Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 3: Kyoto Koan

We were excited - it was our first full day in Kyoto. Alas, it was a wet dreary day indeed, not the best of conditions for good photos. Still, we were determined to make the best of our time in Kyoto, starting with a warm breakfast at none other than a Starbucks! (In between the ryokan stays, we figured we should opt for more modest breakfasts.)

Just down the road from Hotel Monterey was a busy branch popular with the office crowd. We found a table and had some warm ham and cheese type sandwiches, and coffee of course.

obviously gearing up for Christmas

Our first stop for the day was (arguably) Kyoto's most well-known tourist attraction, the Kinkakuji or Golden Pavilion.  A bus from around the corner took us all the way there.

the rain was a bit of a dampener but it did add to the atmosphere

THE Golden Pavilion, adorned with gold leaf no less

we thought this was the less ethereal chicken at first but figured later that it had to be the phoenix

We presumed the Golden Pavilion must be breathtakingly beautiful in the sunlight, reflected in the waters of the pond surrounding it.  As it was, it just seemed a little small... We were more taken by the rest of the grounds.

the ducky residents

these fruit again - what were they?!

a much-admired waterfall

still very much a place of worship

with many worshippers

cleanliness is next to godliness, even if it's fortune dust (sic) we're talking about

what's that on the ground?

not leaves

coins tossed for luck!  so whose idea was this...

It might have been pleasant to loiter in the grounds had the weather had been clement, but the intermittent drizzle was annoying enough to drive us to move on to our next destination.

and so we left Kinkakuji

We took a bus back towards town and stopped at another of Kyoto's major attractions, Nijo Castle.  Here, we hoped to stay dry indoors.

entrance to the palace grounds

despite the rain, there were lots of visitors here as well

photos weren't allowed inside so we had to contend ourselves with photos of the outside

Nijo-jo's claim to fame, other than being founded by the great Tokugawa Ieyasu, was its elaborate security features - the "nightingale" floors which were constructed to make a noise when anyone walked across them and the many secret doorways from which the shogun's bodyguards could emerge when needed.  Like the many schoolkids visiting, we had great fun squeaking across the burnished wooden floors in our socks.  Take that, ninjas!  (Of course the many fine paintings and elaborate wall carvings were impressive too hehe...)

Outside we were entertained by the many school groups rushing to take the obligatory group photo.

the best part of the learning journey?

Despite the slight drizzle, we decided to at least have a look at the rest of the grounds.

so that's how they protect tropical plants like palms from the cold

every castle must have at least one bridge

otherwise no one (except those ducks) would be able to cross the moat!

the Honmaru Palace, sharing the grounds of Nijo-jo

the rain, while incessant, was in its own way, pretty

Eventually, the wet-induced cold got to us.

we popped by the cafeteria for a cup of hot coffee

With the rain pissing down, we figured it was time to retreat.  With two of Kyoto's highlights under our belt, we felt we deserved to put our feet up in warm surroundings.  On our way back to the hotel, we remembered that we had yet to have lunch and it was already way past lunchtime.  Fortunately, in one of the lanes near our hotel, we chanced upon what looked like a promising ramen shop (but then again, we have yet to come across a disappointing one!)

the ramen shop

inside - a typical counter

We were ushered upstairs, even though there was space downstairs.  Was this an attempt to sideline us or  perhaps the staff thought we'd be more comfortable upstairs...

they even turned on the TV for us

We tried to make sense of a Japanese soap sans subtitles, while slurping down...

a kare ramen (only in cold weather is this a good idea!)

a yasai ramen (HM feeling a distinct lack of veggies in her diet)

With full bellies, we felt rejuvenated enough to forgo a rest, barring a quick pitstop at the hotel to use the, uh, facilities.  Instead, we squeezed in a visit to the Kyoto International Manga Museum which was a couple of blocks away.

the museum was housed in a refurbished school building

three stories high

with interiors lovingly preserved

The museum was an experience unto itself.  It resembled nothing more than a library, with rooms and rooms filled with nothing but shelves and shelves of manga, and visitors quietly reading.  There were several exhibitions, one depicting the evolution of the four-panel cartoon and another celebrating...

the life and times of Shonen Sunday, a boys' manga magazine

We even took part in a quiz - "What two sports were frequently featured in Shonen Sunday?" - but didn't win a prize.  All too soon, the hour came to an end.  The museum would be closing soon and we had plans down in Gion.

no, it wasn't to check out the mochi shop again

although we couldn't and didn't pass up the chance to have more mochi

nor was it to explore the traditional shops in the area, particularly this popular sweet shop

such pretty sweets in a box

This was what we had come for, an adventure at...

literally, the "Dream Factory"

At Yumekoubou, one could be transformed into a geisha for an evening, for a price of course.  For curious gaijin, this was the quickest way to experience what it was like to be a geisha; real geisha spend a lifetime in training and it is almost unheard of (with one or two notable exceptions) for foreigners to be allowed into this exclusive community.  Enterprising photo studios had therefore sprung up, offering makeover packages and bookings online.

We were greeted at the door by a young man who proceeded to explain to us, in limited but understandable English, the various packages.  HM opted for the maiko makeover; maikos are junior geishas and they get to wear the more colourful kimonos.  Then she was asked: did she want prints or just the CD?  CD please - we didn't have the time to wait for prints to be made.  With the formalities done and much bowing, the young man handed HM over to a make-up artist.

We were then ushered into a dressing room where we were handed a set of undergarments and tabi (Japanese socks) for HM, and lockers for us to store our things in.  I was told I could keep my camera with me, to document the process for posterity.  Then we proceeded upstairs to the make-up room.

We had expected it to be busy but it seemed like we were the only customers that night.  I watched as  the friendly yet professional make-up artist fussed over HM.  First she laid on a layer of white powder.  Then, she applied rouge to the eye-lids and the cheeks.  Over that, she applied a layer of white foundation which was then smoothed over with more powder.  Then came the red eyeshadow followed by the use of a black pencil on the eyebrows.  Following that, she finished up with deep red eyeliner and lipstick on HM's eyelids and lips respectively.

Make-up done, we were ushered into the next room, where a variety of kimonos and other outfits were hung.  If we had so wished, we could have dressed up as samurais!  From the lot, HM chose a black and red kimono, but first she had to put on several intermediate layers and be tied to accentuate various aspects of her figure.  After that came the kimono and the obi, and to complete the transformation, the elaborate hairpiece and accessories.  Voila, a maiko!

In full regalia, HM could only shuffle gently and genteel-y, and shuffle she did, into the photo studio.  The photographer turned out to be the nice young man from the reception.  With many a "so so so" (Japanese for "I see"), he positioned HM in a variety of poses, with various props and against various backdrops.  The whole process was painless.  And then it was all over.

By the time HM had disrobed and cleaned the make-up off her face, the CD was ready.  We had a nice chat with the make-up artist who was most excited to hear about our itinerary.  Before we left, she gave us a tip: the autumn temple light-up was still on that week.  We had to visit the temples, especially Kiyomizu, by night.  We assured her we would.

Leaving Yumekoubou, we headed towards Pontocho for dinner, passing by the riverside.

the founder of kabuki

We had spotted this izakaya the night before.  It had looked busy yet not overly crowded.  There were obviously other more trendy places in the area, but we were looking for something...

a little more traditional

we particularly liked the look of the obasan running the place

Once again, we didn't get to sit where the action was.  Instead we were ushered upstairs...

we had the room to ourselves

The girl who served us turned out to be from mainland China, specifically Shanghai which was, as she pointed out, only an hour away by air.  We noted the trend - that there were many more immigrant workers, especially from China, and that more often than not, we were being assigned such waitstaff.  While this made for easier communication, it wasn't quite what we were looking for in a trip to Japan, especially when our very honest service staff admitted that she didn't particularly like Japanese food!

So what did we have to eat, from the extensive menu?  We had...

oden, the Japanese equivalent of yong tau foo

We tried, for the first time...

yuba (beancurd skin) sashimi - similar to mock chicken

and followed that up with...

yudofu aka...

tofu hotpot

... ordering as we went along...

stewed eggplant with miso

grilled fish

Japanese fishcake

and some nigori sake

in quick succession.  We looked for one last thing to end the meal and asked our waitress to recommend something different.  She suggested mofuro, something that she said was the latest trend in Kyoto, very popular with the izakaya's customers.  Here, they were served with mentaikoi (spiced cod roe).  Mofuro - now why did that sound familiar?  We decided to give it a shot.  We were pleasantly surprised to be served this...

clearly a versatile ingredient

Whatever mofuro was, we liked it, especially the texture and we were intrigued.  A check with Google, back at the hotel, revealed that a mofuro is a waffle created using mochi!  Apparently someone enterprising had stuck a lump of mochi into a waffle machine and, as they say, the rest is history.

It had been a most enjoyable meal, its honest-to-goodness simplicity in direct contrast with the fancy kaiseki-type meals Kyoto was famous for.

we collected our shoes from these lockers

Before turning in for the night, we took the opportunity to admire the hotel's faux-European decor.

What could we say about Kyoto so far? That it clearly cherished and celebrated its traditional roots, but wasn't above embracing the new and innovative. Interesting ne.

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