R Scott Okamoto
A quiet, peaceful day in Kyoto- Ancient buildings, geishas, and food
Day 9- Tuesday, July 4
We made a deliberate choice to bring the kids with us on our dream Japan vacation. My parents were skeptical. Some friends wondered if it was a good idea. But we did it, and while it would have been a much smoother, far-ranging trip without the kids, I’m glad we brought them. Eating the food with them, taking in the sites of samurai days with them, crying in Hiroshima with them, and connecting with our past, however distant, with them has been invaluable. But it was also like dragging an anchor around at times.
On any given morning, Geri and I would wake up and start planning train routes or walking routes. We would figure out what we would eat for breakfast. Then we would get the kids up. Owen and Audrey would get up with a little prodding. Getting Ethan up was like waking the dead. He is a homebody, and while he definitely loved being in Japan, after about 10 days, he missed home and his friends.
“Let’s go!” we would say on any morning. 90 minutes later, after 2/3 kids decided they needed to go to the bathroom, couldn’t find a shoe, started watching a youtube video, went back to sleep, we would hit the streets. Every movement to another locale was a labor of love and sheer determination. And our kids are relatively easy going. We couldn't have done this with more challenging kids.
And once out in the crowds of a night market or a touristy shrine, there is the sheer panic of keeping track of everyone. For anyone considering traveling with kids to far-away places, I highly recommend it. But Geri and I both would like to return to this place alone to drink more, carouse more, and do more. When we travel alone, we are an efficient traveling and partying machine.
Back to this reality.
After the barrage of shrines and history in Nara, I really didn’t feel like going to see more shrines. And there are about a dozen more. Ethan and I opted for a quiet day of rest and writing (Ethan was editing some video footage) while Geri and Miyuki took the other kids out on another marathon tour of the temples and shrines.
After about 12 hours of blasting the little air conditioner, the apartment was not cool, by any means, but it was almost bearable. So I set up some pillows near the AC and wrote a couple of these blog entries.
Ethan slept until noon. I slapped him around enough for him to put some clothes on, so we could explore the neighborhood. We were just a couple of blocks away from a famous shrine, the Fushi Inari-taisha, so we headed out in the rain and weaved our way through the hundreds of mostly Chinese tourists to get food. There is an alley leading up to the shrine filled with food stalls. We got fried chicken, mochi, and meats on sticks. Then we checked out the shrine, this one featuring a series of hundreds of gates leading up the mountain.
Ethan went back to the apartment to edit some of his videos, and I caught a train to see the Nishiki Market, another huge covered outdoor market. I meandered through a downtown shopping area filled with American stores like H&M, Banana Republic, Coach, etc. And then I looked down a corridor between these chain stores and found an entrance to the market. Japanese stores with trinkets, clothing, shoes, and food. In the middle is the Nishiki Market which has food stalls and stores. I couldn’t begin to name the different foods and drinks available.
Got a text from Geri that their marathon shrine tour was over. We said we’d meet at Gion, the ancient city where the lucky few can catch a glimpse of a geisha…or a yakuza.
It was still raining pretty hard, so I entered Gion from the main street, making my way between large groups of tourists. A lot of the Asian tourists rent kimonos, so it looks like the streets are filled with geishas. When you get closer, though, you can see and hear they are not. I know this because I came face to face with a real one.
Trying to get away from a particularly large group of tourists, I ducked down a side alley/street that had a few bars and restaurants. It was a little spooky to suddenly be alone in a narrow street that looked like it did 500 years ago. I put my umbrella down to fold up, and it started raining again, so I raised it up. When I did, a yellow vision seemed to appear out of nowhere. A ghostly woman in a yellow kimono and white face was walking towards me. The stillness of her face and the way she walked without any movement of her head seemed other-worldly. I considered turning back and going to the main street, but I just walked slowly on. I had read that it is rude to snap pictures of the geisha, so I resisted the urge to reach for my phone. I just walked and stared. She passed to my left within a few feet, and she didn’t look at me at all. Just a placid gaze at the street in front of her, as she walked.
I let her pass and turned to see where she was going. She was heading right for the busy main street, but she entered a doorway before she got to the street. I’ve heard that Gion is filled with secrets. The world’s richest and powerful people are said to dine in the secret invitation-only restaurants that charge thousands of dollars for the meals. The yakuza are said to control everything, including the geishas. It’s a small area, but much of it is inaccessible to the public. I looked up into the windows and tried to imagine what went on.
Geri, Miyuki, Audrey, Emily, Alan, and Owen found me in Gion, and we walked around. We actually saw two more geishas. I’m told that we were really fortunate. Still, it was unsettling. Ahead of us, we saw a commotion of tourists. Two geishas and a woman who appeared to be their teacher, emerged from a building and got into a waiting car. Again, the movements were so smooth and effortless. The car sat for a while, and we walked right past them. What was ugly was the Asian tourists crowding around and shoving their phones right into their faces. One man had his phone just a foot or two from one of the geisha’s face as she got into the car. It seemed so violent, like an assault. His excited face was the face of someone in the movies committing a rape. The geisha sat motionless, staring straight ahead. But even through the car window, I could see her struggle to maintain her stoic gaze.
I know there is ugliness all over the world. And I know the controversies surrounding the geisha are complex. But sometimes a moment captures everything wrong with the world. Something unique and complexly beautiful attracts people who want to consume and assault it.
We ate at a restaurant that was 180 years old. The food was pretty good, but being in that building along the river was pretty darn cool. Then we went to the Fushi Inari-taisha shrine at night, so Geri and Miyuki could see it. It was really peaceful being there with no tourists. The rain had stopped and the moon was out as we walked through our neighborhood. Another sublime evening.
Went to bed in our hot apartment with plans to spend the morning in Kyoto and head back to Tokyo for the end of our trip. I was a little sad that we had reached the end of our touring around. It had been a crazy schedule, basically moving us and all of our shit every two days through cities, onto and off of trains. But it had been an amazing couple of weeks. We had seen more of Japan than a lot of Japanese people had seen. But we weren’t done making memories, just yet.