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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Honeymoon Part II - Japan!

Four nights in Japan: Geisha Goldstein & Samurai Dan eat sushi!

















We came back from Lowe's this evening with a cherry tree, to plant at the Elkhorn Inn. After seeing the cherry and plum trees in flower in Kyoto I totally HAD to have a cherry tree at the Inn! The other thing we Have to have- & Dan is in agreement on this- is a "poodle tree"- one of the wonderous little Korean pine trees that look, well, like Poodles! I am about to start an Internet hunt for a Korean Poodle Pine, so if anyone knows what I'm taking about and where we can get one, let us know!

We flew from Seoul to Tokyo w/Korean Air (always a great experience), changed money (& discovered we were in La-La Land, as far as the US dollar was concerned...), & took the $32/per person shuttle bus (as opposed to the $320 taxi- & no, I am Not kidding) to the Tokyo Bay Intercontinental (& Yes, this was on our Priority Club Points!), We were given a gorgeous
room with a view of the Bay, another fabulous array of miniature spa toiletries (I am a Total Fool for tiny little bottles of herb-scented shampoo...), & thanks, again, to a Great Concierge, had a Truly Fabulous sushi dinner of THE most mouthwatering array of sushi imaginable at an amazing restaurant in the Ginza (that has nothing in English on its business card...), followed by a great evening of jazz at a wonderful little club... These were the "little things" that weren't so little- the things that made our trip SO great! When you have ONE night in a city like Tokyo, without some Truly Good Advice from someone with Last-Minute Top Restaurant Reservation Capability, you would Never have such an extraordinary evening. What was so amazing about the sushi was, in a word, the squid. Squid isn't something I usually jump to order in the USA, even at Fine sushi restaurants, because it is invariably not only non-descript taste-wise, but Chewy, & often Way Too Chewy. The squid we ate that night in Japan was like velvet- literally. At first bite it was delicate, delicious, and pleasingly firm, but then it immediately became a luscious velvet in your mouth. There is no other way to describe it, save to say that it was THE most amazingly delicious thing I've ever eaten, I will NEVER forget it, & I ate it in Japan as often as I could!









I had joked w/Dan that the whole purpose of our going to Japan (more my thing than his) was for me to be able to eat Really Good Sushi until I fell over, & there was an element of truth to the joke! The other reason was because I'd read enough books to want to spend a Year in Japan, not only eating, but studying, & experiencing the art & culture of the country, & I had a million things I wanted to see & do- but only 4 days! Dan, bless his heart, humored me, & did all the crazy things I had my heart set on- and even enjoyed it! I know that Jazz is a Japanese passion, & had high hopes for the club, & we weren't disappointed. Taxiing to Roppongi, a trendy neighborhood of boutiques & galleries that I only wish we'd had time to explore (gotta go back!), the "hidden" upstairs club (that we Never would have found on our own) that our genius concierge sent us to was Great: the pianist was obviously a concert pianist, the bassist passionate & into his music, & the drummer a "hipster" w/a grand sense of humor... We sat w/our drinks & cigarettes, enjoyed the great music, & had a fabulous, romantic evening... I left my precious camera in the taxi, & because I (fortunately) had the receipt, the manager was able to get in touch with the driver & he brought my camera back to the club! How's THAT for a great evening?! Taxiing back to our hotel near the Ginza, we wandered around people-watching & window-shopping, bathed in that famous Tokyo neon, & (now fearless about venturing into 'cute' little places where the menu is but an artistic mystery), ducking into a little wine bar to ,join the salarymen for a nightcap...











After our first fabulous night in Tokyo, we (blissfully) left our suitcases at the Intercon & went to the Tokyo Train Station to get our Bullet Train tickets for Kyoto. Ate some more sushi (hey- a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do!), & did some more people-watching, trying to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes the women's sense of style so Quintessentially Japanese. Invariably, it's a version of what I call the Sexy Parochial School Girl or Lolita Look, which includes a thigh-high, pleated, plaid skirt, thigh-high stockings, & high heels. Sometimes it also includes a lot of Hello Kitty, an acid-yellow filmy, nylon negligee top, a (real) designer purse, and/or a short fur jacket, but it's Always worn with socks of some sort & high heels! Part of me wanted SO badly to try to pull that look off, but lacking the money & time to figure out how to really Do It Right, I chickened out!
"West Virginia Railfans" by profession, we absolutely Had to do the Bullet Train!





The Bullet Train really is a pretty fabulous thing, with a pointed nose like an F-14, & it literally sails, riding above the ground (on giant magnets!) at mega-speed, making for a totally smooth & jar-less ride. (AMTRAK, are you listening?!) We got to see the Japanese countryside, mountains, & farms sail by over splits of wine & smokes. I can't BEGIN tell you how delightful, civilized, & utterly relaxing it is to sit on a train w/one's bottle of wine & a cigarette, watching the world go by! It took me happily back to my student backpacking days riding the rails through Europe in the mid 1970s, only now I was doing it elegantly, w/my wonderful husband! It was a TOTAL JOY to find in Asia that we smokers are not pariahs of society! AMTRAK, are you listening?!








We checked into the Ana (Intercontinental) Hotel Kyoto (yes, using more Priority Club points!), where we were attended to by their charming & beautiful kimono-clad staff, & that evening we headed for the fabled Gion district to do The Must-Do Tourist Thing: attend the Kyoto Cultural Presentation of Japanese arts at Gion Corner: Gagaku Court Music & Koto, Bunraku puppet theatre, & Kyogen comic plays, Kado flower arranging... I was entranced by the puppet theatre- something I've always enjoyed, and have tried to see in places where it's truly an art-form: Prague, & England, for example. And on this trip, I also got to see the Water Puppets in Hanoi :-)





































I leapt into the air & volunteered myself into Chado, the tea ceremony...

Then we wandered around the enchanting Gion district- something I'd dreamed of doing for Years, having read Way too many novels and collections of short stories about Japanese Inns, feudal Japan, Geishas, Maikos, and such... We actually ran into two real Maiko while stroling thru Gion; perfect, elusive butterflies, they dart out of a doorway & flit down the cobblestone streets faster than one would believe it's possible to flit on platform sandals... invariably pursued by a fast-moving horde of camera-wielding paparazzi & fans... One startled Maiko came right towards me as we came out of a shop, & I stood there transfixed, too stunned to even Think about going for my camera, as she veered around me & sped, in an artful zigzag, down the darkening street, a bevy of fans & journalists in her wake, before slipping into a doorway & vanishing... Apparently "Maiko Sightings" are rare, even in Gion, & several people asked if we'd been lucky enough to see even one...



We took our shoes off & had a great meal at Oishinbo, a traditional Japanese restaurant in Gion (sushi & lots of other delicious things- way too many, but there were so many new things to try!), washed down with lots of excellent saki...












Having "closed down Gion", we then walked back over the lovely, "Ponte Vecchio-ish" bridge, & wandered about Kyoto until we were too tired to walk anymore!










The next morning, while we were strolling thru the grounds of the 1603 Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo) opposite our hotel room, Dan discovered something absolutely magical: the cherry & plum blossoms were in bloom! I had thought we would be several weeks- if not a month- too early for this, so when Dan found a garden filled with blossoming cherry & plum trees it literally took my breath away. The Festival wasn't to be for another several weeks, but the days had been warm, & the trees had flowered early, and for us it was a perfect, glorious joy! Some of the trees had both pink and white flowers, and these "combination" trees were the most exquisite things you can imagine... This was where we started taking goofy "honeymoon" pictures of ourselves, with "Long-Armed Dan" holding our camera out as far as possible!


























We toured the Ninomaru Palace, and the moated gardens, and then went for the Maiko Dress-Up Experience I'd long planned since reading articles about it on the internet: Geisha Goldstein got her photo op with Samurai Dan! After we checked in at Studio Shiki, I first spent a good hour having the Maiko (student Geisha) makeup done: my face totally whitened down to the (sexy) nape of my neck, and then the blood-red lipstick, pink eye makeup, & black liner; & then being dressed in the padding (like I need padding...), & many opulent layers of under & outer kimonos & obi sashes & ties, & donning the full black wig with the dangling ornaments, before putting on my tabi socks & platform sandals, & having my professional photo shoot w/sword-wielding Samurai Dan!


I chose to be a Maiko, as most do, for Maikos wear brighter-colored kimonos than fully-fledged Geisha, & I figured that if you're gonna do it, Really Do It! (I probably should have opted for Courtesan, as they wear Really oppulent kimono & outrageously high platform sandals, but for once in my life Propriety won the day!) I was dying to take photos of the whole "process" of turning me from plebian non-entity into Maiko, but the studio wouldn't let me: the magic of Kyoto stays in Kyoto! It was fascinating to actually experience what goes into just Dressing the part of a Maiko- & no, this is Not something one can do without Help- much less the years of training it takes to become a Geisha, & a lot of fun, too, as playing dress-up is wont to be, but the most amazing thing for me was that we were the ONLY foreigners at the studio! This experience is patently Not for tourists- the place was filled only with Japanese couples & groups of giggling Japanese teen-aged girls, all getting in touch w/their Inner Maiko! The porcellain-faced girls in the dressing room (who Really looked the part, as opposed to me, with my Polish nose & Ukrainian cheekbones...) melted into a mass of giggles when Wanna-be Geisha Goldstein walked in, & happily tried out their 3 words of English on me! The Real giggles started apres-Maiko, when we were all back in the dressing room oiling up our faces & cleaning off the white makeup: one of the girls decided to first rub the crimson lipstick all over her perfectly exquisite china-white face, and all of us burst into spontaneous laughter... Laughter truly trumps language... What made me Really happy was that Samurai Dan actually got "into" it as I had hoped! When the camera was set & the lights went on, he grabbed that sword & gave it everything he had! The pix of him are truly fabulous, & if he doesn't turn up in that studio's next ad campaign (or on the cover of a reissue of Tai Pan) I'll be very surprised! I especially love the hilarious photo of the two of us (see above): Dan looks Truly ready to go to war, & I look Incredibly smug to have snagged him! Art imitating Life!




















By the time Cinderella had come back to earth & we left the studio, the rain had started coming down hard, & they gifted us w/an umbrella so I could go explore the area while Dan had a coffee in a nearby cafe. The salon is in Kodai-ji Temple Minami-mon, Higashiyama-ku, and there are tons of cute little boutiques, as well as the shrine at the top of the cobblestone steps... I stumbled into a truly lovely incense shop-which turned out to be the lisn Shoyeido, shop! Shoyeido is a 300 year old Hata family firm making some of the finest insence in the world, & I'd seen this store written up recently in the NY Times, but never thought I'd actually have time to get there! Bought wonderful (cheap!) incense, such as the special, seasonal cherry blossom incense, a beautiful, locally-made incense burner which now decorates the Elkhorn Inn, & purifying perfume incense for Miguel & myself- you know, for those Purification Rituals we do back at the Elkhorn Inn.... The salesladies were totally charming, & each small thing I purchased was wrapped, origami-like, as a precious jewel. This ritual of care slows the pace of purchasing, & becomes part of the whole "shopping experience", turning the mundane (oh, just throw it in a plastic bag and get on with the next customer...) into somthing lovely & special... (Are you listening, Walmart?!) Kyoto is famous for its fine textiles, & while I bought only tabi socks & block-printed shorts for Dan, we then found a wonderful gallery, & the owner graciously let me photograph a series of gorgeous, graphic Katsuhiko paintings I loved but couldn't afford to even Think about buying... I looked at kimonos, too, but everything was upwards of $350...















Then we grabbed a cab (in the pouring rain), & began one of THE highlights of our entire trip, our stay at the Hiiragiya Bekkan, a Traditional Ryokan (Japanese Inn). I had dreamed of staying at a Kyoto Ryokan for decades, since reading a book about the 400-year history of one such Inn... The internet is a Wonderful place- for without it I Never would have found the Japanese Guest Houses website, or the individual websites for almost every Ryokan in Japan! The Guest House website is in Excellent English, & has an in-depth, illustrated guide to staying in a Ryokan for clueless Westerners, & my emails to Hiiragiya Bekkan were answered immediately; based on everything I could learn on the web (thank you so much, Al Gore!), I took an expensive stab in the dark and booked our stay directly with the Inn; we were truly rewarded with what was absolutely one of the highlights of our entire trip. We checked in around 3 p.m., exchanged our shoes at the door for slippers, & were ushered to our lovely, classically-designed tatami-mat-floored room: a central shoji-screened room, w/a small alcove for a painting & a flower arrangement, encircled by a glass-walled foyer opening out onto a classicaly landscaped Japanese garden! A true oasis in the middle of Kyoto, crossing the threshold was stepping back into the refined, gracious, storybook Japan of one's sensual fantasies... We were served the traditional & fabulous "Kaiseki" dinner of many special, seasonal dishes in our room, seated at the low table in our kimonos, relaxing on our red, lacquered arm rests like a king & queen (or a Maiko & her Samurai!). Beautiful & delicious, each small dish was a true jewel, & the lady attending us was charming & delightful. This was not "toy food" by any means; tho' each dish seemed small & delicate, at the end of every meal we were truly stuffed!



















Our lovely attendant came back to let us know that the bath was ready for us, & the bath- for just the two of us!- was fabulous! A wall of showers, w/wooden seats by each one, at which to cleanse oneself, & traditional wooden buckets for rinsing, after which one has a gloriously relaxing, sexy soak in the giant, steaming hot tub! (Samurai Dan even let me take photos!)










When we got back to our room, our attendants laid out our futons in the main room, topping each with down comforters, & cushy, buckwheat-filled pillows. In no mood to go Anywhere, we spent a wonderful, romantic evening sitting at our little table by the garden, clad in our airy, cotton kimono, talking & drinking plum wine & saki, & then sleeping like lambs on our futons!

In the morning we wandered about the lovely garden, gazing at the flowering plum tree & sculptures, & dipping water from the stone urn flanked by lanterns & a "good luck" turtle like we have in back of the Elkhorn Inn! I asked the Inn staff the purpose of the ubiquitous water pots and dippers, and was told that they were essentially "for pretty"- to wet the cobblestones and make them shine... We were then served a fabulous Kaiseki breakfast of a dozen delicious & beautiful little dishes, & Dan took photos of me as a Mary Cassatt pastel, sitting on the mat at the dressing table combing my hair...





We had another, glorious hot tub bathing experience, & then (reluctantly) went on our way! To our surprise, the Ryokan gifted us with a gorgeous set of His & Hers chopsticks as we left! This was a True honeymoon night, & my only regret is that we only had one night to spend there! When we win the Lotto, you know where we're going!
We left our bags at the Inn, & wandered around downtown Kyoto, window-shopping & stopping @a Japanese fast-food place so Dan could have his hamburger fix (to counterbalance all the sushi!) And yes, you could smoke! YAY! We found the Japanese version of the Dollar Store, where everything is 100 Yen, & stunned by the fact that that there are actually things in Japan that only cost a dollar, bought some fun kitchen tools, incluidng a tiny, little blender that Chef Dan has fallen in love with! Strolled through some of the famous Kyoto shrines, finding koi ponds and dipping wells tucked away amidst shopping malls; at the Head Temple Seiganji (the Fukakusa Seizan Sect in Jyodosyu, and the first Training Hall for Buddhist women), we got to watch a multi-generational family ceremony taking place...
& bought small good luck charms for us & for Cindy... The temple is some 1300 years old, and focuses on Seishounagon, a talented writer and the first female Buddhist priest, and Sakuden Anrakuan, a literary Buddhist priest and founder of Rakugo (Japanese comic stories)... Maybe us FEMA Reports Writers can attain nirvana, too!





















Strolling thru a pristine outdoor mall we found a stamp shop selling elaborate, Japanese-graphic stamps, cheek-by-jowl with others selling only vintage USA clothing, such as BDUs & FD rescue gear... We also found THE cutest car in the universe, parked on a sidewalk:











As we walked out of "BDU World", Dan noticed a kimono @the shop above, & suggested we take a peek... (This was the first happy sign that Dan was finally hopping on the Shopaholic wagon...) Samurai-Shopper Dan had inadvertantly found us one of THE bargain shopping highlights of our trip, but I didn't realize it until after we left, & have been kicking myself ever since! The kimonos were Amazing, & the magnificent brocade obis were what-to-die-for- & only $10-$20 each! I couldn't figure out why the prices were so ridiculously cheap, esp. as the place was full of Japanese women stocking up on the magnificent obis... Wedding kimono! Outer Kimono! Under Kimono! This place was Kimono Central! I bought an "under kimono" & a magnificent pink and silver brocade obi for me, & another set as a gift (all of which were, again, elaborately wrapped like precious jewels), & then we left- @which point I looked at their card & realized that Dan had found "Harajuku Chicago", THE vintage kimono shop of Kyoto! We never had a chance to go back, or to get to any of their Tokyo shops, & I am still kicking myself for not buying a stack of the gorgeous obis!

Armed with splits of wine, Excellent take-out sushi, & cigs, we caught the Bullet Train back to Tokyo, watching Japan whizz by @2000 mph, & checked back into the Intercon for our last night in Japan...









I got to wear my beautiful kimono as a formal evening wrap (Dan thought it odd, but hey- I might have been wearing a plaid mini, stockings, kitten heels, a nylon camisole, & a fur jacket...), & we had a romantic & lovely, elegant meal (sushi! At least for me!) at the Intercon, overlooking neon-lit Tokyo...











We wandered around the Ginza again, and had G&Ts at HUB, The English Pub (!), & at one point found ourselves in a Pachinko pinball parlour, full of fun-looking games boasting an intriguing frenzy of seizure-inducing flashing lights... Alluring as they were, not having a Clue as to how to play any of them (or if you could really win any money, which would have been Extremely tempting...), we were afraid to start feeding 1000 Yen notes into the machines...






In the morning we took a cab to the Tokyo Fish Market & had an amazing sushi lunch at Sushi Dai. Talk about Fresh Fish!!


This place had been written up in the NY Times as having THE best & freshest sushi, & for being (for Japan) a veritable Bargain, @$45/per person. The Intercon Concierge backed that review up & sent us on our way, & when we got there we found that Sushi Dai, along with 2 other market sushi restaurants, are now THE hot Tokyo tickets! Lines of Japanese (and a few tourists) snaked back & forth 4 rows deep in front, & a fish-wife packed us in, admonishing us to stay in line! Everyone was in a jovial, sushi-anticipating mood, & the wait was truly worth it: the sushi was excellent, & the squid- again- luscious, velvety, & fabulous. And more wonderful, buttery baby scallops, too! We wandered about the market after lunch, & I talked Chef Dan into getting himself THE carbon steel professional Chef's Knife... a Honyaki, at Aritsugu, from Kazuo Nozaki, one of the market's 2 Knife Artisans! This is no joke; after discussion & the selection of his knife, the blade was honed & finished to order, & the resultant knife- truly a work of art- was boxed & wrapped for him like the treasure it is, in special knife-maker's block-print paper- which I have saved, as it is truly worth framing...



What I most loved about the little bit of Japan I experienced was the art & thought & care & time that goes into every, single thing, large & small- but Especially the small. And that this highly cultivated sense of aesthetics isn't a rarified experience enjoyed by only the rich, or so-called 'cultured'- it permeates all levels of Japanese society, from the fish market to the Dollar Store to the Geisha-world of Gion, & affects everything- from the creation & presentation of an appetizer, to the placement of a flower in a vase; from the way a cup of tea is created & poured, or the wrapping of a stick of incense, to the fashioning of a knife blade, or the way a bit of peach-colored skin is left to just barely peek out from the neckline of a kimono. That everything one does, however subtle, has Meaning. This care makes everything it touches beautiful & precious...

At the airport, while waiting for our flight to Vietnam, we then got to have the Ultimate Japanese Experience : two cups of coffee for $25! (But hey- the coffee was great, & beautifully presented, each perfect china saucer adorned with a lovely little cookie, perfectly placed...)

I had a last, mad sushi feast (bring on the squid!), & Dan his requisite Meal O' Meat (all suprisingly excellent, Japan having truly superb airport food), & we got ourselves a couple of pints of Weizenbeer & took them to the smoking lounge...


And then, as if it couldn't get any better, with an hour to kill before boarding, we found a Reflexology Massage Spa right across from our gate, and, with scented towels laid across our eyes, treated ourselves to jaw-droppingly wonderful foot massages!

Is this living, or what?!


Stay tuned for "Part III: Vietnam"!

1 comment:

Mimi said...

You do look like a pretty,round, little, Geisha porcelain doll- and Samurai Dan is awe inspiring!!!
mimi