Okay, on to Day 2 in Kyoto. After sleeping in the same room with my dad for a night, I have come to the conclusion that he snores — loudly. Especially after a few glasses of sake. This was reconfirmed the second night. Luckily, I still had my American Airlines earplugs, a godsend. After breakfast (Western scrambled eggs for me, Japanese herring for my dad), we met Miko-san at the front of our ryokan. It was lightly raining on our second day in Kyoto, but the light rain added to the city’s air of serenity.
First we strolled along the river in Arashiyama Park, set against a mountain backdrop, and we passed a group of statuettes of Hindu gods, erected after World War II to protect the local deities. Miko-san led us to a gorgeous bamboo forest, with thousands of huge bamboo stalks stretching at least 80 feet high. The Zen temple in the park was definitely beautiful, but in my opinion, the bamboo forest stole the show. After Arashiyama, we visited Nijo Castle, one of the most famous castles of the 17th century. Nijo Castle was built in 1603 by Tokugawa, the 1st shogun of the 3rd (and last) shogunate. Tokugawa was a smart man, and he designed his castle to protect himself from being overthrown by feudal lords. The floors near the entrance are nicknamed the Nightingale Floors because they squeak like the sound of a chirping nightingale when you walk on them. Tokugawa did this intentionally, so that he could hear intruders. The castle and its property, which spans 68 acres, is in excellent condition, mainly because it was barely used by Tokugawa and his descendants. Nijo Castle is the oldest surviving castle in Japan; many of these wooden treasures have succumbed to fires over the years, started by marauding enemies, lightning, or earthquakes.
After Nijo Castle we had worked up an appetite, and Miko-san took us to a Japanese noodle restaurant called Honke Owariya, established in 1465 (before Columbus sailed the ocean blue). We were a little awkward the first time Miko-san told us to abandon our sense of Western decorum and “slurp” our noodles, but we got the hang of it by the end of the meal. We then made our way to Nishiki Market, where we looked at many different types of fish (and some looked back at us) and perused some of the shops. We decided to enter what looked like an entertainment arcade from the outside, but we were extremely surprised to find rows upon rows of people playing slot machines. It looked and sounded just like slot-machine galleries in Vegas. The Pacheko machines were so loud that you could barely hear yourself think, much less make conversation, and we could tell the people playing meant business.
We left the market, and Miko-san took us to the Gion District, the birthplace of the geisha (called “geiko” in Tokyo). We walked along the Kamo River, past numerous tea houses (ochaya). Miko-san explained to us the concept of the maiko, which is a teenager that aspires to become a geiko at the age of 20. The maikos undergo rigorous training, with only 8 vacation days a year, including studying Japanese history, playing the shamisen (a three-stringed instrument), singing, and performing traditional geiko dances. Miko-san pointed out the houses where the maikos and geikos lived with their landlady managers, indicated by wooden name plaques. We even caught a glimpse of a few fresh-faced geikos on their way to make themselves up before their nighttime performances.
Next, we jumped in the car and made our way to a private Zen temple called the Gesshin-in. There, we made friends with a very friendly Buddhist priest named Join (his Buddhist name), who taught us za-zen (za = sitting, zen = meditation). Between discussions about Japanese Buddhism, we sat completely still for about 20 mins total, paying close attention to our breathing. We must’ve made a good impression on Join because, before we left, the priest said if we ever returned to Kyoto we should consider Gesshin-in our very own honorary temple. Coolest Buddhist priest I’ve ever known. We also learned the art of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony during our visit to the temple. During a private lesson, my dad and I took turns learning first how to make the tea and then the proper way to present it to guests. Our next adventure deserves its own post, so stay tuned!