A taste of Tokyo and Kyoto
12.09.2014 - 17.09.2014 26 °C
Awhile back, I spent two years living in Tokyo. This trip to Taiwan seemed like the perfect opportunity to swing through Tokyo and get reacquainted with some old friends, and a few places of which I have very fond memories.
Tokyo is looking newer and shinier these days. Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympic games and is working to put its best foot forward. The Tokyo station area around the Imperial Palace has gone from faded and grimy, to upscale and chic. The Tokyo Skytree (634m) has just opened (move over Tokyo tower) with restaurants and the like. Tokyo still busy with people in a hurry, loud with the hum of subways and traffic, the cries of people distributing advertisements and bright with flashing LCD in all directions vying for your attention. The shopping districts -- Shinjuku, Shibuya, Omote-sando and Ginza -- are crazy as ever, but with new, gorgeous buildings. The city closes the main street in the area to car traffic to accomodate the shopping hordes. So many pretty and cool things -- glittery or modern, bright or muted, depending on your taste. Given, Japan's deflationary spiral, I was curious about the prices. Incredibly, a half litre bottle of tea and a return bullet train ticket from Tokyo-Kyoto are still the same price as a decade ago. Food is slightly more expensive, but you still get a decent meal in a full service restaurant for around $10 (tax and tip included). Maybe I've gotten older, or the exchange rate is better, but prices for adorable hand bags, trendy clothes and cute jewelry seemed more reasonable, particularly given the incredible selection available. I wish my backpack was bigger and my duty-free allowance was more flexible!
My friend CS took very good care of me. She, SY and I ate and shopped our way through the weekend. We savoured a lot of yummy things on bamboo sticks. Kushiage, or various rounds of assorted vegetables, fish and meat, some dressed with a kind of japanese salsa flavoured with wasabi or vinegar in a lovely restored Japanese building (very rare in Tokyo). Enjoyed amazing sushi in the Tsukiji fish market. We shopped for pearls in the exclusive Mikimoto flagship store in Ginza. Oddly enough, at one point we came across a street full of lamborghinis lined up in a row -- red, white, lime green and powder blue. Taipei, eat your heart out. There were more yummy things on bamboo skewers, this time, yakitori or meat, fish or vegetables grilled on a charcoal hibachi. I particularly liked the ginko nuts and grilled chicken skin.
Next up is Kyoto, the ancient capital until the mid-1800s and the religious and cultural heart of Japan. Where Tokyo is the poster-child for modern, hip and cutting edge, Kyoto symbolizes the traditional, elegant and tranquil. Where I stayed, by the train station, was not so attractive, but a short bus ride downtown to the Gion district (ancient haunt of the geisha) and you were transported to another world. Think neatly kept wooden Japanese houses, framed by maple trees with miniature leaves, or a droopy willow and the occasional canal with a quiet gurgle of water over rocks. Even the more touristy areas like Hinami street and Ponto-cho chocabloc full of restaurants with terraces perched over the Kamo river still had charm, despite the constant pedestrian traffic. I went to one temple, the lovely Kiyomizudera, perched in the hills off of the downtown. By coincidence, I visited on a holiday where Japanese honour their elders. The streets were packed not only tourists but Japanese decked out in traditional dress -- girls in brightly coloured kimono with ornaments in their neatly styled hair and tottering around in little slippers. What a treat!
I never saw geisha (this is a dying art form), but I saw a graceful pair of maika (apprentice geisha) perform some dances in a cultural show. Wow! The ladies floated in their kimono. The way they used their arms, hands and the sleeves of the kimono in their movements was quite extraordinary. One of the maiko had the most expressive face. With a lift of her chin or the a slight turn of the head, she was able to convey such emotion. Inspired, the next day, I went to a dress up place and was transformed into a geisha with full make up, a 10 pound wig of human hair and a lovely kimono. It was a hoot! The attendants were amazing. They knew how to position your head, arms, hands and feet and arrange the kimono for the most amazing photos. What an experience! To keep that wig on my head required all of my dance posture and there were at least three layers under the kimono, so things got a bit sweaty after awhile.
I also took a little workshop on Japanese tea ceremony. It was a seated ten-minute dance of gentle choreographed movement from wiping the tea bowl to scooping the water using a long bamboo pole with a cup lashed on the end, and pouring it into the bowl, then gently resting the handle of the scoop on the floor. She then turned her attention to the drink, methodically whisking the powdered tea into the hot water. The choreographed ceremony she demonstrated was the simplest one and took 1-2 years to learn! Quite a contrast with hectic Tokyo.
Just got back to Tokyo, and had an amazing last meal with another old friend. Sadly, my trip is drawing to an end and I will begin the long journey home tomorrow morning.