Aimi does not cope well with heat. Within 20 mins she was hot and bothered and considering going back to the Ninja house. I was hot and sweaty too, but sucking it up to find out what this tour was going to be like. It probably didn’t help that we had spent the morning in an air conditioned cocoon. When we stepped outside, the heat hit us like a humid wall. The differential felt like walking into a sauna, honestly it is really hot here, much more than we thought it would be.
I had booked us an Ebike tour around the North West end of Kyoto. It came highly rated on Air BnB, had great reviews, was a chunk of money but it was the cheapest Ebike tour in the area. There were analogue bike tours, but we were definitely glad of the motors in this heat. Anything to get a breeze with minimal effort.
We met our guide Yuta and he took us first to one of the 5 Geisha districts. 4 of them are located proximate to Gion, where we had been before, but this 1 is out on its own and much less touristed. Yuta then gave us a much more detailed education about the culture surrounding Geisha than we got on our specific Geisha experience. He filled in the gaps that I had been left with, and gave that experience a lot more meaning.
Geisha start training as a Maiko for 5 years from the age of 15-16, after school. Usually their parents try to dissuade the girls from joining because there are so many opportunities in japan, this is just one very narrow field. But there used to be over 3000 Geisha in Kyoto, and now there are less than 300. While the popularity is less, they still command a very high price in the upper circles of society.
The training takes a long time because the dances, music, manners, ceremonies and other skills they learn are complex and costly. While a girl is a Maiko, she will be assisting a Geisha in her work which pays back the dormitory manager these costs. One silk kimono can cost $10,000 so it’s not a cheap enterprise for a manager to take on a girl, she has to be confident she will succeed and stick thru the process.
They live in a dormitory and while a Maiko, will learn to do their hair in that complex and distinctive style. It takes such a long time that they will keep it in place for multiple days. They sleep on what looks like a brick with a beanbag tied to the top of it. This rests along their jaw, bottom of their ear and neck only, which I can imagine is quite uncomfortable. They rise at 7am and go to classes till 2-3pm to learn the traditional arts. Then they come home to get ready for the evenings work which can go on till 11 or midnight. They get 3-4 days off per month and earn only $200-300 a month, but all of their food, clothing, housing cost is at the managers expense so it balances out.
The place they live and traditionally work is called a tea house. It became very fashionable for high society to meet at these tea houses and drink Matcha tea, which was very expensive. The tea houses started hiring good looking ladies to serve their clients and so an arms race of outclassing each other led to the Geisha culture. It still persists to this day but its unlikely we could experience a true teahouse. You have to be invited by a regular customer. There is no money exchanged at the teahouse as its all done on honour and trust. If a new person came with a regular, enjoyed a few days drinking and eating and then left without paying, it would be the introducers obligation to pay for their service. This keeps the client base small but fosters trust and honour, something which I feel I get frustrated with the world for lacking at times. The Geisha are therefore well connected so you don’t want to dishonour them, lest doors close on you in future.
Next we biked over to Kitano-Tenmangu, a Shinto Shrine of Tenjin who is the god of education and farmers. He was known as Sugawara no Michizane and as a boy was reading chinese classical literature from age 5. He was very smart and rose quickly to positions of power as a scholar and politician in the favour of the emperor. However his peers were jealous and conspired to spread rumours that he wanted to over throw the Emperor. Unfortunately the Emperor listened and had him demoted and banished to a distant province. The nobles, thinking they had ousted a power hungry competitor, were shocked that when he left life got worse and the organisation of the council started to crumble. Having formed a connection with the cow he raised as a boy, it loyally followed him into exile. When there was an assassination attempt on his life, the cow strode out into the path of the arrows and took them for his master, dieing in the process, such was its loyalty. After he died in exile it is believed he came back as Tenjin and brought down plagues and disasters on Kyoto. When the council met to discuss what they could do about it, he struck the building with lightning and killed them, before supplying rain to the fields to end the drought. Following this, he was the first human ever to be deified and have shrines built to appease his wrath. Now these are shrines in his name dedicated to his life’s work of education, visited by thousands of students to ask for his favour in their exams.
People also visit to stroke the cow statues with the wish that the loyal cow will take away their ailments. I gave him a rub on the knee in the hope he takes away my knee pain. We also had some fun trying to stick 2 pebbles up the nose of the happiest god of money. If you managed it on your first attempt you would have no financial difficulties in your life. Neither of us managed the challenge.
It was at this time that Yuta explained a mistake I’ve been making. I’ve been using Shrine and Temple almost interchangeably in my blog. To this point, I’ve just thought a temple was a larger, manned building and a shrine was what was in that building or a smaller unmanned place of worship. I’ve now been corrected that shrines are small or large in dedication to the Shinto belief system of god’s and spirits. Its the original belief system of Japan that all things, rivers, trees, mountains etc, have a spirit and so some have shrines in their honour. Being at a Shinto Shrine is easy to identify as it will have a Torii gate at its entrance. Temples are a Buddhist place of worship. There are many different sects of Buddhism but they all follow the teachings of the Buddah towards attaining enlightenment.
Next on the list was the Gold leafed Temple, Kinkaku-ji. It was bought by the Grand Shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and used a different building style on each of its 3 levels. The bottom level, and representing the over thrown aristocratic class, is built in the Shinden palace. It is not covered in gold leaf as an insult to say “you are not worthy of gold” or “you have been beaten”. The second level is the Shogunate warrior class style called buke-zukuri of which Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was the leader. This is covered with gold, as is the third level, built in the Zen style. Representing the religion placed above all. Except he was very egotistical, in contrast to the teachings of Zen Buddhism, and placed a gilded bronze phoenix on the roof. This is significant as he was claiming he was a true hero, because this is the only time a phoenix will arrive.
Not only the pagoda, but the landscape is also testament to his lust for power and control. The lake represents the world with Japan as the largest central island and other lands smaller around it. Even the trees are bonsais, trimmed to look like the clouds of the sky above the landscape. Many wealthy and powerful people donated rocks to this garden from all over Japan. Not only to currie favour with the Grand Shogun, but also as a sign of subservience to his rule.
Moving on, we were exceptionally happy I’d booked ebikes as the streets were steep to reach our next stop. Ichimonji Wassuke is a tea shop that has served the same menu for over 1000 years. Which I can fully believe, considering all they sell is green tea and sweet rice goo on sticks called Aburimochi. This was too reminiscent of the goo we had in Hakone for Aimi, so I had most of it. Here, once again, Yuta filled another gaping gap in my understanding about the significance of the tea ceremony.
The population of Japan swung from Emporor rule to Shogunate (military) rule many times thru it’s history in civil war, until the 3 Great Unifying leaders (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu) established order. During this time, it became custom to kneel while meeting and drinking tea. After 30 minutes of kneeling, it’s very uncomfortable and your legs go numb. Therefore you do this in trusted company, among people you don’t expect to draw a sword on you. From that position you would not be able to adequately defend yourself, you are vulnerable. As with the Japanese custom of bowing, it’s a demonstration of vulnerability because all you can see is the floor, therefore you have full trust in the person to whom you are bowing. Unfortunately, in western culture, maintaining earnest eye contact is a sign of trust and overrules our capacity to bow correctly. We have been keeping our heads and eyes up, which basically means “we are observing your culture, but we don’t trust you so we are keeping our eyes open…” This not what we want to communicate so we will be adjusting our bowing technique going forward.
But back to the tea ceremony, kneeling and bowing put you at the mercy of your companions. You would be served your tea with the pattern of the bowl facing you, however you should be humble and turn it away from you before you drink from the cup. This is a sign of being humble, for if many people drank from that side, the pattern may become tarnished. You are not worthy of tarnishing the beautiful pattern for others so you sip from the undecorated side. Then when you are finished, you slurp the tea to make sure you get all of it. As much as we didn’t like Matcha tea, we did this because we were told to, but it’s actually because it was a get expensive drink and you wanted to compliment your host on such fine tea. However, because it’s so fine, everything is fine in reverent silence to fully appreciate the tea. The short slurp at the end is a non verbal cue to your geisha or host that you are done without unnecessary talking. Then, you replace the cup on the floor and turn the pattern back to facing you. This is another compliment to the host, that even tho you have finished your tea, it was so good you want to enjoy the pattern of the bowl.
Its a complex and lengthy series of rules, gestures and compliments that form the tea ceremony and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten some. But all this formality forces one to appreciate the act of drinking the tea. I get thru so much tea at home, I basically drink it like water. I like drinking it, but rarely do I really revere it’s taste and the process of making it. Part of the teachings of the Buddah is to find joy in the smallest of things and drinking tea is one of those where a whole meditative ceremony has come from this simple act.
Feeling refreshed and having had a small pick-me-up we rode on to the last stop of the tour. The part I was looking forward to most. The Zen Temple and rock garden. Buddhism is a religion with a few different sects but the Zen teachings are more a philosophical viewpoint than worshipping a deity. Zen focuses on removing bad habits and thoughts and accepting and enjoying reality as it is. This is more aligned with my understanding of the world based around science and provability, truthfulness and authenticity, honour and acceptance. I’ll not even get close to explaining it very well, so here is a succinct definition and link to where you can find out more.
Zen emphasises rigorous self-restraint, meditation-practice and the subsequent insight into nature of mind and nature of things, and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others.
We came into the Temple, and following the guidance of Yuta, learnt how to sit infront of the rock garden to meditate. There is a small step at the edge of the platform that runs around the edge of the temple. You sit your butt on the top platform and then cross your legs with your ankles resting on the lower step to take some of the pressure off. At this point Yuta introduced the previous Grand Master who had walked in. He was a very old but steady man, wearing monks robes. He had papery wrinkled skin on his face, but it was open and smiling in what can only be described as a state of bliss. He walked thru and said you must sit up straight to open your chest and allow easy, controlled breathing. Walking behind me he gave me a hard, but not painful or aggressive, thump on the back. I thought I was sitting up straight, but apparently I could sit up straighter! This was a tough posture to hold for any length of time. My knee does not enjoy crossed legs and its rare to have to hold my back so straight for so long. But to learn Zen Buddhism and meditation correctly, it’s necessary.
As an introduction to the Zen way of thinking, Yuta asked us to describe “horrible weather”. Predictably the group said things like, “cold, rainy, cloudy”. But he explained this is a prejudiced negative thought about something which can’t possibly be bad or horrible. Rain and clouds are needed for plants and food to grow. You don’t get horrible food subjecting a plant to horrible weather, so its not absorbing the horrible, that description is imposed by our negative prejudices. Zen teaches that you should accept the weather, whatever its condition and enjoy it for what it is.
Unfortunately, he also explained that describing Zen and the feeling it gives you, is like trying to describe the taste of water. Its nothingness, but its nourishing. You have to drink the water to understand it. I’ve meditated listening to an audio guide before, and done it for months at a time, but not really understood what I’m trying to achieve. This makes a lot more sense now, even Aimi agrees. I think we would need some more instruction because I don’t really know where to start, but one element already resonates with both of us, even if we aren’t perfect at practicing it.
Wabi – meaning accepting yourself or objects as they are
Sabi – meaning accepting that everything is impermanent and changing
A simple explanation would be a river bank. It’s just made of mud and sticks and rocks, but it’s beautiful for its natural simplicity. It is also continually changing and eroding away over time.
Yuta’s tour was outstanding, informative, engaging and fun. Everything I could possibly hope it to be. And on top of that, he took us to somewhere personal and really taught us, from his own experiences and examples, what it means to engage with the Zen Buddhist faith. If you don’t book a tour with Yuta, then I’ll book one for you because he is by far the best guide I’ve ever experienced on my long history of travels.