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.

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