The Last Samurai’s Castle: Nijojo


“I’ll tell you how he lived.”  ~Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

A young Japanese Emperor Meiji is featured in The Last Samurai, surrounded by his court in an immense and minimally-appointed tatami-floored hall.  The palace is unquestionably Japanese, with sliding door panels adorned with gilded scenes of cranes in flight and tigers crouched for an attack never to come.  But his is no movie set; these scenes were filmed in the historic 400-year-old castle of Nijo, located in the heart of the ancient Japanese capital city of Kyoto.

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō) is a low-profile castle built on the flatlands of Kyoto, Japan.  Although nothing like a castle in the Western classic sense of tall turreted guard towers and heavy drawbridges, it does boast two concentric rings of fortifications and thick stone walls, substantial palaces and several gardens.  The complex is sizeable covering about 70 acres, but with only about 85,000sqf of buildings to explore.  It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, all which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogunates, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to Nijō’s construction, which was completed in 1626 by his Grandson after the former’s death.  Although Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was considered the country’s capital, this castle served as the Kyoto residence and Court of the Tokugawa Shoguns (basically military dictators).  It continued in this role for 260 years until the Shoguns surrendered power to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, and today it remains an eloquent testimony to a bygone era of Shogun power and prestige.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Jody and I really enjoyed the expansive, well-kept grounds and gardens, and spent much of our timeat the castle wandering slowly through their various paths.  Groves of plum and cherry trees are found here among peaceful ponds and carefully-placed ornamental stones, and the castle serves as a prime blossom viewing spot in the spring when the time is right in late March and all of April.

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Building as the Japanese did primarily out of wood and paper, though, has its drawbacks, as evidenced by a sad history of destructive fire at most old Japanese heritage sites.  Nijō’s original 5-story central Keep was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750; the foundations can still be explored around the inner ring’s southwest corner.  In 1788, the “Inner Ward,” the area encompassed by the inner moat, was destroyed by a city-wide fire and remained empty, more or less, for the next 100 years.  After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial rule, an Imperial residence was moved there where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Chinese Kamon Gate

Chinese Kamon Gate

After entering the castle grounds from the outer east gate, visitors will soon find the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru outer ward secondary circle of defense.  The castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located here.  This Palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun.

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Surviving in its original form, the architecture and artwork found at Nijojo are arguably among the best surviving examples of Japan’s feudal era.  The palace consists of a series of separate buildings that are connected by an interestingly clever defensive design, the castle’s famed “nightingale floors,” corridors with flooring specifically designed to squeak aloud when stepped upon, alerting guards and occupants to potential intruders.  The rooms are floored with tatami mats and feature elegantly decorated ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and beautifully painted screens on sliding wooden-framed doors (fusuma), all intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the Shoguns.

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These fusuma paintings, dating to 1626, include some of the most well-known masterpieces of original Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber (as featured in The Last Samurai).  These depictions were painted by artists of the Kano tradition, which employed rich colors and large amounts of golden gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers.  The look and feel of this particular palace is routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when there is a necessity to depict a wealthy Samurai, and were also replicated for our own Western-produced mini-series Shogun.

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But there is some fact to The Last Samurai’s fiction.  In 1867, Ninomaru Palace, located in the castle’s “Outer Ward,” served as the site of handover of power in Japan from Shogun to the authority of the Imperial Court in early January 1868.  That year also saw the installation of the Imperial Cabinet at Nijojo, and the castle was declared a “detached” palace for the Emperor.  Honmaru Palace served as the location for the enthronement banquet of the Showa Emperor (Emperor Hirohito) in 1928, and is not normally open to the public.  A scamper up the stone foundation of the former castle keep located nearby provides fantastic views of the castle grounds.

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In 1939, the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.

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There is a reason why The Last Samurai was shot on location.  Visiting Nijojo, one is transported back to a different time and place, one when powerful Shoguns and revered Emperors ruled Japan in opulence.  One can imagine, indeed, “how one lived…”.

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Nijojo

Address:  541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Phone: 075-841-0096

Access:  JR Kyoto Station/Hankyu Railway Karasuma Station, or Tozai Subway Line Nijo-jo-mae Station

Hours:  08:45-16:00 closing at 17:00

Closed:  12/26-1/4 and Tuesdays in July-August & December-January

Fees:  600 yen, discounts for school children

What Does the Fox Say: Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine


What does the fox say? It says it all – silently – at the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine, one of the most impressive visits one could make in all of Kyoto.

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14060715578_2141ddd704_bFoxes (kitsune), regarded as messengers of Inari, play important roles at Inari shrines. Like the song that went viral, there are hundreds of stone foxes scattered and hidden across the Fushimi Inari complex. Often they are depicted holding a granary key in their mouths, visual symbolism reflecting Inari as the protector of rice and cereals, a role so revered in ancient Japan that foxes are often referred to themselves as Inari.

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With endless expanses of crimson-colored wooden torii (See Trampled Torii for more on those iconic contours of the Far East) layered amongst a wooded and peaceful mountain spared from the city’s urban sprawl, the massive religious complex offers an escape to a spiritual world unto its own.

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14328992688_f96798e4a7_bJF4_029682Yes, it’s a Shinto Shrine. But this place is oh so much more. Ancient. Mysterious. Moving. Immense. Describing it as “just another shrine” would be like saying that the Vatican is just another church…. What Fushimi-Inari encompasses is an entire realm of various shrines large and small, nestled amid thousands of torii, all spread across an entire mountain just outside Kyoto proper. For me and Jody, our repeat visits to the shrine – during the day and at night – are some of our more memorable adventures in our flirtations to date anywhere in the Far East. It not only ranks as one of the most impressive sites in Kyoto, but it’s one of the most important to the Japanese people who live there. See Honeymoon’s Atomic Fireworks Saves Kyoto for more on what makes this locality so special.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the lead shrine of Inari. Situated at the base of Inari Mountain, the complex consists of four major religious areas along with dozens and dozens of sub-shrines and alters winding through numerous trails spanning over 2.5 mils and ascending to the mountain’s peak 725 feet above.

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14801914150_8fc1376c87_b 14766524022_1a6a317b62_bInari was initially dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in 8th century Japan. But as the role of agriculture diminished, the Inari deities were repurposed more broadly as protectors of business and commerce. Thus, the guardian spirit or god Inari became the patron of business. Since times distant merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. This explains, in fact, the shear and almost uncountable number of torii located here, of which over 10,000 are said to be standing. Each has been donated and inscribed by a Japanese business or business person thankful for their prosperity and in the hopes of gaining additional favor with the gods for the future. The resulting long tunnels of torii are some of the most iconic visions in Japan; the torii.

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14056204387_14037f94ec_bThe earliest structures were built in 711 CE, but were re-located in 816 to the present-day site. However, the main shrine structures we see today were all built around the 14-15th centuries, including the main gate (楼門, rōmon, “tower gate”), and the main shrine (御本殿, go-honden). Today the shrine, one of the earliest Shinto Shrines in Japan, is the country’s most popular, most visited, and serves as headquarters for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered throughout Japan.

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Interspersed along the shrine’s paths, small food stands serve Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a treat favored by foxes. You can also try Inari sushi, fried tofu wrapped around sweetened rice.

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The hike around the shrines long and crossing paths is impressive to each and every sense. Light plays with the torii tunnels during the day….. But it is in the late afternoon and throughout the night where it takes an eerie and more spiritually moving turn. There in shadows of the descending day, the small graveyards, miniaturized shrines and silent alters take on a mysterious air.

Leaving our own Ema

Leaving our own Ema

14041109430_846d3c1c88_b14041146147_28a3f9dc03_bThe Japanese, being a very superstitious people, hold that the Inari shrines are possessed by foxes at night. While foxes are generally seen has sacred and benign, they also are known to be somewhat mischievous – as foxes are everywhere) – especially at night. Jody and I, just to be safe and in the hopes of avoiding any accidental mammalian-based bewitching, visited together, even though the bitter cold of the night was calling Jody back to our lukewarm Machiya in Kyoto’s Gion District (read Timeless Townhouse for more on our stay at a traditional Geisha home at the turn of the last century). For the record, Jody was a foxy lady even prior to our visit.

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We recommend that, if possible, a visit to the shrine should be timed for the very late afternoon, when the crowds start to fade along with the harsh light of the day. The chance to explore the torii tunnels alone in the tranquil forests is both spiritually moving and all-things romantic. Having these sites and sights to yourselves is simply a magical experience.

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“The secret of the fox, Ancient mystery, Somewhere deep in the woods, I know you’re hiding…My guardian angel….” ~ The Fox – What Does the Fox Say?

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See my Flickr Set “Kyoto” for more photos of our visit to that iconic Japanese city.

Reference

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/shritemp/fushimiinaritaisha.html

http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/sites/shrines/temples/fushimi_inari/

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/kyoto-fushimi-inari

http://www.insidekyoto.com/fushimi-inari-taisha-shrine

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/kansai/kyoto/sights/religious/fushimi-inari-taisha

Okinawa: A Year in Review


  “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Well, when I wrote this we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary of relocating our domicile to Okinawa, and although it’s now over two months past due, I still thought it would be a good idea to do a “year in review” blog. So, here’s an eclectic summary of the King’s Flirtations with the Far East to date (as of this past August), along with a personally favorite blog selected for each month.

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July 2013.  Preparations for our overseas move.

See Sayonara Amerika to read and see our Asian-inspired going-away blowout

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August 2013.  Moved!  Rented our Florida home and moved overseas with our cat!

See Jody Drives Naked about used-car shopping in Okinawa.

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September 2013.  Divine winds!  Experienced something like 8 typhoons in two months.

See Surf Nazis Must Die to read about a scuba diver’s angst with the powers that be on Okinawa.

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October 2013.  Scuba Diving!  Kevin becomes a PADI scuba-diving instructor!

See Are You Breaking Up with Me on Mount Fuji for perhaps my favorite breakup story of all time!

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November 2013.  Jody’s birthday!  Celebrated by exploring the northern reaches of Okinawa.

See Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys about my first foray to Okinawa in 1999.

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December 2013.  Household goods!  Our forgotten “stuff” finally arrives on-island.

See Oh Christmas-Half-a-Tree to read about Christmas in Okinawa.

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January 2014.  Kevin’s birthday!  Celebrated by our first off-island trip to Kyoto, Japan.

See Okinawa Kijimuna for Okinawa’s version of “Red Power!”

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February 2014.  Contracted!  Dive the Blues Scuba gets well underway.

See Surprising Swastikas about an unlikely and unfortunate connection between East and West.

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March 2014.  Earthquake!  Friends breaking bad on Okinawa.

See Cat Cafes in Japan to read about the special bond between the Japanese and their feline friends.

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April 2014.  White Day and Zip-Lining on Okinawa.

See Timeless Townhouse for our rustically historical stay in Kyoto, Japan.

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May 2014.  Iriomote!  Off-island weekend getaway to this remote nature preserve.

See Tainted by Tats to read about the stigma of body art in this corner of the Far East.

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June 2014.  My daughter gets married!  A whirlwind trip home to the states and detour because of an unexpected hospital stay.

See Placenta: Prescription or Placebo to read about some strange herbal remedies popular in Japan.

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July 2014.  Ishigaki!  Off-island weekend getaway to dive with manta rays.

See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa to read about the special guardians of the Ryukyu Islands.

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August 2014.  Okinawan World and Hospital Caves.

See Okinawan Hillsides & Hornets to read about my past explorations in the Okinawan jungles searching for traces of WWII.

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Geisha & Maiko vs. Hose & Heels: Working Women of Gion, Kyoto


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“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.”  ~Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha

“Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.” ~Iwasaki Mineko, Geisha, A Life

“There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.” ~Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World

Modern Hostesses and "Snacks"

Modern Hostesses and “Snacks”

Japan-travel-Kyoto-Pontocho-Alley-visitWhat is up with all the prom dates and late-night flower shops?” I ask Jody as we wander the streets in and around Gion.  Women, or more correctly young girls, scurry about the streets in their über high heels and hipster nylon leg fashion, dressed to the nines for a ball extravaganza that never seems to materialize…while flower arrangements that more resemble funeral ornamentation are whisked away to the many small bars that dot each alleyway.  Perhaps the Japanese are subconsciously mourning the loss of their old ways.

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

FCP%20Legs%20Beautiful-smallJust after sunset something odd happens on the outskirts of Gion in Kyoto, the original capital city of Japan and still it’s cultural and religious center.  Young ladies frequent the numerous small nylon and pantyhose shops found there, dressing up on their way to “work” as hostesses and “snack bar” girls, far from the geisha ideal and sensuality of the past.  The ever-resourceful Japan has invented the “snack bar” (basic bars, older women) and “hostess club” (plush lounges, younger women), both places that come pre-stocked with attractive women, where drunk men can find female companionship without worrying about breaking the ice – or even rejection, and women can get paid for babysitting inebriated and males with low self-esteem.  Leave it to fickle Japan to work out such a regressive lose-lose system.

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Gion (祇園, ぎおん) is a small historical district of Kyoto, Japan, dating back to the Middle Ages.  Centered in front of the nearby Yasaka Shrine, the neighborhood was designed and built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine, and then evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.  Jody and were fortunate enough to stay on the very outskirts of Gion in an old, authentic Machiya (see Timeless Townhouse to read about that adventure!).

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

Geisha neckGeisha (芸者), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act in general terms as hostesses, but whose skills center on perfecting and performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, traditional dance, skillful games and intelligent conversation.  The word consists of two kanji characters, 芸 (gei) meaning “art” and 者 (sha) meaning “person” or “doer.”  The most literal translation is “artist,” “performing artist,” or “artisan.”  The geisha of the Gion district (and in Kyoto generally) actually call themselves geiko, more directly meaning “a child of the arts” or “a woman of art.”

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then-now-geishaContrast this with Japan today, which offers various flavors of hostess clubs and “snacks.” Many young Japanese women work as kyabajō (キャバ嬢), literally “cabaret girl” (although there is no dancing or nudity), and most use a professional name genji-na (源氏名).  The Japanese hostesses of fast-paced, impersonal modernity, rather than highlighting traditional high culture and ideals of sensuality, instead are relegated to lighting cigarettes, pouring drinks, offering flirtation more than wit, and singing karaoke pop songs to entertain today’s average Japanese Joe Sixpack.  Although such hostesses are often said to be the “modern counterpart of geishas,” these groups of women are literally worlds and time apart.

Sadly, not Geisha...or even Maiko.

Sadly, not Geisha…or even Maiko.

672px-Maiko_in_GionMaiko (舞子 or 舞妓), literally “dance child”) are apprentice geisha, and actually are the one who wear the white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair dress which we in the west hold as the popular image of geisha.  A year’s training leads to a woman’s debut as a maiko, and under modern Japanese law, all must be 18 years of age, except for those in Kyoto, where women can apprentice as early as age 15 (as opposed to age 3 or 5 a century ago).

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14195691615_ccc5a28e7c_bShiroNuriSeriesMaiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and although most westerners don’t’ realize, they look very different from fully qualified geisha.  The scarlet-fringed collar of a maiko’s kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck, a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality.  She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape, leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed.  Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles.  She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high (4 inches).  There are five different hairstyles of a maiko, all impossibly ornate and complex, each marking a different stage of her apprenticeship.  Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called “turning of the collar” (erikae) where white replaces red.

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars....

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars….

60947212_66fb58d83c_mattachmentModern hostesses’ professional wear consists generally of very short skirts or cocktail dresses, but range to prom-like gowns, both looks completed with stylized “big hair,” sexy high heels, and what only can be described as a fetished-obsession with nylons and pantyhose.   These girls drink with customers, sharing in a percentage of drink sales. For example, a patron purchases a $20 drink for the hostess (in addition to his own), which usually are non-alcoholic concoctions and guarantees the hostess’s undivided attention for the subsequent 30-45 minutes.

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ShiroNuriSeries14584584159_e22d477ea9_bIn modern times the traditional makeup of apprentice geisha is unmistakable, though established geisha generally only wear full white makeup during special performances.  This makeup features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows.  The application of makeup is hard to perfect and consumes vast amounts of time, and is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying a kimono.

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Yikes.

Yikes.

Not a geisha

Not a geisha

Personal introductions to geisha and maiko were, and still are often required today.  However, modern patrons of hostess clubs are greeted warmly (if not insincerely) at the door and invited directly in.  At some establishments, a customer is able to choose his specific female companion, but that decision is most often left to the house’s mamasan, herself once a hostess who’s worked her way up cleaning splashes off the glass ceiling and into management.  In either case, the hostesses usually rotate after a certain amount of time or number of drinks, offering customers a chance to see a fresh face.  Personally speaking, I have always been assigned a “snack” in a “Snack Bar,” but have had choice in the Okinawan Hostess Clubs I’ve visited.  For the experience.  And nothing more!

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

airfrance3A maiko’s eyes and eyebrows are drawn in; the eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black, and red is applied around her eyes.  The lips are filled in, but not in our more familiar Western style, but instead red and white is used to create various optical illusions and representations, such as a flower’s bud. Maiko wear this heavy makeup almost constantly, but it does change over time to a more subdued style to better reflect her maturity and to help display her own natural beauty.  For formal occasions, mature geisha still apply white make-up, but for geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during the special dances that require it.

Well, I was wrong.  Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse....

Well, I was wrong. Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse….

Katie, you're no geisha....

Katie, you’re no geisha….

There is one way in which geisha and their loosely modern equivalents seem to converge: in addition to their on-site duties, hostesses are generally obliged to engage in paid dates called dōhan (同伴) with their patrons outside of the bar, beyond regular working hours.  Although characterized much differently, maiko and geisha are also paid for such alone time.  While the intersection of prostitution and both geisha and hostesses remain vague and unsure, the fact is that sometimes sex occurs on these “paid dates.”  Although such an arrangement of sex for money is clearly dictated by geisha, there are ongoing concerns about human trafficking and sexual slavery with hostesses, particularly those of non-Japanese citizenship.  Note that since Japanese law narrowly defines prostitution specifically as “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment,” non-coital services remain legal and are widely offered and available.  If only Clinton had been President in Japan, he actually wouldn’t have had sex with that woman!

Monica, not a Geisha.

Monica, not a Geisha.

Geisha Girls from our "Sayonara" going-away party last year

Geisha Girls from our “Sayonara” going-away party last year

13933417728_f4b9093d88_bUnfortunately, in modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight.  In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today, there are far fewer, with most estimates between 1,000 and 2,000.  World War II heralded a huge decline, especially after 1944 when geisha teahouses, bars and houses were all forced shut by the government so that everyone could work in factories in support of the war effort.  At the end of the war such facilities were reopened, but geisha as a label was irreversibly defamed as common prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” during Japan’s post-war occupation.  An association which the American GIs bought, hook, line and sinker.

I'm pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

I’m pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

Our "real" sighting!

Our “real” sighting!

14606602998_d3487a96e9_bThe most common (mistaken) sightings are those of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed and made up as a maiko.  The Gion neighborhood in Kyoto has five hanamachi (“flower towns”), or geiko districts, and despite the geisha’s considerable decline in the last hundred years, Gion remains famous for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment, and remains one of the places in Japan where a foreigner has a good chance of actually seeing a geisha.  While we did see plenty of woman playing the part, we maybe, just maybe saw one in a rickshaw…and I’m almost positive we followed a maiko and her geisha for a block or two (see below).

Not as sure about this one....

Not as sure about this one….

Personally speaking, the intrigue and sensuality of geisha and maiko, regardless of how backwards and repressive some in the West may think such lifestyles are, should and will always outclass and outlast the rather demeaning heels and hose of the snacks and hostesses that now frequent the streets of Kyoto.  I feel for the Japanese women today who, although they most likely think they are exercising free-choice in pursuit of their destinies, have given up so much status, income and power of the past.

vintage geisha girls

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At least they are dressed well for the funeral. And how’bout those flowers….

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.

Birthday Babel in Japan


“If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been permitted.”  ~ Franz Kafka

Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel

“English?” Jody asks the two Japanese women wait staff that were just visible inside the restaurant’s curtain-draped entrance.  Sorrowful smiles graphically illustrated our answer, along with at least two “gomenasai,” Japanese for “sorry.”

It was my birthday, and we were on holiday in Kyoto, Japan.  Jody had asked earlier in the day what I wanted for dinner, and I immediately thought of some good, I mean really authentic Japanese teppanyaki steak.  We had spied a few potential places that day and during our explorations of the days prior, but after checking them out more closely, we dismissed them one-by-one.

Searching for Birthday Dinner in Kyoto

Searching for Birthday Dinner in Kyoto

One was just too small and cramped.  Another looked promising, but the patrons already there were all smoking.  We even asked the tourist police along Shijo Dori, the main commercial throughway marking the northern boundary of the famed Gion area of Kyoto…only to take a taxi to their recommendation…which turned out to be a rather lame take on an Amerasian diner, which apparently served steak, Salisbury style.

“Teppanyaki?” was the next question we placed, in what limited Japanese vocabulary we possess, although Jody is getting better with the apps on her iPhone.  This question was met with frowns and, mostly silence, but through steady eye-contact, the kind that searches for meaning in accents so unfamiliar.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Gion, dark alleyway

We found ourselves at this particular non-descript place after walking what seemed like forever.  Quite honestly, I was becoming downright HANGRY, and Jody’s dwarf alter-ego “Grumpy” was starting to shine through her rather reliably contained exterior as her blood sugar continued to decline.  There was a picture of beef, or maybe it was simply a picture of steak, with an establishment name written only in Kanji that we couldn’t read.  Other than for the word “dinning.”

Our Score with "Dining"!

Our Score with “Dining”!

Until more babel set in.

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“Steak?” was the final question in our trinity of query, placed with great anticipation of a positive response here on the 2nd story of what had become our own personal Tower of Babel.  “Hai-Hai!” came their excited response in almost perfectly synchronized union.  “Steak Dinning?”  Worked for us!  Steak dinning?  Worked for us!  I won’t go into how much babel we expended in trying to figure out what exactly came with our $60 meals….  At some point we caved, and decided to take the adventure this night promised.  And with that we were escorted into our own private dining room, eagerly awaiting whatever it was we were going to have for my birthday dinner.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe steak dinner

“Babel,” from the Hebrew word balal, meaning “to jumble, confuse or confound.”  The Tower of Babel forms the focus of a story told in the Book of Genesis of the Bible (Genesis 11:4-9).  According to the story, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood spoke a single common language.  The people decided to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven, thereby becoming on par with God.

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In the biblical legend, God came “down” to see the human’s city and the tower they were building.  Recognizing the fallacy of their intent, God knew this “stairway to heaven” would only lead the people astray…and to a hit record thousands of years later that ultimately would unite Rock-n-Roll fans across the globe, regardless of native tongues.  Wanting to check the people’s powerful unity of purpose resulting from their common language, God confused their speech and scattered the people, resulting in the many different tongues and peoples found today across the globe.  It still doesn’t explain how the kangaroos got to Australia, and only to Australia.

Okay, it’s not very religiously sensitive, it’s too long, and ends poorly.  But there are some dang funny parts in this interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel!

Kevin's Birthday Jan 2014, candy topper decorations for the ice cream!

Kevin's Birthday Jan 2014, Disney happy ice cream party boxKevin's Birthday Jan 2014, yummy Baskin Robbins ice cream celebration!Jody, not wanting to drag all my presents hundreds of miles to Kyoto, celebrated with me on Okinawa prior to our departure.  While dinner that night has long been forgotten, my ice cream jamboree lives on!  Our local Japanese Baskin Robbins has a fully English-speaking staff; babel is not much of an issue in such an Americanized corner of the Ryukyus.  Except for the ice cream tower that, given just a few more scoops, could reach to heaven!  Luckily for us, God doesn’t spite ice cream steeples and Jody and I continue to share a common language…and location.

Our Ice Cream Tower of Goodness

Our Ice Cream Tower of Goodness

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, sizziling Kobe beef cooked to order!Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe Steak and White WineThe birthday dinner turned out to be quite good, filling, and even included a teppanyaki element we so vainly searched for.  Although it was a relatively simple dinner; the salad was absolutely delicious, the rice fresh, and the steak we were able to cook on our own person griddles to our individual tastes.  This particular beef remains the best I’ve had so far in Japan, and given the price we paid for 200 grams (actually, a hearty serving at almost 8 ounces), it was more than likely Kobe.  The steak, heavily marbled in fat, literally melted in our mouths. Top the meal off with a shared bottle of chilled white wine (booze is itself a form of a common, international language), and we had a wonderful time!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe steak dinner spread

Like the biblical tale underscores, communication is such a fundamental element of life.  Although I’m ashamed that I don’t know more Japanese after spending so much time here, technology is starting to fill in my own personal gaps in translation.  In fact, we were able to have a complete conversation with a taxi driver in Kyoto through an app on his iPad.  He would speak Japanese, and the iPad would translate and speak to us in English.  The tablet would then record our speech, and translate it into audible Japanese for the driver.  I wish I know that particular application, because many if not most of the machine translations between Japanese and English are full of…babel.

Machine Translations can be Ridiculous.

Machine Translations can be Ridiculous.

Regardless of the limitations of technology and the barriers of divided language (no thanks to God), we all can still overcome and strive to find power in unity of purpose.  Although perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to physically reach heaven (again), we can and should still find or make our own heavens here on earth, be it a celebratory meal, or something much loftier.  We all should be on guard so that we, as individuals, political parties, religions and even cultures, never build towers of babel so large and imposing that they interfere in a life that should be well-lived, excitedly shared, and passionately loved.  Although there exist many tongues, we all can strive to speak with one voice!

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Divinely Proportioned


“The good, of course, is always beautiful, and the beautiful never lacks proportion.”  ~ Plato

“Without mathematics there is no art.”  ~ Luca Pacioli

Contemplating the Divine Proportion (Ryoanji)

Contemplating the Divine Proportion (Ryoanji)

The Rev. Kawakami, on our private tour of the Shunkō Buddhist temple where we were staying and had taken our first Zen meditation session, continued, “When you examine the ratio of the sides of the garden, you find….”

“The divine proportion!” I eagerly interrupted.

Buddhist Temple Rock Garden

Buddhist Temple Rock Garden

Pausing while turning to look at me, the Reverend smiled, “Yes, the golden ratio.  It is also here in this room, and in within the three rooms combined overlooking the garden.”

Golden Spirals are rampant in nature.

Golden Spirals are rampant in nature.

135598Another unlikely connection, but this one not as surprising.  At the time I was re-reading a book I decided to drag along with us to Okinawa entitled Divine Proportion:  PHI in Art, Nature, and Science, by Priya Hemingway, which I highly recommend.  As someone schooled in the hard math and sciences, but also as an inquisitive soul constantly searching for deeper meaning and the spirituality of life, I am astonished at the manifest interconnectedness between math, nature, and aesthetics.

Golden Rectangles of the Parthenon

Golden Rectangles of the Parthenon

nautilusshellThe golden ratio has fascinated intellectuals of science and philosophy for millennia.  Some of the greatest minds of the ages, from the Greeks Pythagoras and Euclid to the Italians Leonardo of Pisa and Fibonacci, have poured their hearts and minds into this simple ratio with the most complex of properties.  Plato considered it the most binding of all mathematical relations and as the key to the cosmos.  It is exactly because of ratio’s inescapable ubiquity that this fascination endures; modern biologists, artists, musicians, historians, and architects alike continue to ponder its relevance and appeal.

The Artist Hokusai meets the Fibonacci series....

The Artist Hokusai meets the Fibonacci series….

And, of course, the Japanese have their own understanding of the “true” divine proportion…which they call Absolute Territory.  Unsurprisingly, even this sexually obscure, anime-based ratio of 1.6 approaches closely that of Phi.

A truly Japanese take on the Divine Proportion.  It too approaches closes Phi.

A truly Japanese take on the Divine Proportion. It too approaches closes Phi.

taj-mahal-1The ancient Egyptians, while leaving no real record of Phi’s knowledge, used it in the construction of the great pyramids and in the design of hieroglyphs found on tomb walls.  In another time, across thousands of miles of globe and gulfs of culture, the ancients of Mexico encompassed the ratio while building the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan.  While some may claim that we today find the ratio where we want to and well after the fact, I remain convinced that even without direct knowledge, and whether by design or unsophisticated intuition, even the ancients could not escape the universality of such a proportion.

Golden Ratios calcified in our Bodies!

Golden Ratios calcified in our Bodies!

a0b564da61f4f5f20ac317248f01fd66Initially the “Golden Ratio” was first studied because of its frequent appearance in mathematical geometry, particularly in the creation of “regular” pentagrams and pentagons.  It has a relatively straightforward definition, which is best graphically represented (see below):   when a line is cut just so, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater segment to the lesser.

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buddhaIt’s odd that I couldn’t find any analyses of Japanese gardens or temple architecture in terms of the Divine Proportion.  It is, however, easily found all around us, from the spirals of galaxies and seashells, to the symmetry of architecture and the human body, to the beauty in art and the human face.  The Rev. Kawakami was clearly versed on his own temple’s basis of design.

The Divine Proportion of the Mona Lisa.  Doesn't explain the attitude.

The Divine Proportion of the Mona Lisa. Doesn’t explain the attitude.

CaptureThe idea that Phi appears to be fixed in nature has led to another designation:  that of the “Hand of God.”  However, like all else we contemplate around us, the Golden Ratio is simply an interpretation, even after being run through the aged filters and lenses of our collective human condition.  But it is in this very elucidation that this humble mathematical ratio becomes one of Divine Proportion.  It can be seen as the very essence of the harmony and beauty found throughout the cosmos.  In this way, WE have come to endow this symbol with a wholly spiritual presence.

Proportion is not just for nature or art.

Proportion is not just for nature or art.

And it can be found in the simplest of gardens in a remote corner of Japan, tended in part by the Hand of Buddha (or the god of your choice).

What is your experience with Divine Proportion?

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