Tuesday, December 23, 2008

National Geographic Traveler's Blog!

Hisashiburi! It's been quite awhile since my last post. So long, in fact, that I'd be suprised if anyone was still out there...

But just in case, I wanted to share what may have been one of the biggest thrills of my lifetime: Seeing the iconic National Geographic header topping a page with one of my photographs on it! I know it's just the NatGeo Traveler's Blog, but it still gave me chills!

You may remember the fine people at National Geographic choosing one of my images for the Global Eye feature.

Check it out, and don't forget to add yout two cents. Share your own experiences in Kyoto, or add your take on the effect globalization has on travel.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reese Witherspoon's Tokyo Tea

Actress Reese Witherspoon enjoys taking part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, an activity thought to capture the spirit of healing the mind, body and soul.

Hollywood leading lady Reese Witherspoon was recently in Japan promoting breast cancer awareness as an Avon Global Ambassador. While in Tokyo she had the opportunity to participate in an intimate tea ceremony with breast cancer survivors, dressed in an beautiful powder blue kimono by Midori Yogi, who's family has dressed the Imperial Family for weddings since 1952.

I just wanted to share this beautiful kimono with everyone. I think the wistful color and playful design suited her perfectly.

As an after thought, isin't it slightly disappointing that even members of the Imperial Family can't dress themselves in kimono?

Why does it have to be so difficult? (>.<)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Pontocho Maiko : Spring 2008

Kyoto Rewind : April 6, 2008

Ichiemi, now a high ranking maiko in the Pontocho district, greets the mistress of a teahouse during a small cherry blossom festival along the Takase Canal.

Ichiemi looks every bit the stylish, sophisticated young woman in this stunning lavender kimono ensemble. Even her adorably child-like cheeks have thinned out.


The long, fluttering strands cherry blossoms hanging from Shinaju's hanakanzashi, or flowered hair ornament, testify to her low rank and inexperience as a maiko, appealing instead to her youth and child-like charm. Compare it with Ichiharu's above, who is of a slightly higher rank.

Hisano, now a geiko, and Ichiemi walk beneath the lacey veil of cherry blossoms along the Takase canal as sunlight falls in playful patterns along the pavement.

As if Ichiemi's lavendar kimono wasn't enough. Coupled with this remarkable pastel obi, colored with the sweet, pastel pallet of spring, this ensemble quickly became my favorite this season.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The 59th Kyo Odori 2008

The maiko Satonami performs in the opening scene with the geiko Chiyoe and Kanachisa.

With the passing of a winter that was more severe than most, the now-greening mountains and perfumed winds seem particularly glorious. In this refreshing season graced by gentle spring sunlight, we are once again proud to present our annual Kyo Odori.

We would like to express our gratitude to all of you who found time in your busy schedules to attend today's performance, which begins with a song-accompanied dance performed by our charming geiko and maiko in a traditional Miyagawa-cho zashiki room. Then performance then goes on to portray in a poetic manner each of the four seasons in Kyoto, with the beauty of the scenes to be found on mountains and in plains depicted through evocative dance.

Much assiduous practice and rehersal has gone into this year's event. After having viewed the fruits of our labor, any comments that you might have on our performance would be greatly appreciated...

I hereby express, on behalf of everyone at the Miyagawa-cho Kabukai, the sincere hope that you enjoy the wonderful spectacle that is the 59th Kyo Odori.

(Excerpt from the Kyo Odori Program)

From left to right, maiko Kimiha, Satonami, and Miyoharu.

The maiko Satonami.

The maiko Tanewaka performs "A Brilliant Brocade of Chrysanthemums".

Kimiharu, little sister to one of Kyoto's most popular and beautiful maiko, Kimika.

Kikutsuru performs in Kyo Odori for the first time as a geiko after turning her collar in June of 2007.

In a scene from the Tale of Genji, the geiko Fumimari dances in Heian period robes as Ukifune.

The celebrated dancer Fumicho performs her solo, a constant in the Kyo Odori program.

The geiko Chizuru as an Edo period courtesean in "The Tale of Princess Takiyasha".

Maiko take center stage in a brilliant display of color, beauty, and grace during the Miyagawa-cho Ondo Song and Dance.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Finding the Philosopher's Path

Kyoto Rewind 2008: April 3, 2008

A view of the great gate of Nanzen-ji through a lacey veil of cherry blossoms. Nanzen-ji, or the Southern Mountain Temple, is thought to be the most famous and important Zen temple in the world.

Located just outside of Heian Shrine, Okazaki Canal connects the Lake Biwa Canal network with the Kamo River.

A ride on a the canal is a great way to view the cherry blossoms.

Walking the streets of Kyoto, somewhere in between the grounds of Nanzen-ji and the Philosopher's Path.

This stoney, sakura-lined path leads to the gate of a private residence we stumbled upon as we wandered towards the Philosopher's Path.

The entire estate was well hidden, surrounded by a wall offering only a glimpse of gardeners grooming the highest branches of the pine trees, shaded by magnificent clouds of cherry blossoms.

Peaking over the low hedges encircling the entrance.

Bamboo blinds and cherry blossoms provide shade and shelter.

The philosopher himself!

Absolutely one of the best places for hanami I've experienced so far. Highly recommended!

A young girl in kimono smiles beneath the canopy of blossoms covering the path.

A couple admires the blossoms.

The palette of spring paints the Philosopher's Path is subtle shades of pink, green and yellow. Light filters through the intricate lace of cherry blossoms, falling like the brush strokes of an impressionist masterpiece. Is it really any wonder I love Kyoto?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Evening Tayuu Procession

Kyoto Rewind: April 2, 2008

Kisaragi Tayuu ducks into a ryotei, a traditional dining establishment, along Kiyamachi-dori.

The perfect way to end an incredibly Kyoto-culture packed day of exploring Kiyomizu-dera and hanging out with maiko was with an extremely rare evening procession of Tayuu beneath the cherry blossoms.

As Peter MacIntosh explains on the Kyoto Sights & Nights website:

"Since medieval times Japan has always had some form of pleasure quarter offering various forms of entertainment, including, of course, the erotic. However, it was during the Edo period’s sakoku (1639-1854) when Japan cut off all ties with the outside world, that Japanese culture, as it is known today, flourished.

It was in these walled-in pleasure quarters such as Kyoto’s Shimabara, Tokyo’s Yoshiwara, and Osaka’s Shinmachi that the chonin (merchants) spent much of their time and money cultivating the arts."


Spurned as the lowest class of citizen in the feudal Japanese heirarchy, merchants were seen as blood-thirsty parasites leeching off the hard work of others. Their wealth could not buy them respect or equaliy, except within the walls of the pleasure quarters, where, for the right price, they would be treated and entertained like kings.

"The courtesans of the pleasure quarters were trained in various arts: music, dance and poetry as well as other forms of entertainment that up until that time had been known only to the nobility. As times changed so did the tastes of the customers. The formality and expense involved meant that only the elite were able to patronize the Tayu (the top level courtesans). "

An apprentice Tayuu bundled beneath a bright red blanket as she arrives by riksha.

Liza Dalby describes the "Great Court Ladies", as Tayuu were known, in legendary proportions:

"These women were dubbed "castle-destroyers" (keisei) because their sex appeal, like the mythical beauties of history, could destroy a man as easily as any army. These courtesans wore layers of ornately decorated kimono and a multitude of lacquer and tortoiseshell combs in their hair. Their wide, brocaded obi were tied in front — not, as some suppose, because it was easier to undress that way, but because that was the practice of married women and a yuujo was, in a sense, a wife for an evening. "

Kisaragi's obi is tied in front in the style of a full-fledged Tayuu.

As an apprentice, her obi is tied in a bow.

As times changed, so did the tastes of their patrons. The flashy appearance and antiquated customs of the Tayuu began to loose their allure, and when the first female geisha appeared on the scene in the 1700's, it marked the begining of the end. The last recorded Oiran (as Tayuu were known in Edo) served in 1761. Only in Kyoto do a few women continue to practice and preserve the cultural arts of the Tayuu.

The full regalia of a Tayuu weighs about 30 Kilos.In addition, they also wear tall, black lacquered koma-geta (wooden clogs) with three legs. Even in winter, Tayuu refrain from wearing the white, fitted tabi socks that geiko and maiko wear. This tiny hint of bare flesh peaking out from beneath the many layers of her luxorious silk kimono must have been very appealing to a Tayuu's Edo period patrons.

The towering "three leg" geta of the Tayuu.

As if balancing beneath the burden of their elaborate costume on 12-15 inch platforms is not enough, Tayuu walk in what is often called a "figure eight" fashion, sliding one foot out slowly in an arch away from the other before drawing it back to center. Pausing with her bare foot exposed from beneath her crimson kimono, almost perpendicular to the other, she then points her foot forward and begins again. It takes a great amount of skill, balance, and practice to perfect, and they often hold the hands of their chaperone to help.

Kisaragi Tayuu holds the hand of her chaperone as she makes her way through the crowd.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Will America Survive the Japanese Game Show?

When I studied in Osaka, it seemed only right that my first ketai (cell phone) mail address would be hamachan.daisuki! At that time, the comedian's popularity was at an all time high, and he was the first Japanese celebrity I actually came to know by name. He's the one who puts his arm around one of the others, resting his head on his friend's shoulder. Why? Why is he so adorable?

When I first decided to study abroad in Japan, I was greeted by a chorus of horrified 'Why?'s. Very few of the people I talked to knew anything about Japan, as evidenced by the many times I had to answer this question: "Do you even speak Chinese?" I actually had to explain, more than once, sadly, that China and Japan were very different countries with very different languages and cultures.

Since then, Japanese culture has exploded in popularity, not only in America, but around the world. First it was sushi, then Spirited Away, Samurai and Sayuri. Gwen Stefani found her muse in Harajuku, and before I knew it, Kanye West was singing Japan's praises, even subtitling his Stronger theme with katakana. And who could forget the Japanese Office skit on SNL?

Now when I mention that I've recently spent over three years living in Japan, I'm greeted by scores of "No Way! That's so freakin' cool! I've always wanted to go there! Oh my god, I so love sushi. And anime, of course." Everywhere I look I see 'new' fashion trends that were commonplace in Japan when I was in university, and almost everyday Yahoo has a Japan-related story in the headlines.

Not suprisingly, Japan continues to weave it's way into mainstream American pop, most recently with ABC's announcement of a brave new reality series: I Survived a Japanese Game Show!

Japanese games shows can be cruel.

Anyone who has had the pleasure (or misfortune) of numbing their brain with the wacky and outrageous phenomenon that is Japanese TV may have an inkling of just what these poor suckers are in for. If not, read this excerpt from the show's website:



“I Survived a Japanese Game Show” has begun shooting in Japan and will premiere TUESDAY, JUNE 24 (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET) on ABC. This unscripted reality/game show takes an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes look at 10 Americans – many of whom have never traveled outside the United States -- who are whisked away to Japan and compete in the ultimate Japanese game show… with hilarious results. The final winner will take home $250,000.

Guiding the American players through their stay in Japan will be host/interpreter Tony Sano (“Touch Wood,” “Beating Vegas”), an American actor fluent in Japanese; a house mother and resident pot-stirrer, Mamasan; and the witty game show host Rome Kanda (“Pink Panther,” “Saturday Night Live”), who leads the contestants through all of the zany challenges.

Some of the games/challenges will include:

WHY IS THIS FOOD SO HARD TO EAT? -- Why? Because the food is attached to the head of a teammate who must run in place on a fast-moving treadmill, while the first teammate leans over a platform and tries to eat from the moving dish.

CRAZY CRANE FINDS FLUFFY BEAR -- This takes the American arcade game to the next level, as blindfolded teammates must operate a moving crane while another teammate precariously dangles trying to collect as many stuffed animals as he/she can.

CHICKEN BUTT SCRAMBLE -- The contestants create their own version of Japanese scrambled eggs as they attempt to smash goo-filled oversized eggs with only their butts… while wearing chicken suits.


This You Tube hit is being brought to America by FOX. Compared to the others, it's actually pretty tame.

And here's one for Abbey's Hurdlingly challenged Kyoto Sensei:

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Shirakawa Hanami: Kotoha and Takahiro

Kyoto Rewind: April 2, 2008

Kotoha, a senior maiko of Gion Kobu, smiles beneath the cherry blossoms lining the Shirakawa stream.

No cultural tour of Kyoto would be complete without a proper maiko sighting, so half-way through our hanami party in Maruyama Park I led my friends down to Gion's Shirakawa district. Shirakawa-Minami-Dori is one of the very few areas of Kyoto where you can really imagine what the old capital must have been like before the twentieth century onslaught of 'modernization'. Lined on one side by magnificent cherry trees and whimsical willows on the other, the carefully paved lane follows the Shirakawa stream through the traditional teahouse district. Across the shallow waters of the Shirakawa, teahouses and restaurants hide behind bamboo blinds, peak through shoji screens, or gaze out through wide glass windows.

Kotoha laughs with Takahiro as she smooths her carefully styled coiffure.

With this timeless, quintessentially Kyoto backdrop, the city's tourism association had invited two maiko (or apprentice geiko), to make a come out and enjoy the cherry blossoms, giving the many tourists that flock to Kyoto in the spring the perfect photo op. Imagine my excitement when the maiko were two of my all-time favorites: Takahiro and Kotoha. \(^o^)/

Takahiro takes a rest beneath the cherry blossoms.

My enchantment with Kotoha set off a bit of a debate between my friends and I. I couldn'd help but comment on how stunningly beautiful I thought she was, but they were quick to disagree. To them, Kotoha seemed 'cold'. They were much more drawn to Takahiro's sweet expression and dimpled smile. Only Kachi Sensei, my friend and former colleague, and her 11 year old son agreed with me.

Takahiro has a certain child-like charm, with warm, friendly features and an adorable dimpled grin. With her long, slender neck and graceful limbs, she is an excellent dancer, and to be honest, I couldn't take my eyes off of her during Miyako Odori.

Kotoha, on the other hand, would never be described as child-like. Her features are striking. While Takahiro has "the (Japanese) girl next door" appeal, Kotoha is exotic. Even amongst other geisha, she stands out. Always perfectly poised, she looks noble, dignified, and refined. Her fey expression makes it seem as if she is above the concerns and cares of the ordinary, lost instead in the infinite beauty of the 'flower and willow world'.

As different as they are, the truth is that Takahiro and Kotoha are my favorite of all the Gion Kobu maiko. It's their differences that make them stand out, giving them a unique appeal. They are both beautiful, talented young women, and I look forward to seeing them turn their collar and blossom as full-fledge geiko. Ganbatte, girls! I'm cheering for you!

Notice Kotoha's feet. Perfect.

Takahiro adjust Kotoho's dangling darari obi.

Kotoha stands near the memorial to the poet Yoshii Isamu. Engraved on the rock is one of his most famous verses:

"No matter what they say,
I love Gion.
Even in my sleep
The sound of water
Flows beneath my pillow."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Higashiyama Hanami: Kiyomizu Bound

Kyoto Rewind: April 2, 2008

Sanju-no-to, the three story padgoda of Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple, pierces a powder blue sky through a veil of cherry blossoms.

Just as the cherry blossoms began to reach their height in Higashiyama, the scenic eastern mountain distict nestled between the historic Gion district and growing waves of verdant hills climbing slowly to the sky, my friend Abbey, my brother and I were joined by the very lucky Londoner who ascended the Ena ALT throne, along with my favorite JLT (Japanese language teacher) and her adorable son for a bit of hanami and a brief Kyoto Cultural Heritage Tour a la me!

Since London P had never been to Kyoto, our first stop, after breaking the fast at Starbucks in Gion, was Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Waters. I am a firm believer that it's not the destination, but the journey that matters. Half the fun is getting there! So instead of heading straight for the temple or hopping a bus, I led our little group through Yasaka Shrine to the Ishibei-kouji, or Stone Wall Lane.

The narrow, covered wooden entrance to the Ishibei-kouji is cleverly hidden and hard to find, if you don't know where to look. Most tourists walk right by without giving it a second glance.

A curious couple snuck a peek up the dimly lit alley way, then turned around a left without exploring its well-kept secret.

Emerging from the darkened tunnel, you are greeted by wonderfully aged wooden walls and traditional architecture.

The stone paved path leads through traditional Japanese inns, or ryokan, restaurants and residences. The classic Kyoto atmosphere of the Ishibei-kouji makes it a popular spot for tourists dressed as maiko and geisha to have there photographs taken.

Like elsewhere in Kyoto, traditional and modern co-exist.

The lane leads to Nene no Michi, near Kodaji Temple. This is where the ascent to Kiyomizu begins, along with the hanami.

Holding out his bowl with his eyes humbly lowered, a monk from Kiyomizu begs for alms, chanting silently along the ascent to the temple.

UNESCO World Heritage designated Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Waters, is one of Kyoto's most popular tourist destinations.

As the main temple of the Hosso sect of Buddhism, it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times in its twelve centuries of history, most recently in 1633.

Kiyomizudera is said to have been constructed from 778 by Enchin, a buddhist priest, in honor of the Kannon Bosatsu (Bodhisattva of Mercy and Compassion).

According to the legend, Enchin received a vision that said he would find at the source of the Yodo river, a clear source of water. During his search Enchin came across a hermit named Gyoei. Gyoei, an old ascetic priest gave Enchin a piece of wood inhabited by the spirit of Kannon, the lord of compassion and goddess of mercy. Carving it into the likeness of the boddhisatva, Enchin enshired it in a small thatched roofed hut, the humble beginnings of the now impressive temple complex dominating the verdant Eastern hills of Kyoto.

The legend says that the hermit disappeared, and when Enchin later discovered his sandals on top of the mountain, he realized that he had actually been speaking with a manifestation of the Kannon.

A young foreign couple poses for wedding pictures beneath the cherry blossoms.

Hundreds of ancient-looking Jizo statues spring from the lush moss carpeting the slope. One of the most beloved of all Japanese divinities, Jizo intercedes to ease the suffering and shorten the sentence of those serving time in hell. In Japan, Jizo is popularly known as the guardian of unborn, aborted, miscarried, and stillborn babies, as well as patron saint of expectant mothers, children, firemen, travelers, and pilgrims.

Women in kimono snap photos of one another on their ketai (cell phones).

Looking up at the cherry blossoms surrounding the three story pagoda.

Garbage removal the old fashioned way. Sights like this are common elsewhere in Asia, but very rare in Japan.

Nestled in the hills of Higashiyama, Kiyomizu's famous stage offers an excellent view of the city and surrounding green.

Enjoying the cherry-blossom-veiled view.

Visitors often rub icons of the Buddha or other religious figures for good luck or healing powers.

A young monk happily helps a boy get his taste of the Otowa no Taki, Feather Sound Waterfall, the three streams of which are said to promise love, longevity and wisdom. The visitor must choose one.

This author of this enma, or wooden prayer plaque, is hoping for a championship showdown between my hometown Hanshin Tigers and Chunichi Dragons.

I'm wishing that next spring will find me back in Kyoto, surrounded by sakura.

The pagoda peeks over heavy clouds of sakura, dripping with silken petals which flutter to the surface of the reflective pond, blanketing it like freshly fallen snow.

A view of the main stage of Kiyomizu-dera, floating in clouds of sakura ( and supported by 139 timber pillars). The unique Edo period tradition of jumping off the stage in hopes that one's wishes would come true was attempted by 234 people, each documented in the temples records. Surprisingly, 85.4 percent survived! The Japanese equivalent of the English expression, "to take the plunge", is actually "to jump off the stage of Kiyomizu."

I love Kyoto!

They love Kyoto!

Kiyomizu-dera is just one of many reasons why!