Geishas, Ninjas, & Nudity

Everything about Japan is manicured. The trees, the paths, even the homeless are well groomed. It’s like an army of gardeners come out at night to spruce up the place. This is most evident in Kyoto, the original capital of Japan. There are actually over 2000 temples in theKyoto area and thanks to allied bombing restraint during WW2, they are all in excellent condition. Most are spread out over the city and outlying hillsides, so it’s a bit difficult to figure out which sites to actually visit. We picked a few based on recommendations and random guessing, and set forth to gaze at Buddhas and Geishas.

Our first stop was the Imperial Palace grounds; a sprawling area in the center of town that still houses government houses as well as a beautiful park. Nearby is the massive Nijo castle. Built in 1603, it has a moat, huge wooden gates and the coolest Ninja invention called a “nightingale floor” that squeaks when walked on to alert the Samurais of intruders.

The next day we visited the Higashiyama-ku district. An area with lantern-lined streets and shop filled alleys that give way to giant temple complexes. Definitely a treat to wander through. We spotted a few geishas in training (yes, they are still very much employed, but usually just for traditional services like tea ceremonies) and we sampled a wide variety of Japanese treats. The kiyomizudera temple at the top of the hill has an incredible view of the city and some very interesting prayer temples. You can even buy an assortment of small good luck charms, i regret not purchasing the safe driving amulet for our trip to China.

On day three we took a thirty minute train ride to the Arashiyama neighborhood. It also has a grouping of historical sites but is set further into the surrounding mountains. The scenery was stunning with meandering rivers and changing autumn leaves. We met an older man who didn’t speak English but helped us find the ancient Bamboo Forest. We mentioned to him that we wanted to see the Golden Temple so he happily motioned for us to follow him. After walking for half an hour we assumed he also wanted to visit the temple. To our astonishment, he pointed to the entrance, bowed, and went back the way he came. And that sums up the people of Japan; they may not understand you but they will go well out of their way to help you out.

Our final excursion in Kyoto took us to the mountain village of Kurama. It was nice to be out of the city and wandering along some secluded paths. We hiked to the top of a hill where a temple greeted us as well as 100 Japanese school children all in matching uniforms – something you see a lot of throughout the country. After hiking back down the hill we found a Japanese onsen (thermal heated sulfur bath) to soak away our travel weary bodies. This was a traditional onsen, so the baths were separated. Cortney and I wished each other luck, donned our robes and went our separate ways. Like most things in Japan, there are explicit rules on how to properly use the onsen.

Step 1 – no clothes. Everything comes off before bathing. Ok, easy enough.
Step 2 – wash thoroughly before entering the bath. Well, I guess that does make sense. I just have and get sudsy and spray myself with a hose like a circus animal.
Step 3 – walk out, IN THE COLD (special emphasis because I didn’t want to misrepresent my country), towards a large steamy bathtub filled with a bunch of strange naked dudes whom I can’t communicate with. What the hell, I made it this far.
Step 4 – step into a very hot pool, gaze out into the mountains, and think, “Hey, I’m in Japan bathing ever so nakedly with other Japanese at high elevation, this is pretty awesome.”

And it is awesome. Once you overcome the initial awkwardness and the inevitable pins and needles from the extreme temperature variances, it’s quite relaxing and euphoric.

Just to come full circle, Cortney reports that not all things in Japan are well manicured and that the Brazillians are missing out on an untapped business opportunity.