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Friday Flashback: Geisha Adventure

27 Jun

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Okay, it was one of those cheesy experiences.

It was also very touristic and contrived. But it was also one of my favorite memories now of Japan.

I’m talking about dressing like a geisha and strolling through historic streets of Kyoto.

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So what exactly are geisha?

They are entertainers who practice traditional dancing and singing, play instruments, and engage in witty conversation. Are they really prostitutes underneath it all? It’s hard to say. We couldn’t find anyone who would describe them that way. Instead think “Courtesan.”

While there used to be as many 80,000 geisha slinking around the backstreets and pouring sake for businessmen in Japan, today it is believed there are only about 1000. Moreover, they don’t come cheaply. Clients often pay thousands of dollars for a geisha’s exclusive entertainment. But more on that later.

So my friend Diana and I decided to enter the mysterious geisha world and find out what it’s all about.

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Turns out there’s a lot of prep work and a certain degree of discomfort. It took almost 45 minutes to get the makeup on and about 15 minutes to put on all the undergarments. I can’t even tell you how many pieces and parts are strapped this way and that underneath the kimono. In Diana’s case, she was uncomfortable with the heavy wig; As for me, I had a temporary moment of claustrophobia with all the articles on clothing on me.

But we got over that quickly as soon as we hobbled around the streets in our wooden sandals and got a celebrity welcome…

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It might have been the novelty of a huge lumbering foreigner dressed up as a geisha, but we were like Moses parting the Red Sea. Crowds split and formed around us. I think about 100 people took our picture. This is what it must feel like to be Angelina Jolie.

And even though now I’m freaked out by the pasty white makeup and pink eyeliner and wonder how I didn’t wipe out in those shoes– at the time, I felt so elegant.

Later that night, as Diana and I were strolling through Gion, we noticed a frenzy of activity outside an expensive club. Right before us, posed two actual real geisha with their group of wealthy businessmen. I mean, look at that one guy on the right. He’s wearing an ascot!

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Kyoto Travel Tip #2

Overall, dressing like a geisha was so fun. I highly recommend this experience. There are dozens of photography studios in Kyoto offering this service, but we used Maiko Studio Shiki and chose the Maiko Stroll Plan, which included a book of 10 portraits inside the studio and a hour walking around outside. Young girls can also participate and men can dress as samurai. I don’t know if this studio closed down. The website link I had for it doesn’t seem to work anymore. But I think most of these studios are about the same.

More geisha stories to come, including what my husband said upon viewing the studio portraits. Men just have a different way with words, I guess…

Flashback Friday: Kyoto, Japan

20 Jun

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Cherry blossom season in Kyoto is magical- and a little crazy.

All over the city from mid-March to mid-April, the blooms take on the most beautiful range of colors from white to pale and bright pink. The trees look like they are cradling fluffy pockets of snow.

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When the wind blows and blossoms flutter to the ground, people stop what they’re doing and immerse themselves in the flowery downpour.
As you might imagine, the crowds come out in full force. It’s such a festive time and there are so many community events going on at the temples. Ladies wear their finest colorful spring kimono and photographers are everywhere.
The best part is that trees look gorgeous day and night. This particular tree is famous in Kyoto. I captured this image at sunset on our first day.

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With the huge influx of people into Kyoto, hotels book up months in advance and can be alarmingly expensive, averaging $150 per person a night. Starting in January, I tried making reservations at half a dozen places to no avail.

I finally found one budget traditional inn, the White Hotel Kyoto with availability. The receptionist sounded completely wacky on the phone and the Trip Advisor Reviews for this inn were dreadful. Basically, they warned “Don’t stay here!”

But given the price and time of year, we went for it anyway.

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Thankfully, the inn suited us just fine. Yes, the receptionist was completely cuckoo and it was cramped and we slept on tatami mats on traditional Japanese futon. But the price was great at only 4600 yen per person (~$50/night), the location near the train station was excellent, and it did have loads of character.
Traditional Japanese inns require guests to leave their shoes at the front and wear hotel slippers inside. One hilarious particular about this inn were the “special” slippers designated for our humungous foreign feet…

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Kyoto Travel Tip #1

The Kyoto White Hotel is a good value during cherry blossom season and the location can’t be beat. It’s a 3 minute walk from the Kyoto Train, Subway, and Bus Stations with loads of restaurants and bars nearby. Don’t be intimidated by the Trip Advisor Reviews, but keep in mind it’s a little bit strange…

Next week’s flashback will feature a Blue Eyed Geisha… who do you think that could be?

Friday Flashback: Snow Monkeys in Japan!

16 May

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*I think this is my favorite trip ever!

In no way can I do justice writing about the snow monkey adventure we had in Japan.

It really defies words, but with photos and descriptions, I’ll try…

This trip was a planes, trains, and automobile adventure.

Here’s how it went: We flew from Okinawa to Toyko, embarked on a super fast bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, spent the night there and enjoyed the luminary festival, and then woke the next morning to catch a bus into the mountains.

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From the bus stop, we then WALKED another 2 km into the Jigokudani Monkey Park. We had beautiful sunny weather that morning, and the hike through the snowy narrow mountain path was magical.

Once we entered the park, monkeys were everywhere.

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Planning the trip, I had envisioned seeing five or six monkeys scamper by quickly. I thought we’d have to scramble to take photos and video before they ran off into the woods. But we encountered probably 100 monkeys leisurely roving about the site. According to locals, about 200 macaques live in this park.

The main attraction were the monkeys that sit in the hot springs to warm themselves.

Are you wondering if the monkeys get cold afterwards? The answer is no. We learned that macaques, unlike humans, do not have sweat glands that cool them off.

There were also plenty of chances to see monkeys frolicking in the snow.

The baby monkeys were about the cutest things ever, little puffy fur balls that hopped around. This baby kept trying to climb the cable and kept sliding down unsuccessfully. Everybody who witnessed the cuteness couldn’t help but ooh and ah over it.

Are you a fan of monkeys?

Flashback Friday

11 Apr

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A few years ago, we spent the night on Zamami Island, off the coast of Okinawa, Japan.

This tiny island was so low key with only few sunbathers on the beach. In fact, it’s the perfect kind of island that shuts down once the sun goes down.

I still remember how quiet and peaceful it was there, and how beautiful and clear the water was!

I did forget this one funny detail, though… we stopped at a small cafe and had a drink after dinner.

There we found the funniest magazines that featured cat centerfolds! Only in Japan, folks…

You can read another post about a special experience we had on Zamami Island here.

 

Flashback Friday

4 Apr

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The other day I was browsing over old photos and came across some pictures we took one day when we lived in Okinawa, Japan.

It’s so interesting how our minds forget some details, but when we look at a few pictures, suddenly we can remember so many things we hadn’t thought about in years.

Anyway, these photos brought a smile to my face.

On this particular day, we drove north to pick mikans (tangerines) since it was mikan picking season there.

We picked as many tangerines as we thought we could reasonably eat and then we stumbled on a beautiful old Japanese tea house.

After that, we headed back to our house but saw a sign on the road advertising a “Snake vs. Mongoose” showdown.

Apparently, they don’t do those shows anymore as they are somewhat inhumane, but instead they presented a series of snakes to curious onlookers.

A Japanese snake handler demonstrated all kinds of trick with the snakes and asked for volunteers from the audience.

There was no way I was letting a snake breathe down my neck, but Sean posed for a picture.

I can’t believe Sean let that snake so close to his face!

Unique Eats: Alice in Wonderland Cafe in Tokyo

15 Jul

Are you an Alice in Wonderland fan?

If so, you’ll get a kick out of this themed restaurant I visited in Tokyo, simply referred to as “Alice.” Japan has a collection of such restaurants  with unique settings. Popular with both men and women, they feature tapas plates and drinks. Other bizarre versions include prison, ninja, and mental ward hospital themed restaurants. ( More to come on the ninja restaurant! ) Continue reading

Celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan

15 Feb

Are you a fan of Valentine’s Day? Well, depending on how you feel, you’ll either LOVE or HATE how it’s celebrated in Japan.

The Japanese take this holiday and make it into 2 Holidays.

February 14 is Valentine’s Day, but there’s a catch. It’s for women only to share over the top love to the men in their lives. That means gifts, chocolate, and special treatment for the boyfriend or husband… AND get this, male coworkers!

But wait, there’s more!

March 14 is White Day, and this is when the men are supposed to reciprocate with flowers and gifts.

Incidentally, this year Japanese candy companies are expecting profit sales, as Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday which translates into chocolate gifts for office coworkers and colleagues.

Geez, a commercial holiday if I ever saw one…

Okay, but there is one thing I like about Japanese Valentine’s Day. Once a year at Hakone Hot Springs, they fill one of the hot baths with molten chocolate. Bathers glide in and then relax and smear chocolate all over themselves and maybe eat a little of it.

Totally bizarre and not quite sanitary, but you know what? I’d do it once in my life… What about you?

A New Year in Japan

15 Jan

A few images from January in Japan…

“Don’t go to Futenma,” Misako warns.

“The goddess there is very jealous.”

“You might have relationship problems this year.”

I’m living in Okinawa, and my friend Misako is giving advice. It’s New Year’s Eve, and everyone at the party we’re at is talking about where they’re going for hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. All over Japan, people flock to shrines to honor Shinto deities and make wishes. Read the rest of my published article about New Year’s Day in Japan …

Technicolor Island Culture

10 Nov

One of the things I love about Okinawa is that there is cultural festival almost monthly. I previously wrote posts about the 10,000 Eisa Parade and the World’s Largest Tug of War.

Those are certainly larger events drawing crowd, but a week ago, I attended a smaller event too, with no less pomp and pageantry. It was a procession of 1,500 locals donned in ancient island costumes, a tradition going back hundreds of years. Take a look at the gorgeous colors and textures of this parade… Continue reading

Forgive Me, Trash Collectors of the World

5 Nov

Even when we think we’re open-minded,  we can be proven wrong. It happened to me last week in Japan. There I was thinking I was all free of judgment and stereotypes… then Bam! Exposed! Let me explain.

I regularly go to an Ikebana class, which I enjoy very much, but no one else in my life seems to value or pay much attention to it. My husband barely notices when I bring flowers into our house,  and when I participated in a flower exhibition last spring, I couldn’t even GIVE AWAY the tickets to friends! In my experience, most people have a ho-hum attitude towards flowers.

So, last week I went to my ikebana class and I created a gargantuan scary arrangement. I say scary because the branches were huge and seriously out of control, and could poke your eyes out.

Anyway, I walked out of the building with another woman from the class and we waited at the curb holding our flowers.

Just then a Japanese trash collector drove around the corner in his truck coming our way.

He noticed us from a distance and took on the strangest expression. Looking our direction, he got a wide eyed look of wonder or surprise. I turned around to look behind me, thinking that something had happened to catch his attention.

But nope, nothing. Just us holding our arrangements.

The trash collector pulled up in front of us, stopped, and rolled down the window. He grinned the biggest grin I’ve seen, and gave us a thumbs up.

“Sugoi!” (Super!) he said enthusiastically and then drove away.

I stood there stunned, and then laughed in surprise. I never expected a trash collector to even notice flowers, let alone be excited by them.

Sorry trash collectors of the world. I will never judge you again…

When have you been surprised by someone and your expectation proven wrong? Do tell…

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