Yesterday, we went through 10,000 red (well, vermillion) gates (full disclosure; we quit after about 4,000), today we went through a bamboo forest. This morning, we hit temples of Western Kyoto, two major ones (and don’t ask me what they are called). Most of the temples we saw were originally built as private villas and used as such, until the owners passed them on to the monks, perhaps, by doing so, hoping to gain access to Nirvana. So they do look more like palaces than temples, with their expensive finishes and exquisite gardens.
At night, we went on a tour of Gion, the old historical entertainment district of Kyoto. Night starts early here in Japan – it is dark already at 6 PM.
By day, Gion looked worn down and rather seedy. By night, it was transformed into a magical land illuminated by red lanterns. This is the island of teahouses and geishas. We learned that all the “geishas” we saw on the streets were fake. The real ones are rarely seen outside during the day. The ones we saw were tourists playing the part. Geishas work from 6 PM to midnight, entertaining clients. What is this entertainment all about is still a mystery to me. They are not prostitutes, they are actually very modest. Businessmen seek their company for their musical skills, conversational adroitness, and good looks (btw, most of them, even though they look like exotic flowers, aren’t pretty at closer examination). We did spot a real geiko (geisha) and a few maikos (geishas in training). Also, the mystery of so many women in kimono we saw on the streets was revealed to us: 300 businesses in Kyoto give discounts to women in kimonos 🙂
So our trip has come to an end.
This is really an amazing country! The service here is the best there is. It is very attentive without being obsequious. No tips are given anywhere. White gloved taxi drivers in taxis decked out in white lace are in a hurry to give you change, even if it is only 10 yen (10 cents). Since this is a first-world country (I’d say first+), you don’t feel bad for the poor people who serve you – nobody is poor here, they serve you because this is their culture. This is the first place I’ve visited that is exotic without being poor. The streets are clean, public transportation is efficient, prices are the same for the same products even in the airport, on the trains, and outside of touristy spots – they don’t try to rip you off. A bottle of water costs 120 yen everywhere. The myth of Japan being very expensive is dispelled here. Yes, you can stay at $1000/night ryokans, eat at $300 a person restaurants, buy $100 kobe steaks, or $75 eel sushi, but you can also eat well at $10 a meal – soba, udon, ramen, pork schnitzel, or yakitori (meat-on-a-stick). And food everywhere, even in the markets, is presented in the most tasteful manner. Japanese fashion designers (although hard to find – Japanese clearly prefer European designers) are not cheap but not expensive ether, costing half of what they would in the States.
So here is my abbreviated impressions of the cities we visited:
Tokyo: elegant and sophisticated.
Hakone – fantastic open air museum, beautiful nature, hot springs.
Takayama – frozen in time feudal Japan.
Shirakawa-go – charming village in a stunning natural setting.
Kanazawa – a nice town with a nice food market, pleasant old quarter, and great Japanese fashions in a department store, but not too interesting for tourists.
Kyoto – ancient culture, beautiful temples.
The country is a feel-good place for the unsuspecting visitors who are not used to being treated like kings. Except for Italy and France, I don’t usually want to come back to a country, but I would love to come back here again.