Posts Tagged With: geisha

Instant Zen, and Rolling Your Own Sushi

We began the day with no little trepidation, occasioned by the proximity of the mysteriously-named Typhoon #18. We knew that we would be climbing a hillside in the town of Arashiyama to visit with Obayashi-san, the resident monk at Senkoji temple, and Mariko had hinted darkly at the ardors of ascending 200 steps to do so. The prospect of negotiating 200 stone steps in the rain did not appeal.

But the weather held, more or less, and the trek (such as it was) began with a more leisurely and scenic amble along the river at the foot of the mountain.

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Feeling serene yet?

The 200 steps turned out to be not such a big deal, sufficiently well spaced out along the few hundred foot ascent to avoid the feeling of an endless trudge. There was even a small shrine or two along the way to remind us of our goal (which was of course enlightenment, or at least the top of the damn hill).

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When we reached the temple our immediate gratification was a large temple bell, which we were allowed to ring.

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It produced a deep, sonorous, and very Asian GONNNNNGGGGGG, just like you’d hope. I was enjoying this, and had already rung the thing about six times when the attendant courteously informed me that you’re only supposed to ring it thrice. So now I’ve probably gone and summoned some polycephalic demon from whatever passes for Hell in Buddhism. (Which would explain the weather that befell us about nine hours later.)

The temple is occupied by the aforementioned monk Obayashi, who lives there with his family (Japanese monks are not celibate). Our gathering place was a typically spartan tatami room, albeit one with a spectacular panoramic view of the valley and town. The decor included samurai armor.

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Monk Obayashi was friendly and talkative, and with Mariko translating gave us an exposition and answered questions about Zen Buddhism and in particular the role of meditation in it. He opened the session with a lengthy chant, punctuated by a drumbeat that he tapped out while chanting. But we were to get into the act too: before beginning he handed out a phonetic cheat sheet so that we could chant along. It starts like this:

KAN JI ZAI BO SA GYO JIN HAN NYA HA RA MI

…and goes on like that for 26 more lines. I believe it is a blessing for our safe travels, but I am not actually certain of this.

He then gave us a quick lesson in how to meditate — how to breathe, empty your thoughts, etc. — and instructed us to begin doing so when he rang a bell. We would meditate, he informed us, for only five minutes or so.

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Now at this point in the narrative I should observe to those readers who do not know me personally that the readers who do know me personally have already collapsed in convulsive hysterical laughter at the prospect of me attempting Zen meditation. The only way I am going to empty my mind of thoughts is by physically removing my brain from my cranium, and my personal record for sitting motionless in quiet contemplation of nothingness is approximately 9 seconds. So let us leave the topic by conceding that I am not cut out to be a Buddhist monk, a revelation that surprises exactly none of my family or friends.

Having failed to achieve nirvana but at least enjoyed the monk’s well-meaning attempt at getting us there, we headed back down the mountain towards our next stop, which was lunch at the Heki residence in the nearby town of Kameoka. But not just any lunch: we received a sushi-making lesson and ate the product of our labors. The process started with our hosts producing big bowls of freshly-made hot rice, which we had to cool by stirring and waving fans.

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We were then instructed how to form it into little plum-sized balls and shown how to embed the various ingredients and toppings into them.

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It was a hoot, and as you can see we also got to dress like altar boys for some unexplained reason. This particular style of sushi — little balls instead of the familiar log-like rolls — is called temari, and was no doubt chosen for us because it is particularly simple to make. It was great fun, and if we can find the ingredients at home (difficult, but almost certainly not impossible) it will make a great novelty dinner party.

Later in the afternoon we visited yet another residence for a demonstration of traditional Japanese music. This was quite a treat, a husband and wife couple who are both local experts (and teachers) in three traditional instruments. Those are the koto…

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…the three-stringed shamisen…

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…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…

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The gentleman playing the shakuhachi has not just arrived from a wild party, nor is he painfully shy. In a private setting it is not in fact required to wear a wicker basket on one’s head whilst playing the instrument; he was demonstrating how he plays in public when soliciting donations for his Buddhist temple. The wooden box on his front is the equivalent of a busker’s hat, for collecting alms for the temple; he will walk the streets and play, and the hat — which he can see through — represents the boundary between the secular and spiritual worlds. It separates him from mundane reality while he is playing for the gods. It’s also a big hit at parties.

The music was haunting and beautifully played. Afterwards, we all got the opportunity to play the instruments, with pretty much zero success as you’d expect. With one exception: here is Alice — and I swear this is true — successfully picking out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, which may well be some kind of first.

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“….”E-I-E-I-OOOOOO…”

Dinner this evening was in Kyoto’s Gion distract, a.k.a. the geisha district. In Kyoto, geishas are known as geikos — no insurance company jokes, please — and their apprentices are called maikos. You see quite a few of them out and about in the Gion, complete with white makeup — or rather, you do when you are not in the middle of a typhoon. We saw a few in the street en route to dinner, when the rain was just beginning — my bell-ringing transgression of earlier in the day having finally caught up with me — but an hour or two later this was the scene when we left the restaurant:

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Full-bore torrential downpour. With luck the storm will pass tonight so that we will have decent weather tomorrow, which is our last day here. Alice will be going on a garden walk (weather permitting), but I have few plans beyond some last minute gift shopping so there may not be much to report in a final post. We’ll be home in roughly 48 hours. This has been another great trip.

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Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Kanazawa Flowahs

Sorry, but do you have any idea how hard it is to make a pun on the name “Kanazawa”? The title actually refers (badly) to our first stop of the day, Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden. Now, I have to confess that for me personally, a garden is a garden. Alice, who is an avid gardener and appreciates these things, probably feels differently. But the Japanese, being Japanese, take pride in complicating this simple concept to a degree that I suspect is designed to make Westerners feel guilty if they don’t know what the hell the Japanese are talking about. In this case, the name of the garden literally means “six attributes”. I have also seen it translated as “six sublimities”, which I am not even convinced is a word. The six attributes are those that, to Japanese thinking, constitute the ideal landscape. They are: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways, and panoramas. So if you do not identify and appreciate these six factors, you are philosophically deficient. That’s definitely me. But it was nonetheless a very compact, beautiful park — 29 acres, dating from 1871 — dotted with exactly the kind of serene Japanese vistas you would expect, like these.

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Today had by far the nicest weather we have had on this trip, so it was a good day to go strolling in a garden. Our tour lead Mariko even dressed for the occasion, sporting a casual kimono for the day instead of her usual Western garb.

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We moved from the garden to our next stop, which was the restored house of a semi-prominent Edo-era samurai, Kurando Terashima. Terashima was basically a mid-level functionary who pissed off the wrong people and died in exile, though he did achieve some fame as a painter as well. The house is spare, its interior architecture all rectangular spaces with paper walls and tatami mats, and it looks out over a small, precise garden, in appearance and ambiance a greatly scaled-down version of Kenroku-en.

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I have been struck by the fact that when discussing houses like this, or indeed any housing at all, the unit of measurement is the tatami mat. You know what it is — a straw mat, basically, though its construction is actually rather more elaborate — but probably never knew its role as some kind of universal standard.  An official tatami mat is 33.5″ x 70.5″ (85.5 x 179 cm), and when someone is describing a room to you (e.g., Mariko describing her apartment), she will tell you that it is, say, 8 tatamis.   Since Japanese living spaces tend to be rectangular, you can assume that she means 4 tatamis by 2 tatamis. (Either that, or it’s a very long skinny apartment.) And so the brochures for the late Terashima-san’s home state that there is a 5 tatami tea room, an 8 tatami room where he painted, and so forth. Japan is on the metric system except when it comes to interior design, where it is on the tatami system.

This very traditional way of thinking gives me a cheap segue into the subject of geishas. Yes, they still exist for real, not just for tourists. (And no, they are in no way prostitutes, though you probably already knew that.) But they are a vanishing breed. Kanazawa has only 43, of which 14 live in the so-called geisha district, which looks like this:

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The district is home to both geisha houses — of which there are only seven left — and jewelry stores specializing in gold (about which more in a moment). The very traditional nature of the neighborhood makes it a popular place to stroll in traditional garb, thus:kanazawa-geisha-district-007 kanazawa-geisha-district-003

The pair in the lower picture are newlyweds, who were in the neighborhood with their wedding photographer.

Mariko had been in contact with the owner of one of the geisha houses, this rather elegant lady.

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She introduced herself to us, in soft-spoken, accented but precise English, as Lady Baba (“Not Lady Gaga,” she added.) as she explained the system. She owns the elegantly outfitted house (no, I don’t know how many tatamis it is) and hires the individual geishas on a freelance basis. All of her customers are either known to her personally or vouched for by an existing customer. No money changes hands during a visit; customers are billed semi-annually. (And if a customer fails to pay up, then the person who recommended him is held responsible for the debt.) Everything is all very tasteful and on the up-and-up, but discretion is nonetheless absolute since the geisha house is the venue for, e.g., closing business deals. In such a case the geisha is basically a social lubricant, keeping the men happy with conversation, jokes, and playing traditional musical instruments.

The geishas themselves are supposed to be a bit mysterious, with anything about their backgrounds or outside life kept hidden from the customers. It is perfectly permissible for them to be married, but such information is secret since their allure is correspondingly diminished. Although “allure” is probably the wrong word; the attraction is social, not sexual, and though the youngest a geisha may be is 18 years old, there is no upper age limit. Indeed, the oldest geisha who works for Lady Baba — and who by virtue of her conversational, entertainment, and musical skills is one of the most sought-after in her ranks — is 84 years old. (Are you reading this, Mom?)

Because of the traditional nature of the business, and the geisha houses’ status as cultural touchstones, ownership of a house can only be passed on to a daughter who is willing to carry on the tradition. Lady Baba is in a bind in this regard: she has a 12 year old daughter who (at least for now) has no interest in taking over the house when she is older: quite to the contrary, the child has announced her intention of moving to California and marrying a rich American. This leaves Lady Baba with three options: (1) talk her daughter into changing her mind (she’s still only 12, after all); (2) adopt another daughter who would be willing to take over the house (this is a real option); or (3) sell the house. For the moment, Lady Baba is banking on the first option.

She answered all of our questions with great charm and forthrightness, then demonstrated how she ties her kimono sash, which as you’d probably expect is all very elaborate.

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The whole experience was rather remarkable. The whole geisha concept is a throwback, but there is no denying the stratospheric level of social grace that the practitioners command. Lady Baba was very, very smooth: engaging, charming, self-deprecating, gracious, the whole works: when your livelihood depends on delicate social interaction, you get really good at working a room.

We finished up with everyone taking pictures of themselves with her (yes, us too), so I’ll close my geisha discussion with this more pensive portrait that she let me set up.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the gold jewelers in the area. These particular craftsmen (and -women) specialize in gold leaf, which they produce on spectacular quantity and with spectacular thinness.

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The sheets are so thin, and thus the quantity of gold that they contain so small, that they can use it for just about anything without driving the cost too high. Alice bought a fan covered in gold leaf; and I have now, for the first and probably only time in my life , had the privilege of peeing in a bathroom whose walls were literally completely covered in gold. Donald Trump would approve.

Oof. I can’t possibly end this post with that sentence. So I will close by observing that we had sushi for dinner.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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