I'm turning Japanese, I'm turning Japanese I really think so..
Well, actually, maybe not.
But Japan has been a fascinating place. I am attempting to get some bits of it down now, while it is fresh in my mind (and I am still here), before I tell 500 people on the ship about it and the freshness dissipates.
Mainly I used Kobe and the port area as a home base, spending my quality time in Kyoto. Kyoto is the city setting of "Memoirs of a Geisha" for those of you who are familiar. The Gion district is the oldest part of the city, the setting of the novel, and absolutely beautiful. I even saw a real-life contemporary Geisha walking around. Unfortunately, that is all I could afford. Apparently it costs about 75,000 Yen, or about $700 an HOUR to have a Geisha pour tea and converse with you, if you're lucky enough to be admitted
to one of the places where this can even be done. I heard a rumor that some years ago the Geisha houses refused Michael Gorbechov until he went through the proper channels to gain a seat. That's exclusivity.
My first day here was kind of dry. I awoke after 4 hours of sleep to
watch/film our arrival into Kobe harbor at 7am. After pulling into port we met the Mayor, Governor, and US consulate emissary. After that was a reception with a bunch of Japanese students. Unfortunately, the ones I met only spoke a couple of textbook phrases. "How old are you?" "Are you married?" "Do you like Japanese girls?" Then the conversations died. What a tease after the opener, huh?
Note about Japanese schoolgirls.. they don't speak English, but they love taking pictures with Americans, provided everyone makes a peace sign. I would attach a picture, but I look like a fool with the ***-eating grin on my face. Anyway..
I've seen multitudes of temples here. This includes the oldest wooden structure still standing in the world, the largest wooden structure in the world, which houses
the largest indoor Buddha in the world. There was temple with 1001 Buddhas, a golden temple, and some other temples along the way to the aforementioned temples. I also went to a Shinto Shrine, which was very peaceful. It made me feel like I was in the enchanted forest of Princess Mononoke, sans rampaging beasts.
Speaking of beasts, in Nara there is a deer park. The deer surround you and bow their heads in front of you, in request for food. Unless you actually have the deer cookies they sell for them, in which case they mercilessly attack you. There are a bunch of Japanese children permanently scarred for life by rampaging deer attacks.
Did I mention it rained a lot, that it was about 90 degrees and 95% humidity?
Believe it or not, I never got a sushi dinner, or Kobe beef. I didn't see an Anime film. I enjoyed Japan a lot, but all of my preconceptions were off. It was a great beginning of my voyage.
Ryokans are the traditional Japanese Inns with public baths and Tatami mat floors where you sleep on futons, and women in Kimonos serve you stuff while making you put on different shoes all the time. Your outside shoes stay at the front door, and you put on the first set of slippers. But you can't wear those on the Tatami mats, so you go barefoot there. Then you go to the bathroom, and there are special bathroom shoes. This makes a LOT of sense, considering the 2 options for Japanese toilets. The first is a hole in the floor you squat over. The second looks like a western toilet, with the addition of a console of electronic controls that mostly make water come back up out of the toilet. Either way, you are likely to get your toilet shoes wet if you don't know what you are doing, so it's good that they stay in the bathroom.
At one of the Ryokans I visited I had a meal that will linger in my memory forever. I took a printout of the menu as a souvenir, and will attach it separately.
One thing that really impressed me about the Japanese people I met was their incredible hospitality. Even though there was a lot more English than I expected on the signage, more 7-11s and Circle-Ks, very few people actually speak English at a conversational level. So if you ask directions, the responses can be interesting. Lots of body language or.. in the large majority of situations, the person you ask will actually walk you to your destination. If you are like me, I usually ask people who are facing me - ie going the other direction. Think about that. People on the street actually would turn around and walk back in the other direction to take a complete stranger someplace. Wow.
"Menu of Hiiragiya Kaiseki"
Apertif (Shokuzen-Shu): Sake of Grapefruit
The 1st Appetizer (Sakizuke):
Sesame Tofu, Fig, Nut of Chinese Matrimony vine, Cucumber, Soybean paste with sesame.
Sashimi Dishes (Mukouzuke):
Sea Bass, Tuna-toro, Pike Conger, Mioga, Perilla, Radish, Red Perilla, Leave of Bamboo grass.
Simmered Dishes (Nimono-Way):
Grilled Pike Conger, Tofu with Mozuku seaweed, Young Matsutake fungus, sieved fresh of Umeboshi, Wax Gourd Citrus.
Grilled Fishes (Yaki-Zakana):
Grilled Ayu with salt, simmered Potato with pod soybean ginger, vinegar of water pepper.
The 2nd Appetizer (Hassun):
Sand Borer rolled kelp with salt-cured preserve of Skipjack, Roast wild duck with sesame, simmered Octopus, Egg of Pike Conger, Jelly with Sea Urchin, Okra and tomato, rolled Prawn with Lotus root, young Ginkgo nut with pine leaf.
Simmered Dishes (Takiawase):
Kamo Eggplant, Crab, Shark's Fin, Manganji Chilii, Ginger.
Deep-fried Dishes (Age-Mono):
Deep-fried Prawn, She-Flathead, Corn, Red and Green Capsicum, Stock soup, salt.
Vinegared Dishes (Su-No-Mono):
Roast Abalone with Sake, Jerry with Crab, Needle like Udo, Cucumber, Ginger, Red leaves of perilla.
Lard, Shiitake Mushroom, Sliced Burdock, Welsh Onion, Mixture of Red pepper and other spices.
Rice with Grilled Conger Eel, Young leaves of Sansho.
Pickled in rice-bran paste of Eggplant and Cucumber, Mioga.
Dessert (Mizu-Mono): Watermelon, Warabi Mochi.