Tiny schoolchildren make their way through the very safe Japanese streets.

One month down. I began traveling May 26th, and now it’s nearly July. Crazy. I just spent the past month in Japan. It’s still hard for me to fully grasp.  As wonderful as most things are, all my fabulous experiences are while I’m without the two people I most wish to share it with: Tara and Arno. I miss them both so much it aches. I feel more separated because my phone doesn’t work in Japan, and because the time difference means there are only a few hours a day when we can communicate with each other in real time, either IM-ing or on Skype.

We American women refer to them as “squatters”

I joined a tour of Kyoto temples offered by Iwakuni Information, Tours & Travel (ITT). The bus ride is much longer than my recent Shinkansen trips through Kyoto on my way to Misawa. Where the Shin would take me 2 hours, the bus takes 5 1/2 hours with a couple short stops at highway rest areas just like those on the east coast toll roads.
Another difference is that the Shin has toilets you can sit on; the rest stops may or may not offer that luxury. I am often faced with only a hole in the floor in which to do my business. I distinctly lack the skills required for ladylike squat-peeing (good heavens, what do people with arthritis in the knees do?). Nearly every facility is equipped with little hand-holds about five to nine inches off the floor, thank goodness. However, how shall I put this, well for the inexperienced, it isn’t the most tidy operation in the world. Thank god they always, always have running water and they do not let the soap dispensers run out. They never have paper towels, though, and I see that Japanese women carry handkerchiefs at the ready for that reason.

Resplendent reflection of Kinkaku-ji in a pond. That is real gold you see.

We left Friday morning at 7am, and got to Kyoto in time to tour a couple of temples before going to our hotel. We stopped first at the Golden Pavillion, and it was certainly golden. Most of the outside of it is covered in real gold leaf! The reflection off the pool beside it is stunning. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s real name is Kinkaku-ji and it was originally built in 1397. Recently, in 1950, it burned to the ground due to arson and the current temple was built 3 years later on donations. There was only enough money to do a replica of the outside, however, and the interior remains empty.

I just can’t get over the perpetual “cuteness” permeating Japan. Street signs are cute, construction barriers are cute, billboards are cute, and middle-school girls are made of pure confectioner’s sugar. Here they wear furry reindeer horns to visit the temple.

Before I left the temple grounds, I stopped for green tea and a sweet cookie in an inviting outdoor forest cafe.

Young women in kimonos

Next we visited the Silver Pavillion, which was not silver, but beautifully crafted in wood, as were all the temples we saw this weekend. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this temple was built in 1489 and is the original building. Shogun Yoshimasa built it to serve first as a retirement villa, intended as a temple at his death. The most interesting thing for me at this temple was being able to watch a man put the pattern into a sand garden. I had not seen it done before, and felt that since I was at a cherished Zen temple in Japan, the demonstration was probably done expertly. The second thing I loved here was the lovely, peaceful paths through the grounds at the temple.

Impressive patterns of raked sand at Ginkaku-ji. See the huge cone of sand, Kogetsudai (moon mound), in the background.

Inviting path through the shady forest around the temple.

Bamboo railing follows crooked stone steps up the side of a steep hill.

We were dropped at our hotel, where I took a quick shower (this hot sticky weather requires extra hygiene efforts), and then caught the hotel shuttle to downtown Kyoto, the Gion district. With uncanny luck, I walked about a mile, directly to the theatre I was looking for, paid for my ticket, and sat down with 30 seconds to spare before the 6 pm show. It was a demonstration crafted just for tourists: about 10 minutes each of Chado (tea ceremony), Koto (Japanese Harp), Kado (flower arrangement), Gagaku (court music), Kyogen (a traditional comedy – very funny despite having little idea what they were saying), Kyomai (dance performed by Maikos), and Bunraku (a puppet play where the puppeteers are on stage with the puppets). The Maikos are Geishas in training. I would have enjoyed more a complete show of any one of these things, but with a lack of time and the savvy to find a proper show, this one was a great substitute.

A student arranges flowers to demonstrate her skill.

This character with a dragon hat danced while the court musicians played.

Maiko dances for us

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The Lord has tied up his servants, Taro and Jiro, so they won’t steal his sake while he goes to the neighboring village on business. They laugh it off as though the very idea is ludicrous.

Oshichi makes a plan to return the sword to the pageboy Kichiza

Maiko dancing

Once I stepped outside again, it was dark, and Kyoto came alive with lights and beautiful people. I could tell that this was the part of town to go when you wanted to dress to the nines and enjoy fine dining with atmosphere. There was a complicated network of narrow streets, and I wandered them for a couple of hours, just staring at the people, the beautiful restaurant fronts, and the many globe lanterns. It cooled after dark, and the paths along the river in downtown Kyoto filled with people jogging, children playing, lovers strolling hand-in-hand, and even a few real Maikos. Most people simply sat on a wide path above the river, placed their bags beside them, and watched the water flow past. Just beyond the shore were decks of outdoor seating for the many restaurants lining the river. Finally I hailed a cab, used a little sign language and a map, and got myself a ride back to the hotel.

Downtown Kyoto is vibrant and sparkling after dark

Streets are narrow, filled with lights and people, and crowned with a tangled mass of wires.

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