9 August Matsuyama to Kyoto

 

Our 2.00am bedtime gave us difficulty in responding to our 7.30am alarm call. But a taxi delivered us to the Matsuyama ferry terminal in what we thought was plenty of time to catch the 9.45. We went up to the restaurant and ordered 3 rounds of toast, 2 coffees and an orange juice (cost was 2147 Yen!! – around 12.50!!). It took a while to arrive and eventually resulted in us sprinting to the ferry, with Val clutching her half-eaten toast to eat on board.

 

We snoozed our way back to Hiroshima and caught the tram/train to Hiroshima station. We boarded the Shinkansen and snoozed our way to Kyoto. Our hotel – the Ryokan Kyoka - was a 10 minute walk away from Kyoto station (or 20 minutes if you’re dragging heavy luggage!) and we registered and settled ourselves in. Our room was a fairly large tatami-ed room. An ante-room with table was adjacent, and at the other end of the room was a separate washbasin next to our private Shinto water-feature illuminated in tasteful blue fluorescent lighting. There was another, larger, green-lit example opposite the toilets, complete with Koi, visible through a section of glassy floor. Its minimalist harmony was slightly marred by the inclusion of a communal washing machine and tumble dryer, which, however, came in very useful.

 

Washed and brushed up, we set off for the Gion quarter – old, traditional Kyoto. Stephen had purchased tickets for a show of traditional Japanese culture and arts held twice nightly in the Gion theatre. We took a taxi to the Gion quarter and rubbernecked a bit as we made our way – a little early - to the theatre. The theatre is situated off and among some very picturesque traditional-looking Japanese streets. There are a number of restaurants and small ryokan and minshuku in the area.

 

We entered the modern theatre, admiring en route some varieties of different styles of ikebana, or flower arranging, displayed in the entrance corridor. Here’s a tip for anyone who goes to this worthwhile show: if you want to video or photograph the proceedings, go to the back of the theatre, where there is ample space to work without getting in anyone’s way or being obstructed by similar giant gaijin tourists like yourself. Of course, you need a zoom lens! It was interesting to see that there was a coach party of Japanese tourists in as well as some westerners.

 

We saw a number of different traditional Japanese arts. 

There was a lightning demonstration of a tea ceremony inflicted on a couple of American (what else?) volunteers from a coach party that arrived, noisily, just before the start.

There was some ancient Court music, played by an orchestra of plucked instruments and percussion with a male singer. The singing was clearly musical (at least if you have a musical ear) yet resembled the sounds of a constipated donkey. There was a dancer, attired in a gorgeous, symbolic lion-like costume, who moved from pose to stylised pose in time to the music. It was quite hypnotic, but I don’t know how it would go down in the Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ Working Men’s Club, Heckmondwyke. I could have watched for longer, but perhaps ten minutes was for the best.

A matronly lady in full kimono and wig bent some twigs and inserted them into a vase. The end result was elegant and somehow meaningful. How you can bend a twig and end up with that sort of result, I don’t know, but it seemed to fit with what I slowly have come to understand as the Zen idea of minimalist beauty. Val preferred other styles of ikebana, but who am I to pass judgement? I am notorious for not being able to differentiate between a marigold and a dandelion (all part of God’s beautiful creation, say I), so distinguishing preferences between schools of ikebana is way out of my league.

Two younger women played a duet on two koto, or harps. These are more like a giant oblong-ish guitar with a number of strings stretched over a bridge, and a finger-board for one hand, while the other plucks the strings. I found the music delightful, in a mournful, minimalist (that word again!) way.

A traditional orchestra played to accompany two geisha dancers.

Another two women played the samisen, another instrument rather more like a plangent non-resonant guitar (or maybe a slightly-resonant banjo, who can say?). Again, restful and minimalist music here.

Three actors played out a traditional Kyogen farce. Fortunately, the slightly complex story (naturally performed in Japanese) was written up in the programme, so the physical goings-on (all to do with servants scheming to get at the master’s sake) were genuinely funny, and we laughed a good deal. Japanese people in the audience seemed to laugh at the same time as us, so I am fairly sure we got it. The American coach party didn’t laugh, though, either because

(a)    they had not bothered to read the synopsis;

(b)   they feared making some kind of social gaffe; or

(c)    because they had no sense of humour.

Delete two of the above. (Clue: they were Americans.) Apparently this sort of short farce is played during intervals of the lengthy, stylised, serious kabuki plays.

There was a Bunraku puppet performance. Three puppeteers (the chief having his head uncovered – which detracted from the performance somewhat – while his two assistants were complete blacked out by cloth coverings) manipulated a puppet in a traditional, narrated story. The skill of the puppeteers was very high indeed. When the puppet walked up a ladder, it looked as if she were indeed climbing. Every movement was detail-perfect. 

We left the theatre with at least an initial appreciation of some aspects of Japanese culture. Fascinating, and unusual – at least for us gaijin!

 

We walked along to the river, past secluded restaurants where expensive chauffeured limousines occasionally revealed a geisha on the way to her client. As there was a little rain in the air, we eventually found our way to a restaurant, where we had a shabu-shabu meal. We paid for a limitless supply of sliced vegetables – daikon, cabbage-ish leaves, carrots, enoshi (small etiolated mushrooms) and other less identifiable vegetables – and thinly sliced beef, supplied with a metal bowl placed over the built-in gas flame on the table. This was filled with boiling stock, and first vegetables and then slices of beef were put into it to simmer for a few moments before being lifted out, dunked in a sesame seed paste or shoyu livened with wasabi and eaten. It is an entirely wonderful and satisfying meal. Incidentally, the sesame seed paste is self made. They bring a sort of pestle and mortar for you to grind the seeds. The mortar is ridged on the inner surface, which helps to crush the seeds.

 

So ended our first day in Kyoto. we took a taxi back to our hotel and crashed out, replete and happy.

 

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