Well, I said I would try and update again soon. I`m now in Nagasaki, and as the hostel here has free internet, I thought I would abuse it! WARNING - THIS IS A LONG ONE!
On my second day in Kyoto, Wakako thought it would be fun if I went and hired a kimono for the day and walked around the tourist sights. I thought it would make for some nice pictures, and would definately make for an `only in Japan` moment. When we got to the place, I had to choose the style of fabric I wanted (I went for black with pink and red flowers, as you will see in the pictures) and then basically just had to stand there whilst 2 women dressed me! As I got undressed, they were muttering for a few minutes in Japanese, then Wakako came over and said to me "You`re going to have to take off your bra, your boobs are too big, they need to be made smaller." As I stood there, braless, with two women binding my boobs, all I could think was THIS IS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN! Lol. It took about an hour to get dressed, as there is a real skill to putting on a kimono (even Wakako can`t do it) but when it was finished I must admit, I did like it. As we left the place, I got the strangest looks from people... I could almost hear their thoughts... "bloody foreigner!" It was quite funny though!
We walked around for a bit, and went down to the geisha district of Gion to try and glimpse some real geisha. Normally you can spot them shuffling to and fro from their engagements... and I managed to get my picture (kimono and all) with some Maiko (apprentice geisha!) We then went on to visit the very famous FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE... the one with the tunnels of orange poles from the film "Memoirs of a geisha." The shrine was lovely, and so peaceful... but by this time I was so hot from wearing the layers of my kimono that I just couldn`t wait to get it off. It was such a relief to be able to breathe (and pee!) after that.
On the way home, Wakako introduced me to some more Japanese cuisine... TAKOYAKI (I`m not sure if I`ve spelt that right), or octopus balls to you and I. I`m not joking, it was one of the nicest things I have ever eaten. It`s hard to describe, but imagine a gooey, creamy, ball shaped pancake, about the size of a ping-pong ball, filled with octopus, covered in sauce and fish flakes. Ok, so I`ve just read that back and it sounds gross, but you have to believe me, it isn`t - I was in love!
The following day we took a road trip out of Kyoto to a place called ISHIKAWA, to stay with Wakako`s friends and to experience some real fresh sushi! On the way we stopped at a place called SHIRAKAWA-GO, which is a very small community, made up of very traditional gassho-zukuri houses. It was interesting to find out how the Japanese people lived a few hundred years ago, and what they had to do in THEIR kimono`s. We also stopped for lunch here, noodles.... yum! I think I forgot to mention in my last blog, that the etiquette for eating noodles in Japan is very different to that at home. They expect you to SLURP, quite loudly, to show that you`re enjoying your food... its so hard to re-train yourself to slurp. Wakako thinks its hilarious that I get embarrassed, and has video`d me on more than one occasion. Still, I might not be able to slurp, but I`ve been complimented on my excellent chop-stick usage, so I`m well chuffed!
We eventually made our way to Yuno and Hiro`s house (Wakako`s friends). They are a lovley couple and we had so much fun there. Yuno was learning English a few years ago and she had been using a teacher who thought the best way for the Japanese to remember English was to rap it... so I was treated to a rap of "I have a reservation at Jackson hotel" many times, lol. We went into KANAZAWA and took a gondola ride up the mountains... but my absolute favourite part of the whole trip was that night... going to a REAL SUSHI RESTAURANT!!
As we pulled up, we were greated by the sushi chef (or Sushi Master as they are known), and I was wowed by his hospitality and skill. Kanazawa is right next to the sea, so the fish was just a few hours old when he used it. The place had so many different types of fish it was unbelieveable. You order what you want, and the Sushi Master makes it right there in front of you, and places it on the table for you to eat from. We started with about 10 different varieties of sashimi (just raw fish, no rice), then had a variety of fish dishes, so many I can`t remember them infact, followed by sushi (fish and rice) and miso soup... all washed down with sake. It was amazing! The chef even filleted a fish in front of us, and made sushi out of it within a minute. He seemed so excited to be making sushi for us, and at the prospect of having a foreigner eat at his restaurant. If you love sushi as much as I do, then you have to come to Japan and try it... I can`t even describe how great it was.
After saying goodbye to Yuna and Hiro, we headed back to Kyoto. Myself and Wakako had been invited to attend a traditional tea ceremony the next day, so we needed to prepare. A traditional "chaji" (tea ceremony) involves a very formal get together, with the serving of a full-course meal and the ritual serving of tea, lasting 4 hours!! It takes years and years to be able to do it properly, so when Wakako said we had been invited I absolutely s*** myself! The whole thing is very ritualised, you have to use certain movements, hold the tea-filled bowl in a certain way, turn it in a certain way around a certain number of degress, drink the tea in 3 gulps, clean the bowls with special papers... and on top of all that, enter, leave, and bow at the right time! I didn`t have a clue what I was doing, so I just had to copy everyone else and wait for Wakako to translate everything for me. The tea ceremony teacher had prepared a very special meal in my honour, so much so that none of the other women there (who had been taking part in tea ceremonies for their whole lives) had ever experienced something so special. I didn`t fully understand the whole thing, but it was certainly an honour to have been invited, even if my bent knees did hurt the next day from sitting on them in the traditional Japanese style for all of that time!
The next day we decided to go and visit a place called NARA. Nara was Japan`s first real capital, and is apparently the second most important city (after Kyoto) for discovering the history and culture of Japan. Its quite an odd place. Hundreds of deer roam freely in the streets, trying to steal any food (or even paper leaflets) that they can. We went to see the TODAI-JI temple - the worlds largest wooden building, housing Japan`s (and most of the worlds`) largest bronze buddha statue... over 16m high! Unfortunately I was still in pain from the tea ceremony the day before (I seem to be getting hurt quite a lot in Japan don`t I?) so we decided to take it easy, and relax in the park surrounding the temple, eating ice cream. Perfect! The day after, I headed out on my own (Wakako thought she should spend at least some time with her husband, lol) to HIMEJI-JO, the oldest castle in Japan, and the day after that I said a temporary farewell to Wakako and headed for HIROSHIMA!
As soon as I arrived at HIROSHIMA I knew I liked it. Its a beautiful city, the sun was shining (it had been raining for the last few days in Kyoto) and the people were very friendly, trying to help me negotiate the tram system even when they didn`t speak a word of English! I headed straight for the Atomic-bomb dome. The dome was the Industrial Promotion Hall until the atomic-bomb exploded directly above it, destroying it almost completely. Now, all that remains are its propped up ruins. Surrounding the dome is the Peace Memorial Park. Before the a-bomb, that space contained thousands of homes, afterwards nothing but rubble. The whole area is deeply moving, and the dome itself made me very emotional... its so easy to imagine what the area must have looked like after the bomb when you look at the remains of that sad building. I took a look around the memorial grounds, and went into the Peace Memorial Museum to find out more about the effects of the bomb. That evening, I went to a talk given by an atomic bomb survivor, one of the few still alive or willing to talk about their experiences. Needless to say, I was drained by the end of the day, but it was definately worth the visit. I don`t think I`ll ever forget it.
My second day in Hiroshima, I headed for a place called MIYAJIMA ISLAND. The approach to the island is supposed to be one of the three most beautiful sights in thw whole of Japn, and it didn`t let me down. As I wandered around the craft shops and lay on the beach in the sun, I was thinking "THIS IS THE LIFE!" John and Leigh will be pleased to know that I`ve even taken up drawing again... now that I have the time (no more lesson plans, hoorah!).
SO, this morning I headed to Nagasaki for the day, then tomorrow I`m back up to Kyoto to say a final farewell to Wakako (sob sob sob!), then back to Tokyo for Sumo and my flight out to Bangkok. I`m not sure when I`ll next have the opportunity to write, but I`ll get on as soon as I can to keep you up to date. Thank-you all for the messages, it was lovely to hear from you all... please keep them coming.
Missing you all,
Lots of love,