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Autumn in Kyoto

Autumn in Kyoto

We are often asked to recommend the best dates to see cherry blossoms and fall colors. and indeed, there is ample “factual” information available on the Internet on the subject.  However, nature doesn’t always co-operate with published schedules. This fall, for example, the peak of the maple colors is at least 2 weeks “late”. The hot summer is much talked about as the reason.   Whatever.  Kyoto is beautiful in any season, and one brilliant red tree at Kokedera (also known as Saihoji, the Moss Temple) today was thrilling...
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Zoned Out – Day 6

Zoned Out – Day 6

Today in Kyoto we had cloudy humid weather, light traffic around town and a radiation reading of — oh, wait, Kyoto isn’t even in the “zone”.   Every day in the Japan Times, on the second page I think, there is a map of about 1/2 of Japan with concentric circles radiating out (ha!) from Fukushima.  Today’s reading for Tokyo was .064 microseiverts per hour.   Today’s reading for Sendai was .074.   Today’s reading for Nagano was .041.    Today’s reading for Shizuoka was .040.   And that’s as far west as the circles go – they don’t go past Shizuoka (about 95 miles from Tokyo) to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Ise, Naoshima Island, Hiroshima, Miyajima and basically, over half of Japan to the west of Shizuoka.    The readings themselves, for the parts of Japan that are shown, with one obvious exception, are apparently the same or lower than many parts of the US; certainly lower than Mexico City and probably Denver, which have altitude. So instead of spending our days outside the zone, we spent today zoned out… at the Kamo Odori.   I would love to post a picture of this too, but cameras and videos are strictly forbidden.  So all I have is a picture of the curtain which I took before the performance started.   The Kamo Odori is one of several dance performance series put on by maiko (apprentice geisha); this one in May.   The other one is the Miyako Odori, which is in April.  If you’re in Kyoto during these months you can go to one of the shows. There were two parts to this event for us – the most hysterical part was the “tea ceremony” that preceded the show.   Our tickets included the “tea ceremony” – there is a reason I put it in quotes a lot.   This was the fastest tea ceremony ever – we laughed the entire time.   We were ushered onto an elevator, up the elevator to the fourth floor of the theatre building, into a room with about 5 long bench-like tables with small stools lined up in front of them.  In the front of the room sat a young maiko (I guess), perfectly made up with tea implements around and a second one doing something (don’t recall what, no time to observe).   The ushers pointed to us to sit down, one attendant went down the table placing a piece of paper, a small ceramic dish and a mochi with red bean paste inside on it.  Then out came another attendant and dropped a bowl of whisked tea in front of each person.   Then all the people around us either wolfed down the sweet or pocketed it, gulped down the tea, wrapped the dish in the paper and stood up and rushed out of the room.   We were just trying to figure out what to DO and the next group of people were rushed in and seated.   In the meantime, an attendant was scurrying along picking up the empty tea bowls – I’m sure I upset the plan when I didn’t finish my tea.  David ate the rest of my mochi…    All the while, the young ladies at the front sat motionless in some odd living still-life of a tea ceremony. After we were shooed out of the “tea room” they sent us down a flight of stairs, past the first shop of souvenirs.  Then down another flight of stairs, past another shop, this time with food souvenirs.  Then through a big...
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Festive Kyoto – Day 5

Festive Kyoto – Day 5

Today was an unusual confluence of festival events, with the annual Aoi Matsuri and the Mifune Matsuri both falling on the same day.   Matsuri is basically the Japanese word for Festival and Kyoto’s festivals are some of the most elaborate in Japan, with spectacular costumes, floats, horses, drums, and more.   They’re not festivals in the sense of all day eating. carnival booths, fireworks, etc.   The festival activities are, like much of Japan, quite structured and predictable.  We took in both in a whirlwind day. Starting at promptly 10:30, the first elegantly clad marcher in the Aoi Matsuri parade came around the corner of the Imperial Palace on a well-worn route.   Down the main road in front of the palace past first, a small band of adorable school kids (in assorted green, yellow and blue hats), then past those seated in the bright sunshine today, then on around a set course to the Kamigamo Shrine.   We got pictures of a wide range of horses in their finery, marches in assorted outfits, princesses under their gaily decorated umbrellas and a few floats being carried or horse-drawn.   We walked through the palace grounds towards the Shrine but the crowds got too thick, so we hopped a bus to western Kyoto, to Arashiyama. In Arashiyama the second festival was taking place just a little later in the day.  Again a parade from a shrine, only this one went to the edge of the water, where everyone boarded decorated boats and paddled about in the river.   Lots more picture taking opportunities.   One segment where they played traditional music and women danced on the boats.  There was  boat with a big drum; not sure what that was for.    We understand the various boating parties “paraded” around in the water for two hours. Both festivals had people lining the routes a few deep.   The weather was delightful, if a little hot when we were not in the shade.   Our guide was happy to describe some of the history of the festivals, they all harken back to some long-ago tradition but frankly I don’t remember which tradition and why so I’m not going to try to write it up like an expert.  Here is good information about the Aoi Festival and the Mifune Festival. Kyoto today was busy, happy and...
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A Steep Climb

A Steep Climb

Warriors in full battle armor running at speed – the image that comes to mind in the Musha Bashira, one of the outside passages of this ancient castle, designed to accommodate their girth with extra width and set below the floor – but suddenly they turn, confronted by an offset route and a steep set of stairs that are difficult negotiate even under ideal circumstances. Castles, even those constructed during more peaceful times, were built with both offensive and defensive positions in mind. Many early castles were built on high walls (see Kumamoto) or in locations designed to reduce the opportunity for attack. Other castles, like Matsumoto, were built in anticipation of gun warfare (with appropriate gun slots and thick walls) but were never used due to the end of civil wars at the start of the Edo period. Matsumoto’s primary defense is its moat, (which photographs beautifully in more peaceful times) as well as the de rigueur hidden floor. Inside, the halls and stairs are offset, designed to slow down intruders. Most challenging now, for the visitor, are the extremely steep stairs, especially as they are negotiated in stocking feet. Each staircase is progressively steeper until you reach the final one, which is at about a 70% angle AND has uneven steps that are of differing sizes. Today, the view from the top of the Japanese Alps and the city of Matsumoto make the climb worthwhile, even though dangerous. This castle also has a rare moon viewing room; the story goes that you can see the moon three times: once in the sky, once in the water and once in your cup of sake (six times if the sake is...
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Visit to Meiji Shrine

Visit to Meiji Shrine

I’ve started working on videoing many of the special places in Japan. Our first outings with video gave us quite a bit of shaky cam material, so this past trip we dragged along a tripod and definitely got better result. Visiting Meiji Shrine is a standard tourist activity, but few westerners know about the sacred Kagura dance that you can attend, since everything about it is in Japanese. We were lucky enough to have along one of Esprit’s guides who took us to this very special event. Unfortunately, no video is permitted, so all I can say is the 1/2 hour sitting on the tatami mats on your knees is worth the experience – it’s quite unique and very Japanese. In the meantime, we could do video of other parts, so here’s a short sample of the...
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Kurashiki’s Storehouse of Photos

Kurashiki’s Storehouse of Photos

The name “Kurashiki” means “storehouse village,” and during the 17 century Kurashiki became a prosperous market where rice, cotton, and sake were collected from the surrounding area and shipped off to other parts of Japan. The warehouses of Kurashiki are still there, and this architecture gives this town its special appeal. Full of traditional Japanese-style buildings and canals, Kurashiki is one of the most picturesque towns in Japan and a great place to take some wonderful photos. We arrived there in the pouring rain, however, after spending the night at a wonderful five-room ryokan right on the main canal, we awoke to a splendid day for exploring and photographing the fabulous fall colors.    In addition to all the charming sights, however, right before we left we came upon a Japanese wedding.  The Japanese are very big on having very special weddings and they range widely from elaborate dress-up affairs in high end hotels all the way to staged photos in picturesque settings.  I don’t think they could have gotten more picturesque than Kurashiki in the fall, so we got the special treat of being able to join the hordes of tourists and the professional photographer in documenting this couples...