and even raw snow crab featured on the menu.
Finally it was time to check into our hotel, to marvel at the traditional Japanese room the three of us would be sharing and to don our yukata and make use of the hotel’s exquisite hot springs.
Interestingly there is a particular etiquette to the way one wears one’s yukata in Japan – the front should be wrapped left over right as wrapping it right over left is a practice reserved exclusively for funerals. There is also etiquette to the use of the onsen, which is elucidated in this handy leaflet provided by the hotel.
Early the next morning I left my friends in Kinosaki and took a train to Osaka to meet Tomoko for lunch and then to watch a Noh performance at the Yamamoto Nogakudo Theatre. Noh is a type of traditional Japanese theatrical art, thought to be one of the world’s oldest performing arts; as such UNESCO has designated it an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’. Noh is particularly famous for the masks used by some of the actors and it is commonly referred to as ‘a theatre of masks’. Well I say ‘theatre’ but Noh is better described as a ‘total art form’ in which drama, music and dance uniquely combine; utai (libretto) and hayashi (musical accompaniment in the form of flute and drums alternate with spoken word. The stage itself is rather interesting in its shape and design: a pine tree is always depicted on the stage background, but this bears no relation to the content of the Noh performance. It is thought that the image of the pine tree stems from ritual performance developed by the samurai classes based on the traditional Japanese belief that gods and spirits reside in pine trees and all evergreen trees.
The history of Noh is too long and interesting to cover in detail in this blog so instead I will share with you the information provided to me by the kindly staff at Yamamoto Nogakudo Theatre – take a look at the images below of you would like to know more.
After the performance Tomoko mentioned that I had completed an MA in Fashion Design before retraining as a gardener, and in the blink of an eye we were whisked behind the stage for a special behind-the-scenes tour. We were shown some of the very old and valuable costumes and masks too, and somehow I found myself stood in the middle of the dressing room with arms horizontal while one of the Noh performers draped me in beautiful silk shouzoku costumes and Tomoko took photos of me on her iPad. I even got to try on one of the masks – such a privilege!
Tomoko and I travelled back to Kobe and while she continued on to Awaji, I re-joined my friends for dinner at Steak Land (pronounced ‘Steaky Lando’ in Japanese) in Kobe city centre. Kobe is of course associated with ‘Kobe Beef’ and tonight was the night that we would finally try this world-famous delicacy. While I was looking forward to it I wasn’t quite sure I believed all the hype surrounding it – my Lonely Planet Guide, for example, says that all meals involving Kobe beef should come with a warning to consumers that eating of this dish will forever after ruin ones enjoyment of any other type of beef.
Before I tell you whether tonight’s steaks met with our expectations I should really give you a little history about the beef itself. Known as Kōbe-gyū in Japanese, Kobe beef is a regional variety of wagyū (Japanese beef) and is simply a cattle bred for its high level of fatty marbling. Apparently the marbling is a result of selective breeding and a diet of alfalfa, corn, barley and wheat straw, though urban legend has it that some farmers feed their cattle beer and give them regular massages! To say that it is an expensive steak is an understatement – when my parents were in Kobe the previous week they misunderstood the figures on their own Kobe beef night and ended up spending £140 for two steaks. Ouch. As a result we had done our research and found that Steak Land was the best place to go for a delicious but more affordably-priced taste of Kobe beef. We paid around ¥6,000 (around £30.00 or $50.00) each for a set menu which included sashimi, griddled seafood, beef broth, griddled vegetables, a 200g Kobe beef steak and a drink.
The best way to cook Kobe beef steaks is on a teppan (iron hotplate) at a Teppan-yaki-ya like Steak Land – as well a cooking a delicious steak it’s great fun to have the dishes cooked in front of you!
So was it worth the ¥6,000 price tag? I’m sad to say that it absolutely was; I think the phrase ‘melt in your mouth’ must have been invented for the Kobe beef steak, so sumptuous was the fatty marbling. I urge all future TRIADS to pay a visit here when you’re in Japan – you won’t regret it! http://steakland.jp/ http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g298562-d1679701-r191326745-Kobegyu_Steak_Land_Kobe-Kobe_Hyogo_Prefecture_Kinki.html
The next day it was off on yet another ropeway to visit Nunobiki Herb Gardens, Kobe. I didn’t learn a great deal about herbs whilst I was there but I thought some of the interactive exhibits (e.g. ‘scents’ and ‘plant dyes’) indoors were interesting and I enjoyed the Fragrance Greenhouse. The ropeway itself was rather nice too, especially as it offered some stunning views out over Kobe and some beautiful cherry blossom to boot. Oh, and the free herb-scented hot spring foot bath was a welcome treat too!
Dinner that night was my favourite – kaiten sushi. This place even had a 2-tiered sushi belt so that dishes ordered from the iPad arrived at superfast speed on their very own belt.
On my last day with Siân and Thomas we headed to Nara in the morning. Here Sian and Thomas paid a visit to the Daibutsu-den which I had already visited back in January with Phil, while I spent my morning photographing deer and sakura – what a combination!
In the afternoon we continued on to the town of Iga Ueno to visit the Ninja house and museum. Before visiting the museum we enjoyed yet another set lunch a restaurant. The food was of course excellent but by far the best thing was the cavity beneath the table which makes it look like one is sitting on cushions around a table in the traditional Japanese fashion, when one is really just sitting comfortably, Western-style.
Ninja’s of course need barely an introduction, so featured are they in films and on TV. The Ninja museum is an excellent place to learn about the art of stealth and to see some of the tricks and tools they used to go about their work.
Sadly the Ninja performance was not showing on the day of our visit but we were able to see some of the hidden exits and passageways in the Ninja house.
Thomas and I took a turn at Ninja star throwing too. It’s harder than it looks and isn’t merely a case of hitting a target – if the throwing technique isn’t right (and ours clearly wasn’t) then the stars simply rebound from the wall without sticking.
Far too soon it was time to retire to the hotel for one last dinner together and a relaxing soak in the hotel onsen before bed.