Kiyomizudera and Gion

Today was a long day.  This morning I had the day to tour Kyoto on my own according to my itinerary, but I met with my teacher from Case.  She lives in Osaka when she is not in Cleveland teaching.  She came to Kyoto with her American friend who was also in Osaka persuing his doctorate.  He was also a Case undergraduate alumni.  We met and decided to go to the Kiyomizudera area and walk around.  Kyoto is full of very small alley like roads which are not wide enough for two cars to fit side-by-side, but they are still two way roads.  We wandered down a lot of these looking at the various souvenier shops and small sweet stores.  After walking for a little bit, my teacher saw a place where they do a more casual form of the tea ceremony.  For Americans, there is not too much involved when we think of tea.  Usually, we just think of dropping a tea bag in some water and letting it sit for a few minutes.  However, to the Japanese, the tea ceremony is an artform.  There are highly complex rules which govern the tea ceremony which were made when it was first conceived in the 16th century.  The rules were very complex and as I sit here writing this, I can only remember a handful of them.  However, during the ceremony, the tea is made from a heavy powder which is poured into some hot water.  Then the powder is mixed with a small bristled wisk.  The tea is beat until the mixture forms a thick homogenous tea which was a new experience for me.  With the tea, you are served a small confectory called a wagashi.  The wagashi is usually made of bean paste and other natural fruits.  I really enjoyed these and if I can find a store that sells them I’m going to buy a bunch.  They have a texture which I can’t really describe, and they are only mildly sweet, but very good.  In the tea ceremony, you first eat the wagashi by cutting it into small slices with the toothpick like utensil you are given.  One you have eaten the wagashi, you dink your tea by a complicated set of rules.  When the tea is given to you, the most astetically pleasing part of the bowl is turned toward you.  When you drink, you rotate this back towards the tea ceremony hostess with your right hand.  Then you can drink.  You take three sips.  On the last sip of tea, you are supposed to examine the last bit of the tea by delicately moving it around in the bowl.  Finally, you finish off the tea with a loud slurping noise.  This is polite and says that you enjoyed the tea.

Next we walked a little ways to Kiyomizudera Temple.  Kiyomizudera is another UNESCO World Heritage site.  The temple is very old, constructed in 798.  The temple is very large with a veranda that overlooks now downtown Kyoto.  Interestingly, there is not a single nail that was used in the temple’s construction.  It was made by carefully placing well-fitted Japanese cedar planks.  The temple gets its name from the waterfall that flows through the temple grounds.  Kiyomizudera comes from the three kanji which mean literally mean pure water temple.  The waterfall is split into three streams and it is said that drinking from one of the three will grant you one of three blessings.  Drinking from the leftmost stream will grant you wisdom, the center wealth, and the right health.  I did not know this at the time I drank, but I drank from the right.

After Kiyomizudera, we went to a small restaurant off of the main tourist area and all ordered large pieces of unagi, which is eel.  Unagi is probably one of my favorite foods in Japan.  It is served in a somewhat sweet glaze and layed on top of a large bowl of rice.  I was very happy.  At around 4 PM, my teacher and her friend headed back to Osaka and graciously dropped me off at my ryokan.  I needed to be at Gion by 6 PM as I had a tour of the district.  Gion is famous as one of the five geisha districts in Japan.  Until my tour I was unaware that geisha still existed.  I thought they were only part of history.  However, the role of the modern geisha has changed a lot from its roots in old Japan.  Many years ago, geisha still needed to be trained in the Japanese traditional arts to entertain at parties, but lower ranking geisha were essentially prostitutes.  However today, the geisha live in a very strict society.  Those that chose to enter into the life of a geisha join a house in which a house mother teaches them, through rigorous training, many different Japanese traditional arts.  The house mother feeds them, clothes them, and provides all they need.  The geisha themselves do not receive any income.  Instead, their entertainment services are purchased at formal gatherings and that income is how the house mother makes her money.  To have a party with a geisha is very expensive and mostly, in modern society, having this type of lavish party is purly a badge of status.

After the tour, I was taken to Gion Corner which showcases some of the most important Japanese traditional arts.  This was a show which lasted about an hour and showed the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, gagaku (Japanese court music), bunraku (Japanese puppetry), and a few others.  It was extremely interesting and I very much enjoyed the gagaku which is performed at many Shinto shrines across the country during festivals.  The dress and dance varies enormously based on the festival and the shrine.

Finally, once the show was over, I went to a shabu-shabu restaurant.  Shabu-shabu is a family style cooking in Japan in which there is a boiling hot pot in the center of the table and you throw vegetables and meats into the hotpot and eat whatever you want.  This particular restaurant offered all you can eat and I engorged myself.  It was very good.

After this very long day, I went back to my room and fell asleep much earlier than I have in quite a while.  Tomorrow I go on my last day of touring in Kyoto before leaving for Koya-san.  See you soon!

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