Like a Fine Cup of Yogurt: Getting Cultured in Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine

On my recent trip to Japan, I went down to Kyoto for three days. I can’t lie, travel isn’t always fun. My first day in Kyoto was a bit dispiriting. I was hot and exhausted from the train journey and then making my way to my hostel in the blazing sun. I couldn’t check into my hostel right away so I had to wait around the area until I could check in (and my hostel was on the opposite side of town from everything I wanted to do). The thing about solo travel is that there is no one to cheer you up. You end up grumbling under your breath that Kyoto sucks. 

A shower, some food,and a reliable bus map can really brighten the view. I capped my first day by visiting the Yasaka shrine in Gion. Gion is a famous geisha district (featured in the novel Memoirs of a Geisha, Yasaka Shrine is where Chiyo goes to pray that she’ll become a geisha). It is supposed to be a celebration of the essence of Gion. It features a street of smaller shrines and even a stage. Visiting by night, when most of the light came from the many hanging lanterns, it felt like stepping back in time. I decided to give Kyoto a second chance.

Maiko-sanWhile in Kyoto I had two very interesting experiences.  The first was a morning session at a Maiko-san studio. Maikos are apprentice geishas still training for their profession as artists, performers, and hostesses. At a Miako studio you get to have the experience of going through the beauty routine of a Maiko and then wear a full kimono with treacherous front wedged sandals. Afterwards you are photographed. Yes, that above is a picture of me. I am a bit shy, so you only get the back view in this post.

This was my first kimono experience and it was very illuminating. I feel so much sympathy for both professional kimono wearers like geishas and maikos, but also brides having summer shrine weddings. It is incredible the number of layers one wears. You must also wear padding to make your body shape as flat and column like as possible to get the correct fit and drape of the kimono. Being a bit more voluptuous than most of the Japanese women, I actually (to my surprise) required a lot of padding to make my stomach and ribcage flush with my chest and my back more flush with my bum.

On the one hand, you feel like a line-backer or like you’re wearing a futon. But, there is something about the movement of the silk and drape of the sleeves that is graceful and incredibly feminine. The makeup is quite intense as well. I showed both a coworker who did a Maiko experience herself and my Japanese friend my frontal pictures. They were pleasantly surprised with my results.

“You don’t look weird like many foreigners who try this do. The makeup works well with your face,” my coworker noted. But truthfully, it was not my face so much as it was the efforts of the very friendly makeup artist who tried to match the line of color and curve to my face, not just doing the exact same contour to everyone that sat in her chair. But I don’t know, maybe I should invest in blood red lipstick and eyeliner? 

Tea ceremony

And my last plans in Kyoto were for a traditional tea ceremony. A tiny tea house tucked away down an alley off the main street offered English language tea ceremonies. I booked an appointment and found myself in a room with several other curious foreigners. I have seen a version of tea ceremony performed by my friend from Tokyo, she took classes in tea ceremony, but I wanted to try the full teahouse experience.

I sat by a very nice Dutch couple. There were also some extremely eager American students there. I get the feeling they had been hobby learning Japanese and were excited to learn more about Japan, but were also very eager to show off how much they already knew. Sometimes by asking questions much too complicated for ESL speakers.

Our hostess however, was lovely. She did speak English quite well. She walked us through the basic ceremony, explaining how it changes seasonally and what occasions it is used for. At the end of her demonstration we had time to ask questions. Then we got to try preparing the matcha tea ourselves and had a Japanese sweet shaped like a green oak leaf to compliment the bitter earthiness of the strong green tea.

I ended up having a very interesting and memorable time in Kyoto in spite of a rocky start. I met some wonderful people and had some unique cultural experiences. I know that Kyoto is a place I will be back too. Maybe quite soon.


Visiting a Tokyo Maid Cafe

For over a decade maid cafes have been popular for both entertainment at refreshment in Tokyo. The concept behind these seemingly odd places is that you are suppose to get the experience of being a wealthy, well-born person returning home where you are waited on by your staff of maids. The particular cafe I went to is actually called, “@home”. 

When you enter they cheerfully tell you, “Welcome home!” All the men are “master” and all the women are “princess.” You are seated and walked through the menu by maid. Each maid has their own look and style with various accessories added to one of the basic maid costumes. Besides food and drink, you can choose a maid to have your picture taken with and you can even (for a fee) select a small table game for a maid to come and play with you.


Many people were there with friends having fun. My friends and I ordered shaker drinks which involve more interaction than a basic coffee or tea. The maid chooses your flavor and makes you help her shake it up by singing along as she does a little chant. For me she chose a blue, cream soda flavored mixer. For my friend and this week’s guide to Tokyo, Ayako, she chose an apple mixer.


Our main maid, Usagi, or “Rabbit” even tried to speak a little English to me. We got to pick props and little costume pieces out of a big box to take pictures with the maids we chose. I made silly faces in both. When the maid from the top photo brought our picture over she said, “Wink! Oh, kawaii!” So I guess she approved if my weird winky face.

It was a lot of fun, but some of the customers were very serious. They came alone and seemed to be mainly interested on playing games with the maids. One young man even brought a present for his favorite maid. And one man sat there doing his makeup and putting on false eyelashes for a very long time in preparation for his photo. It is a little sad that some people would rather come pay a girl to spend time with them than go and play games and have coffee with friends or girlfriends. The fact that you can rent time with these girls does hint of low level prostitution in a way.

For most people, it’s a little innocent fun, something different. But for some people, visiting seems to be a regular habit that they take very seriously. I couldn’t help but wonder if it ever become difficult for the girls working there if a customer takes this bit of fantasy too seriously.

Recently the first maid cafe opened up in the US, in California. Whether or not the trend will spread or last as it had done in in Japan, I’m not sure. There is definitely an interest in Japanese culture,  but there isn’t such a strong habit of costume play and themed places in the US. Not for adults anyway. I am sure many people will go once for the novelty, but I guess we will have to wait and see how far it goes and how long it lasts.