At this point, my feet are killing me. We walked about 7 hours in Kanazawa. We are all pretty wiped out, so we thought we’d take it easy and just go see see the Miyako odori, which is the annual dance performance of geisha and maiko ( geisha apprentices).

Of course, we miscalculated both how to get there and get back, so we ended up doing a lot of walking and exhausting ourselves AGAIN.

When we arrived at the theater in the heart of Gion, there were no more cheap seats left, and at W’s insistence we splurged for pricey seats. K was kind of annoyed about this, but with the way the theater was laid out, I think we would have missed a considerable amount of the awesomeness if we had sat in the nosebleed seats.

Because the show was indeed awesome. Everything was incredibly beautiful to look at: the sets, the costumes, the women. On each side of the stage were the orchestra, so to speak, which consisted of two sets of geisha. On the left they were in costume, but on the right they were in plain dark brown robes with no make up. They were all ages, with most of the solo singing done by a woman who looked in her 80s.

The precision of the dancing was very impressive, just about as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen. The faces of the dancers never changed, and were so immobile that at times I had to remind myself that they were faces and not masks. It was surprising when I saw a dancer blink. That, and the very small, distinct movements of the dancers made them seem very doll-like. Yet despite this, they managed to convey eight scenes of emotion and drama, filled with beauty.

We had been to Gion twice before this visit, and each time we had seen a maiko or two rushing by. They pass by in a blur, occasionally pausing for a few seconds to respond to some lucky person’s photo request. When watching these doll- like dancers, I wondered, who are these women? What are their thoughts and dreams? They live in a world of women, which must have advantages, but a world very rigidly structured. I live in a fairly structured world; I have to impose my order on it. They must perceive life so differently from me.

After the show, W said, “They seem more mysterious than ever.” He’s so right.

Today we decided to take our first big trip outside of Kyoto and nearby Nara and took the train 2 hours and 20 minutes to Kanazawa, a city near the coast of the Sea of Japan.

The train ride was very pleasant. We went through many mountains – literally through, as in tunnels. Everywhere we’ve gone in Japan the mountains are left wild while the valleys are full of industry, agriculture, residences, and shops, all on top of one another willy-nilly. Apparently there is no zoning in Japan. But it’s amazing to me that as crowded as this country can be, and as old a culture it is, it’s left the wild spaces all around to be enjoyed.

On the train are mostly businessmen. At least that’s what I think they are. Everyone wears a suit to work so it’s hard to tell. This is how it was in the U. S. too a long time ago. My Dad wore a suit to work even though he was a clerk in a department store.

Many people on the train are sleeping. It is very quiet. On the bus, you are not allowed to talk on a cell phone. You can on the train, but I noticed when someone did, they went to the bathroom car so as not to disturb anyone.

Oh, how I wish these rules existed at home, where I have been subjected to so many intimate and disturbing phone calls!

At one point, I heard a very quiet sing-songy voice coming down the aisle. It sounded like a bird, but in fact it was the snack cart lady announcing her presence barely audibly but cheerfully.

Speaking of sing-songy, everywhere you go there are pleasant chimes to alert you of various things. Before a train or bus arrives at a station, or when the train is approaching a stop, a little tune will play. It’s kind of relaxing.

And then we arrived in Kanazawa. First we went to Kenruko-en gardens, which is considered one of the top three gardens in Japan. I know, I know I said I was over gardens but we were in for a treat- in Kanazawa, sakura are still blooming! Yes! One really doesn’t tire of them, although I’m sure by now you’re tired of reading about them. In any case, this was the largest garden we’d been to, so that counts for something.

Next we headed to Kanazawa Castle Park. This was our first visit to a Japanese castle, and we mightily impressed. I have been to some Irish castle ruins which were very wonderful which their lichens and decay. It was very different to see a castle made of wood instead of stone, preserved and in some areas lovingly restored. There was an actual working moat which looked like it would be troublesome to cross. There was a restored area which special windows for dropping rocks on the enemy (with its own term). The grounds were huge and surrounded by high stone walls, and the gates were incredibly thick, heavy wood reinforced with iron. I tried to imagine what it would have been like filled with soldiers.

After that, we headed over to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporaryy Art. This was one of the best modern art museums that I have ever been to. Most of the rooms just featured one piece by one artist. Many of the pieces were installations that appeared permanent, and many involved optical illusions and a fair amount of engineering.

Now all of that could have added up to some considerable cheesiness, but in fact I really liked most of the art, and got a kick out of some of the pieces. There was a sculpture that looked like an abstracted bit of spine which was called “Soul”. That made me think about the concept of soul and where I perceive it in my body. At times I have perceived it as something that fills the interior of my body, i.e., everything inside my skin. At times I felt it was in my head, almost synonymous with my mind. But my spine? It never occurred to me. And why not?

Another piece called “The Void” consisted of a huge black oval that, no matter how you looked at it, you couldn’t tell if it had any dimension or not. This mystery somehow made it seems like I was looking at nothingness, which was kind of eerie.

Kanazawa was a treat in many ways. We saw very few foreigners which made me feel like we were getting closer to the heart of Japanese culture. I know in reality that I as a foreigner with only a few weeks to explore will always remain on the far perimeter of this culture, so any minute increment closer to the center seems like a gift.

In the evening we met up with our friend Jesse from Berkeley, who is visiting Japan with his Japanese wife and four-year-old son. He works for Hitachi and travels often to Japan as well as Israel and Ireland. He’s always working, and in fact spent the first 20 minutes with us half talking to us and half on a conference call to Ireland. We went to a place was kind of like a pub, mostly for drinking but with, as Jesse called it, “drunk food”.
It was great to be out with someone who spoke Japanese, and we could just relax while he figured out the menu. He ordered sake for me and W, and the waiter came over with a HUGE bottle and a sizeable glass on a plate. He proceeded to pour into the sake overflowed onto the plate; this was to show generosity.
I am quite sure I, a lightweight, have never drank that much sake before, so I was pretty soused by the time I was sipping the last of it off the plate.

I sure felt happy, but felt less so when I awoke at 4 a.m. with a stiff neck and a pain in the middle of my forehead. Fortunately after I took a hot bath in the awesome Japanese bath at my ryokan in the morning, and had two strong cups of black tea with sugar to drink, I felt fairly human again. Or at least, not very pained.

We headed back to Nara today, since our trip was aborted last time by K’s brutal eye-stabbing allergy attack. Today, armed with a fresh face mask and large, dark sunglasses, he was ready to brave it again.

Nara, you may recall, is known for its antiquities but also for giving deer a protected status, so there are cute little deer everywhere. These Sika Deer (shika) are about the size of Key Deer (if you have ever been to the Florida Keys), although more stocky. So, about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of “normal” deer.

Even though I fed them “deer biscuits” twice during our last stay, I still couldn’t resist feeding them again. Now, last time they were a bit chutzpadik, butting my ass and biting my sleeve when I didn’t deliver the tasty goods fast enough. Today the deer were just rude. One in particular kept biting my ass. That deer received NO biscuits.

We heading over to Isuien Garden, but now that we have seen many spectacular gardens, we were not impressed. Then we went to Daibutsuden, which is home to the world’s largest bronze buddha housed in the largest wooden building in Japan.

The building was really impressively large, and didn’t seem real because of its scale. I’m sure it’s impossible to convey it in photos. The buddha was also, well, large. And impressive. I saw also a huge statue of Komoku-ten who I thought might be K’uei Hsing, the Chinese God of literature, because he was holding a calligraphy brush. I became aquainted with K’uei Hsing during my last visit to the Minneapolis Art Institute, where they have a great little sculpture of him. But apparently Komoku-ten is just holding the brush to write sutras, so that’s not nearly as grand and a God of Literature.

Then we headed off to the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, which has been left undisturbed since around 841 a.d. Except that’s not really true, since there are toilets and a road and the omnipresent vending machines. (I guess I haven’t mentioned yet that there is a vending machine about every 5 feet in Japan). But besides that, it’s fairly pristine so we got to see wild Japanese maples in their natural states. These look nothing like the small ornamental trees so common in the Bay Area, including the one I planted in my own front yard. Those are pruned in a round shape and never seem to get more than 20 feet tall. The ones in the forest were very tall, maybe 100 feet, and slender; but the leaves were the same, and I best these forest are amazing in the fall.
W decided that being in the forest might cause him problems, so he opted to try out the face mask as well. So now K squared were both wearing face masks. This isn’t what I had in mind when I said I wanted us to dress alike. They encouraged me to wear one as well, but what the hell? I’m blessed with a working immune system, keyn ayin hara, and don’t need such things. While we were hiking to the top of Mount Wakakusayama I realized that back home people were sitting down to their seders. It was so strange to think about that.

We reached the top and were treated to an amazing view of mountains, the city of Nara below, and yes — more deer.

We came down a different path that was mostly stone steps, so it went very quickly. We also took at different route back to the train station, which was much nicer.

Unlike California, which had a full eclipse tonight (last night? tomorrow night?), Japan just had a partial one but we could still see it a bit as the moon rose.

When we first arrived in Kyoto a thousand years ago – okay, just a week or so – we went to Ginkakuji Temple, or the Silver Pavilion. I didn’t even write about it because my mind was such a blur. It had some unusual looking Zen gardens, including a conical mound with a flat top. I’m sure that’s supposed to represent something or other.

Today we went to Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion. It’s fairly impressive, a gold building on a lake with mountains in the background. The grounds were very pleasant too. And – oh! – on the way, on a busy street off to the side, I spotted another Inari (fox) shrine, which have become my favorite shrine and fun to spot. They seem to just pop up everywhere.

Afterwards we went to Ryoanji Temple, which is known for its Zen rock garden. I have to say, I have looked at many Zen gardens and I can finally conclude that they don’t do much for me. Looking at the pond at Kinkakuji makes me feel calmer than starting at well-placed gravel and rocks. It’s interesting to look at, but not *that* interesting.

What was interesting at Ryoanji was that there was a little sakura grove still blooming, and we stood there for quite a while wondering if this was a our last hurrah. Occasionally a breeze blew by and the petals rained down. At this point I’ve looked at millions of petals, but it still looks wonderful.

I was thinking today about freedom. There’s some freedoms I can enjoy in Japan that I can’t enjoy at home. Mainly, feeling safe and relaxed in public. The ability to walk down by the dark, deserted river at night, and see no homeless encampments, no drug addicts, no garbage — basically, no signs of a careless society — is very freeing. To be in that dark place and not worry about crime is even more freeing.

At home, there’s other freedoms that don’t seem to exist here, the freedom to be oneself, to choose for oneself, badly or not. And to speak back to authority with impunity. And to live in a big mess if that’s your thing. Just, you know, be whatever.

On the crowded bus, when I need to get off, I say “sumimasen” (excuse me) barely audibly and people seems to visibly shrink to make space. A path is cleared with a few whispers. K said some people even said “sorry” back to him, even though he was the one causing the disruption to the bus by trying to get off . Or is it that they were at fault for blocking his path when they had no where to go (minus the shrinking phenomenon)?

There a couple we’ve been chatting with from the south of Switzerland, which is apparently the Italian part as they are Italian. We’ve been exchanging some travel information. There are people in the ryokan from all over the world, although the majority are Australian (I may have already mentioned that). This week there was an influx of French people; it must be vacation time for them. Where ever you go, things are translated into English, Chinese, Korean so I assume that’s the big three languages of visitors, but all sorts of people show up. In any case, it’s nice hear people speaking Italian, and they also happen to be vegetarians. We mentioned that there was a vegan restaurant nearby, Salute, that was very good, although it was very hard to find (it took us 5 tries).

When we returned from our day, we happen to bump into them at the tourist bureau at Kyoto Station. We were there to get a new map of Kyoto, as ours was so used it had already ripped in half. They said they wanted to try the vegan restaurant, so we escorted them there. Afterwards W commented that it was very Japanese for us to do this, and we realized it was. Maybe we are becoming a little Japanese. In fact, this has become an insult when one of us acts selfishly, “Oh, that’s not very Japanese of you.”

I had a dream last night that I came home to find someone had decorated my front yard with dozens of potted flowers. You see potted flowers everywhere here, in the one foot space homes half between there home/business in the street. Tiny bits of beautiful flowers. In my dream, I asked people around me who gave me the flowers and no one knew. I kept asking until someone said it was from this woman. This woman and I did not know each other personally, but I had praised her publicly and she had heard of it. The flowers were her thank you. I think of this as a Japanese dream.

Today we decided we would try to take it easy. Every day we seem to exhaust ourselves even though we try to pace our adventures. So we decided we would just do one thing, we was to go to the Kyoto National Museum, a twenty-minute walk from our ryokan. W snuck in that we should go to Sanjusangen-do Temple as well, since it is very close by and K and I said okay, but that’s really it.

Well. We arrived at the Kyoto National Museum to find that it was CLOSED and had been since December, and would be until next week. Somehow when we looked at the brochure for it we failed to notice this important bit of information. It turns out the Sanjusangen-do is right across the street, so we went over there.

The main feature of this temple is Japan’s longest wooden building, which houses 1000 gold-plated statues of the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon, besides a really, really large seated status of her and 28 gods. Visitors are not allowed to photograph this, but it kind of looks like this:
Sanjusangen-do Temple, 1000 Kannon

The hall was dark and full of insense. We looked at each of the 28 gods in turn, but they were very war-like and after a while I lost interest in them. The Kannon with their 40 hands and 11 hands were much more interesting — that’s 11,000 heads and 40,000 hands. I’ve really never seen anything like it.

Outside, off to the side, their was an Inari shrine, complete with foxes. I’m not sure why it was at this temple but I went to it and clanged the bell to wake the gods. I stood their for a minute and heard an sound like an animal scurrying around the corner. It turned out to be a crow. Japanese crows sound different than American ones. They say, “Haw! Haw!” instead of “Caw! Caw!”, so it always sounds like they are laughing at everyone. Which they probably are.

We decided to take the bus to the Kinkakuji Temple, but this was a big mistake. After an hour of occasionally nodding off, we till weren’t at our destination, but at a bus terminal where we had to change buses .. to the same bus. Instead we went and had lunch at our first mediocre restaurant, and then realized it was too late in the day to go to Kinkakuji after all. W still wanted to go, and take a taxi there so we would have more time, but this seemed to definitely be venturing into the realm of Doing Too Much. In addition, it was a cold and cloudy day and I was ready to go back to our room. So K and I left, and W went to have his first adventure on his own. He wasn’t too happy about this. He decided to try the Botanical Gardens, which were much closer than the temple.

K and I caught the subway. Lo and behold! The subway is so much faster than the stank old bus. And it is not crowded, so we could sit the whole time. And it’s quiet, unlike noisy BART. We got back to Kyoto Station in 15 minutes. We’re taking the subway everywhere we can from now on.

We went out this evening to walk around Gion, the area with all the geisha and maiko. Sakura season has ended, and the crowds have gone home. It was like a different place to walk done the ancient alleys of lanterns and small wooden building without it being flooded with tourists. Almost like going back in time. We found the great restaurant we had eaten at before several days ago. K was amazed that I knew exactly where it was. I’m really like a human GPS.

In the end, we stayed out too late and I’m going to bed exhausted, again. This is the most tiring vacation I’ve ever had.

This morning K was feeling only slightly better than yesterday, but had made up his mind that he was ready for THE FACE MASK.

When we arrived in Kyoto, we were puzzled by the large amount of people walk around in face mask. Were they sick? Were they worried about getting sick? It turns out they are all avoiding an allergic reaction to cedar pollen. To us, it looks bizarre that some many people — at least a quarter — would voluntarily walk around with their face covered. But after the eye-stabbing fubar K experienced yesterday, he was ready to give it a try.

First W and I stopped off at our local temple while K rested his eyes. At the shrine was an old Japanese man chanting while reading a prayer book. It was Saturday, shabbat, and his chanting didn’t sound unlike the trope while reading the Torah. We sat in the darkened room and I experienced my altered-universe shabbat.

W and I decided the temple had an anxiety-cancelling effect. I noticed while there, something that for some reason I hadn’t noticed before, that the most of the decorations included phoenixes. Apparently the phoenix was a symbol of the Imperial Court back in the day. In current times, it is a harbinger of peace. Which is of interest to me, because I do feel peaceful in that place.

We made breakfast at the ryokan, and I realized I was cringing a bit around the other guests, which made me realize I hadn’t cringed in a while. I guess I shrink away from people a lot, especially strangers. I don’t want to chit-chat with them or answer any questions about where I’m from. No one bothered me because I avoided all eye contact. This made me realize another thing that is relaxing about being in Japan. People, other than kindly helping me, basically leave me the hell alone.

We returned to the ryokan to get K and headed out, stopping off at a hat store down the street to get him a baseball cap to help shield his now very sensitive eyes, and then off to the pharmacy for face masks. There was a wide selection, but it seemed they all did the same thing. K made his selection and lo and behold – that, plus remembering to take antihistamine, did the trick.

We over to Kyoto Station to catch the bus for the Kyoto National Museum, as we figured it’d be best to do an indoor activity this evening. The bus line was very long, and looking at the map posted at the station, it seemed it would be easier to walk to it. We headed out but the map was somewhat inaccurate, and by the time we checked our own map, we were at least 20 minutes out of the way. At this point W suggested we head over to Kiyomizu-dera temple. He was really hot to go there because someone at the ryokan suggested it. K said he was feeling pretty good so we thought we’d give it a try. Apparently one of its claims to fame is that there are no nails in this gigantic wooden structure.

The temple was *much* further than we thought. I started to feel tired, and then crabby. Then I started acting crabby, which is such poor form. I felt really bad afterwards. It upsets me that I still act this way. I apologized to W, since most of it was directed at him in the form of “This temple better be worth it” and “Oh god! It’s so crowded!” (which it was, absurdly so, and I am damn sick of crowds). But once Korey gets an idea in his head, it’s next to impossible to dissuade him. We went in, and there was some cool things to see. One was a separate “Love Shrine” where young Japanese couples go to improve their chances for love. The god for this was a young man, perhaps not unlike Cupid, who was accompanied by a rabbit. Rabbits are very popular in Japan. I’m surprised that Hello Kitty isn’t Hello Bunny, as there are so many rabbits objects everywhere.

At this place, there are two stones about 20 feet apart, and if you successfully walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, you will be successful in your search for love. I convinced W he should do this. So with me about 5 feet ahead of him, ostensibly to clear the path, we set out. He walked with his arms in front of him, in the style of the Frankenstein monster, with his eyes closed. Unfortunately, despite my attempts to clear the way for him — it was very, very crowed — he bumped into people, hands first, meaning he accidently groped a woman or two. Um. Yeah. It was a little embarrassing. But when he made it to the other rock, people applauded.

Today we went to Nara, which is the place with the most antiquities in Japan. It’s also known for having incredibly friendly deer, as deer have a protected status in this city. We bought “deer biscuits” for 150 yen and I experienced being mobbed by cute deer. They bowed, Japanese style, while begging for biscuits. They were also a bit aggressive, butting my ass and nipping at my sleeves. Really, how much harm can a little deer do? I pushed back on their heads when they butted me, it was pretty fun.

We saw a famed five-story pagoda, but after that we didn’t see much as K suffered a brutal allergic reaction to the pollen and had to go home. He said his eyes felt like someone was stabbing them. Well, that didn’t sound good at all.So we will have to return to Nara another day to see the giant Buddha and primeval forest, evidently undisturbed since the 9th century.

W then got a hair up his ass that he wanted to buy an expensive shirt he saw at the department store next to Kyoto station, so I went with him. First we stopped at the temple around the corner, the first one I saw when we came here, Nishi Honganji temple. No one goes there; it’s huge and empty and beautiful. It’s so nice to be inside it. You can hear the busy world outside on the street, but inside it’s dark and quiet and nothing is happening. I kneel and think about my life, and feel that maybe somehow things will be okay. I would really like to go there every day, because when else in my life will I be a two-minute walk from a beautiful temple?

I did end up buying a cheap pair of thigh-high stockings. I seem to be the only person who wears them in the States, but they’re popular here.

Today we managed to make breakfast for ourselves. Yesterday we went to the local “su-pa” and got corn flakes, soy milk, strawberries and yogurt. I was so pleased to eat something fresh rather than the pain perdu from the “french” bakery (which actually does have fairly authentic french baked goods). Then we headed out for Fushimi-Inari Taisha.

Fushima-Inari is known for the thousands of orange (often described as “vermillion”) torii (gates). What I didn’t know until I was there that these torii don’t just go along a path, they goes up a mount side, Mount Inari. Furthermore, there are thousands of shrines along the way to go with the thousands of torii. Also, there is some sort of fox symbolism going on, so just about every shrine is framed by a pair of foxes (kitsune). The one on the left has something long in its mouth, which Wikipedia says is a key, and the one on the right has a ball in its mouth. Wikipedia also says the foxes are supposed to be messengers, but K says they are supposed to be magic. I do remember seeing a Kurosawa film where there was something about magic foxes who could assume human form, so I looked up kitsune and found that some people even revere foxes as gods. And this is something I really like about other religions — they don’t just worship people, they worship animals and nature too.

We started walking up the path. It was a hot day and there was a lot of people. Getting a photo of the torii without hoards of humans in the shot was next to impossible. We started wandering off the main path. W said that you were supposed to get lost, and we made an attempt. We found a trail leading through the woods, and we followed it for a 1/4 miles or so through a cedar forest. There’s some sort of bird, I think it’s a type of thrush, that was singing an echoing song from the treetops. Also, we heard indistinct music coming from far off. All of this — finally being alone in the woods, the birds, the music — made this part of the adventure seem very dreamlike.

At some point we came to a marker, which said “58” and every thing else was in Japanese. I couldn’t read it, but it seemed like a distance marker. A little further the path terminated at a trail and there was a “57” marker. I was very excited that we had found some sort of a trail, and we thought we could come back specifically to hike on this trail. We decided to go a little further and went to the right, towards the wafting music. The music got louder and louder, and finally we found the source: a boom box belonging to some construction workers’ fixing the trail. The funny thing is, despite discovering the mundane source of the music, it didn’t ruin the magical feeling it gave me before.

We then returned to the main path and followed the torii up, up, up. We started to see little shops and restaurants along the way. These were mostly just little huts selling a few items related to the shrines. We kept coming to groupings of small shrines, with numbered maps posted nearby. I wondered if the shrines were owned by families, since there were many and they were numbered.

As we climbed, the weather began to turn. The sky got darker and darker and the wind picked up. At some point we broke down and bought some snacks — green tea in a bottle, crackers — added them to the fruit we had brought, and ate this at the side of the path. An elderly couple, hiking down, said to us, “Oishii?” (delicious) to which we replied “Totemo oishii! ” (very delicious) and we all laughed. We felt fortified to by our little snack and continued to the top of the mountain. By then it was very blustery and looked like rain. I really hoped it wouldn’t rain . We had dressed for a warm, sunny day and would’ve been miserable.

We stopped at many shrines. Sometimes we did the ritual hand washing (not dissimilar from the ritual hand washing I had done in my chassidic days) and stood before them. Sometime I rang the bell to “wake the gods” (I guess they nap alot. Well, why not?). Sometimes I thought for myself that I would like to feel calmer about my life, a sense of peace. Just thinking about feeling more peaceful actually made me feel more peaceful. Then I realized I could do more, so I thought how I would like everyone to feel more peaceful. Everyone.

I don’t know anything about the Shinto religion. I’m sure if I did, it wouldn’t appeal to me, since no religions do. There’s something comforting, though, in religious rituals. It feels good to me to make the pretense of praying even if I don’t believe it actually has any external effect. The intention, though, does seem to have an internal effect.

The weather held, and before we knew it we were heading back down. It felt like we had been on the mountain, looking at orange torii, for weeks. I skipped down the steps; it seemed easier than walking, and sometimes it felt like floating. It took so much less time coming down, it was like the whole experience was fast-forwarded (or fast-reversed).

Our evening was not nearly a success. In fact, it was kind of a fail. We tried to go to Gion but missed the bus. We walked to the station to catch it there since we had 15 minutes, but missed it again because it came early. Finally we caught it and it was THE WRONG BUS. I could see we were going in the wrong direction, and we had to get off and come back. We consoled ourself by having a little homemade salad for dinner. Frankly, having some fresh vegetables seemed very “oishii” after days of processed food.

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