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.

Gooooooooooood Morning, Vietnam!!


“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh, Being Peace

Psycho Bob and I ready to tumble in the skies of Vietnam

Psycho Bob and I ready to tumble in the skies of Vietnam

The TSA agent, an older, quiet gentlemen working the intake of the x-ray machine line, looked odd at the two sport parachutes that we were placing on the conveyor belt.

“Where you guys off to jump,” he casually inquired. Not being friends with the TSA (although they are just doing their jobs), I’m not known to make small-talk. This time, however, I was happy to be flying.

“Vietnam,” came my response, with a big knowing grin.

“Really?” “Yeah, really. We’re going to be part of the first sport parachute skydivers ever in Vietnam.”

A knowing and somewhat sarcastic “uhmh” was mumbled back in disbelief. “I’ve got a jump over in Vietnam, but of course back then, they were shooting at us….” Sure enough, this gent, in an oddly unlikely connection, was part of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade Team, and in 1967, when I was just over a year old, the 173rd conducted the only combat parachute jump of the Vietnam War.

Team "Rock" (big guys fall fast) over Nha Trang

Team “Rock” (big guys fall fast) over Nha Trang

So started my and “Psycho Bob’s” excellent adventure into Vietnam. I had been jumping for just about two years, and had probably not even 150 jumps. Psycho had been jumping significantly longer, and was of the perfect, fearless, adventuresome mindset to travel to such an out-of-the-way corner of the planet to partake in cheating death in the skies and under canopy.

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Bob on a very low hop-n-pop!

Bob on a very low hop-n-pop!

Bob, a Navy veteran, was an air traffic controller in Pensacola, and, as his nickname might imply, is a stand-out icon in both the community and the skydiving world. About 6’3″ and 240 pounds (then), with spiked bleached hair, driving a 1974 Ford Bronco painted with zebra stripes, Psycho was the definition of gregarious. A shit-eating grin that at once welcomed all within eye-shot combined with an infectious laugh and warm smile, Psycho was always one to make instant friends while saying – and behaving – in the zannious of ways.

Me and Psycho enjoy Vietnam

Me and Psycho enjoy Vietnam

3652115693_631a15ca41_oI was still active duty, and when I first came across this opportunity to travel to and jump in Vietnam, I thought there was no chance the Navy would ever let me go. A quick check of the foreign clearance guide (the DoD bible on overseas travel requirements), and it turned out that if I traveled there on leave, nothing special was required at all. Like nothing. Very strange for a de facto communist country with strained relations with the US! So, after mailing our passports to the Vietnamese consultant in Washington DC with US-cash-money, weeks later we got our papers pack with the required entry Visa. We would soon be on our way to what remains a very obscure – and fearful corner of Asia for most Americans.

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My first impression of landing at Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Hanoi prior to the war) airport was that there were manned anti-aircraft guns scattered throughout the airfield. Talk about a lingering culture of fear. The flight arrangements Bob and I mad required us to stay a night on arrival in Vietnam before continuing on to our ultimate destination there, and unfortunately Bob missed his international connecting flight in the states, which left us both alone and (mostly) unafraid. I jumped in a taxi and asked for a cheap hotel (no reservations), and after traveling for what seemed miles, I was delivered to exactly that. No frills, not much English, and not much of a room. I am not one to subscribe to the all-oppressive American sense and culture of fear, and although I was on alert, I was still okay. It ended up being a relatively quiet, and uneventful night. Bob, arriving much later that night and with no way to contact me, had a much difference experience.

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As Bob was leaving the terminal looking to find a Taxi, he found himself in a darkened area of the parking lot where he quickly got the sense that he was going to be rolled. Bob, having traveled the world with the Navy and after living in the Philippines for 7 years had developed a keen sense of such awareness. Finding the first well-marked limo-taxi he could, he clamored in, startling the unexpecting driver. Psycho I’m sure was beaming his signature grin, telling the man to drive, while the chauffeur was barking for him to leave and get out. Bob, not one to take “no” for an answer, still smiling, motioned to drive on, saying again and again it was okay. Finally, the driver gives into to Psycho’s steady insistence, and drives while making a phone call. Bob, just happy to be off and away from the dark lots of the nearly silent and closed airport, continued to reassure the driver. Finally, the driver says something like “you 514?” Psycho, thinking that the number refers to a room number, agrees eagerly and whole-heartily, becoming even more emphatic that they hurry their journey to the safety of a hotel room. The driver asked at least two more times, and Bob happily dismissed the inquiry with an exhausted wave of his hand, having been traveling now for over 24 hours.

Turns out that this particular limo was for a high-end hotel in downtown on the Saigon river, and that “514” didn’t equate to a room number or reservation at all, but to the price of an available suite, now committed just for him! Bob, ever the optimist, says at least his trip started in lustful luxury!

Posing in front of countryside rice fields

Posing in front of countryside rice fields

3649599630_23e0059570_o3674397012_0fe104cf50_oIn the morning we continued on to a city called Nha Trang for the actual skydiving event. Nha Trang, and it’s nearby airport Cam Ranh Bay were both the site of fairly sizable US bases during the Vietnam War, and amazingly enough, scattered all over the airfield still remained the hulks, parts, and degrading debris of our past presence there of 35 years ago. We were picked up and transported to our island resort hotel, the 5-star resort VinPearl, quite nice but quite out-of-the-way. This area of Vietnam has been built up as a beach resort town for international travels, mostly Soviets, who still mostly make up the “white” people who come and stay, and which almost all the Vietnamese we met considered our heritage. Needless to say, Psycho Bob makes for a terrific Russian…when he wants to play one. Think of “I will crush you…” of Rambo fame.

Above it all in the Russian Mi-8

Above it all in the Russian Mi-8

2329703998_fc45cb9373_o2326194432_ba138a0ec6_oThe skydiving was, well, not nearly as expected. The levels of corruption in Vietnam are far worse than anything I experienced in the Caribbean or elsewhere in Asia, and it seemed with almost every passing hour the authorities there continued to break contracts and agreements, only to cancel flights, reduce the passengers per load, scrap additional aircraft, and demand more money. We were expecting something like 15-20 jumps from a whole slew of aircraft (for a hefty pre-paid price), including a once-in-a-lifetime jump from a Russian jet transport. What we wound up with was about five jumps, all from an Mi-8 Russian helicopter, which, while exceedingly expensive on a per jump basis, were still experiences of a lifetime that only a very few people in the world will ever share with me.

They reluctantly made room for us....

They reluctantly made room for us….

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Playing tunnel rat in the Coo Chi tunnels

Playing tunnel rat in the Coo Chi tunnels

The people in Vietnam are hard to adequately describe. In a group, like those that would turn out to watch us land on the beach, there are very few smiles. There were an ever-present mix of military and police security forces, all with very serious faces. The airport we used was a military airfield, and while not ringed with a fence as we would have in the West, it was ringed with reinforced fighting positions and bunkers, each manned with a young man armed with an assault rifle. The old terminal building where we were housed had numerous guards in ratty army uniforms, complete with Ho Chi Min sandals made from old tires (no joke). When I approached one with a smile and my camera, he raised his rifle with one arm, and with the other crossed the killing machine to make an “X,” the international symbol for no…or in this case, more likely, “I’ll shoot you if you try.” Sorry, no photos of me with the guards.

One of the "Check-Point Charlies" in Nha Trang

One of the “Check-Point Charlies” in Nha Trang

Our "Mom" in Vietnam

Our “Mom” in Vietnam

2325501690_8ee23d04f5_oThere were exceptions. Psycho and I would wave from our bus to all the “Check Point Charlies” along the airport’s boundary, and by the end of the week, we had most of them eagerly waving back. I hope they weren’t punished for that! And, in the spectators that would gather to watch us land on the beach each day, Psycho and I adopted an old woman who was selling drinks and snacks. We called her “Mom,” and after two or three days of us seeking her out to buy our snacks, she would then seek us out and smile big upon sighting us, even offering hugs at the end of our stay. And, of course, children and children the world over, and they were the easiest with which to relate. I think every child, with dreams of flight, looks at parachutists with fun, excitements, awe and respect.

Psycho with our adopted Vietnamese "Mom"

Psycho with our adopted Vietnamese “Mom”

Kids are Kids 'round the world!

Kids are Kids ’round the world!

Our seaside landing area on final approach!

Our seaside landing area on final approach!

2325167430_38ebe5ef02_oParanoia and stupidity both abound there though, an organic by-product of any socialist or communist community. For instance, the authorities there were so worried about us spying at the airport (the only real conclusion I can reach) that they not only wanted all of us to land in a very small circle on the concrete airport apron (all landing together is never guaranteed, and landing on pavement is…well…not preferred), they also expected us all to fly in the same cylinder formed by projecting that circle up into the air. After trying to explain that such a requirement was both physically and aerodynamically impossible, besides being very unsafe for everyone involved, the whole skydiving event was moved off the airfield and over to the nearby beach. While beach jumps are always fabulous, this was a narrow beach line with a trafficked road and hundreds of spectators, and every landing turned out to be with 15 knots of crosswind, making for some interesting reunions with mother earth. The Vietnamese did “attempt” to supply a safety boat; however, the safety swimmers could barely swim with life vests out to their inflatable 2-man raft, without an engine, but proudly flying the red cross international safety flag! Yikes….

I don't even think those two are safe on the safety boat!

I don’t even think those two are safe on the safety boat!

Our Russian Mi-8 ride to altitude, a great jump aircraft!

Our Russian Mi-8 ride to altitude, a great jump aircraft!

3674397012_0fe104cf50_oParanoia and process filled the Vietnamese staff working our event. We, as a group, had the expected “handlers” we wound up have, who were actually quite friendly and engaging, and who all spoke excellent English. However, in order for us to skydive, here’s what had to go down. So, when we skydive we wear a skydiving rig, which has two parachutes (main and reserve) and a harness, which consists of a LOT of metal parts – the parts that actually hold the harness together and firmly attack it to the skydiver. Additionally, most of us wear crash helmets with even more metal parts, and more often than not, we have one, two, or even three metal cameras attached to those helmets (or hands, shoes, or some other mounting point on our bodies). For some reason, the Vietnamese authorities would not allow a small POS camera (like a Sony Cybershot or Nikon Coolpix), or any other type of handheld camera outside of the terminal building. However, the huge digital still and video cameras on all our helmets were somehow, someway “okay.” Our passports were taken in order for us to get on the jump aircraft; that way we wouldn’t paraglide and check out all their military secrets Rambo-style, only to be whisked away by the CIA to a safe house for debriefing. We had to walk through a metal detector dressed with our complete skydiving rig (see the discussion about metal above). Yes, it would alarm for EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. So, they would pull each of us out of line and give us the magnetic wand…which would…you guessed it…sing like a stuck pig for EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. And then we would be allowed to board the helicopter, all the while taking pictures of the ramp, the airport, the aircraft and each other. Made absolutely no sense, but hey, the process was followed and completed, which seemed to be more important than the intent. Whatever.

My view from the ATM across the street....

My view from the ATM across the street….

2324495713_45376eb045_oPerhaps the funniest part of our trip was one afternoon when Psycho and I were out in town on our own since jumping that day had been cancelled. I had to cross the street to get some cash from an ATM, and after conducting my business of just a few minutes duration, I turned and looked up from counting my money to see Psycho standing on the other side of the road, a big shit-eating grin filling his face, wearing one of those conical peasant hats that make that part of the world so iconic. Cracking up myself, I cross the street and demanded to know where he go it…so I could get one too!

I was posed with the flowers by a shop-keep....

I was posed with the flowers by a shop-keep….

 

Well, now we are both off, walking down the street with our woven straw hats on, held securely in place by lacy purple and blue chin straps (this should’ve been our sign). Almost immediately, the shop keepers were all coming out, laughing and pointing. Some would pull us into their shop, pose us, and snap pictures with their cell phones. “Wow Bob, these people love us here!” I joked. It turns out that much later that day one shop keep took pity and finally told us that in Vietnam, only their women wear such hats! That was a great afternoon of finally connecting in a relatively closed culture that can be so weary. My hat, BTW, was hand-carried back home and delivered to my Brother-in-Law in Tallahassee, a 2-year Veteran of the war in Vietnam, and it remains there on his hat rack to this day.

Biker gang, 'Nam style

Biker gang, ‘Nam style

2324669903_6c8b022455_oMeeting up with two friends who happened to be traveling through Thailand at the time and who decided to take a detour over and come see us in Vietnam, we decided to rent mopeds and go for a ride. Now, listen to me closely: this, BY FAR, was much more dangerous than the jumps we did there, and perhaps is one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done in my life! Riding on mopeds in a densely urban Vietnamese city in the rain without maps was seriously off the charts. It wasn’t so much the lack of traction on the roads, the unkempt condition of the bikes, or even getting lost out in the country. It was riding in rush-hour city traffic, a chaos that I simply will not be able to adequately describe here. In most 2nd and 3rd world Asian countries traffic and traffic laws can be quite haphazard. However, in Vietnam, there is a complete lack of rule of law when it comes to the road. Driving the wrong way, using sidewalks, and ignoring red lights, stop signs and any and all markings on the road…. In fact, when Bob and I hired a guide in Ho Chi Min city at the end of our trip, we all needed to cross a major road with something like 8 lanes of traffic. It was absolutely insane, and Bob and I saw simply no way to cross. When we asked our guide how we were going to cross, he simply replied, “Body language. Stay very close to me.” As he started across the street, with us in frightened tow, he casually put his hand down by his side that facing into traffic and flicked his wrist as if he had a magic wand that would protect us from the oncoming onslaught! It worked. We made it across, and back the other way later that afternoon!

Insane CRAZY dangerous traffic!

Insane CRAZY dangerous traffic!

2326162414_a1fd22f3ec_o2324414277_aa62b4e9f8_oIn hindsight, the potentially most damming thing I did there was actually done in complete innocence. Waiting for long periods between skydiving loads can get very boring. Just outside the terminal door to the tarmac was an old Soviet-style truck, with a few guys sitting around playing crash crew. For whatever reason, I decided to go check the truck out (it was really cool looking!), and see if I could communicate with the military guys manning the machine. Turned out they didn’t speak any English at all, but after getting out our respective military ID cards, I think they at least got the idea that we all were serving our respective countries. They offered me a paper I couldn’t read, and after a few more attempts at niceties, I came back into the terminal building, where one of our handlers was waiting. He was smiling at me upon my return, and stopped me quite casually.

I had to check out the Soviet-style crash truck!

I had to check out the Soviet-style crash truck!

“It is good think it is not three or five years ago,” he states matter of factly.

“Oh, why is that?”

“Then you would have been arrested and taken to prison for going out there….”

“Well, good thing then!” I meagerly respond, realizing just how potentially foolish that excursion may have been….

The old terminal building at Nha Trang

The old terminal building at Nha Trang

Psycho didn't fit well in the Coo Chi tunnels!

Psycho didn’t fit well in the Coo Chi tunnels!

10454006803_96f841d1b1_oVietnam is a surprising place to visit. It’s by no means open the way most Americans think of vacation, but neither is it closed or closed-off to the West. I have a good friend, a die-hard, card-carrying member of the Republican party, who was downright mad at me for traveling there. I tried to explain to him that holding a grudge against Vietnam in 2008 would be like an American refusing to travel to Germany or Italy in 1980. It just makes no sense to hold grudges and keep a bogus war going for no good reason other than maybe we lost…. I told him when I saw him after our trip that Vietnam was doing okay, and he asked me to justify that statement.

Another version of Independence

Another version of Independence

2325326527_73cfa44298_o2328358208_80538ba212_oI simply responded that for me to be able to freely walk down the street, hop on the internet at an open and uncensored internet café, and then to cross the street and use my American VISA card in an ATM to get Vietnamese money, the country is doing pretty okay. What I also learned is that the very reason we couldn’t win in Vietnam is that there is very little way to defeat an idea, other than threatening to obliterate an entire race and culture of people, like was the case for Japan in World War II. In every shop, in every home was a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, revered in Vietnam as their version of George Washington. And after visiting their national “War Remnants Museum,” where I expected to see a good dose of false propaganda but failed to find any at all, I came to realize that we Americans were simply another in a long line of colonial powers trying to exert their will over a foreign people…and that foreign people just wanted self-rule. Whether you agree with this conclusion or note, there is something here that is directly analogous to what is happening throughout the Middle East. At some point, perhaps, we will starting learning the hard lessons of history.

The Vietnamese George Washington, a national and highly revered hero

The Vietnamese George Washington, a national and highly revered hero

2327648801_926cf84346_oMy friend ended up scoffing at my remarks. Either he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear, or he was offended at my Che Guevara t-shirt and green communist hat complete with a Vietnamese red and yellow star! Either way, we all – including the Vietnamese – could use a little more humor in our lives, and a lot more compassion and empathy for our fellow-man. Those are the things in the end that make the world go ’round, and those are the most basic kinds of peace work in which we all can engage.

A smile is indeed international

A smile is indeed international

Have you been to Vietnam? What’s your favorite story while traveling there? I’d like to hear if others have had similar experiences!

Sanbai Gaeshi (三倍返し): Tripling the Return on White Day


“If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love.” ~ Maya Angelou

I should've opted for the Donut/Jewelry set!!

I should’ve opted for the Donut/Jewelry set!!

Okinawa White Day 2014, Jody's puzzle-piece cardOkinawa White Day 2014, flowers for Jody“White Day” (ホワイトデー Howaito Dē) is a day for Asian men to show their affections for the special females in their lives, celebrated in Japan and some other Asian countries (South Korea, China and Taiwan) one month after Valentine’s Day on March 14th. White Day has clearly become a very popular day in Japan; more than half of Japan’s annual chocolate sales happen between late February and mid-March when “White Day” occurs. White Day was created in Japan (unsurprisingly by their National Confectionery Industry Association) around 1980 to, uhm, help “soften the guilt” of males who received VD chocolates from one or more ladies. Exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, men who were lucky enough to receive sugar-infused foodstuffs are given the chance to return the favor, and then some. In a sexist twist that seems to have not been lost in translation between West and East, the expectation for these return gifts is to be of higher value than those purchased by women!

It appears that 43% if Japanese females are social loners....

It appears that 43% if Japanese females are social loners….

Valentine’s Day in Japan takes an interesting turn away from that of the West: women traditionally do all the giving on February 14th (see my blog here for our Valentine’s Day this year in Japan). When chocolate companies originally started pushing the Western idea of VD in Japan, they focused on women as sole givers. At the time, Japanese women were quite conservative in voicing affections, so the rather novel idea of surrogate chocolates was immediately and widely embraced.

One way to tell the women in your life to "eat me"....

One way to tell the women in your life to “eat me”….

So, here on Okinawa, Valentine’s Day is typically observed by girls and women presenting chocolate gifts to boys or men as an expression of love, courtesy, or sometimes social or workplace obligation. On White Day, the reverse happens: men who received a honmei-choco (本命チョコ, “chocolate of love”) or giri-choco (義理チョコ, “courtesy chocolate”) on Valentine’s Day are expected to return the favor by giving gifts on March 14th.

Okinawa White Day 2014, gifts for my Desi D (desideratum)

Okinawa White Day 2014, Fuji candies for mountainous JOkinawa White Day 2014, sizeable gifts for Ride'em JTraditionally, popular White Day gifts include specialized cookies, white chocolate, and chocolates, as well as objects of sentimental value, such as jewelry or white lingerie. However, in very Western custom, men are held to a different standard, literally, sanbai gaeshi (三倍返し, “triple the return”). In other words, a man’s return gift to a female should be two to three times the worth of the original Valentine’s gift!

White Day clothing campaign; shown in almost actual size!!

White Day clothing campaign; shown in almost actual size!!

Japan by average bra size.

Japan by average bra size.

Japan does offer my size, however....

Japan does offer my size, however….

I’m never one to skimp on spending, especially when lingerie is involved. Much to my chagrin, there just aren’t the lingerie sizes available in Japan to fit a very healthy curvaceous triple-D shaped woman like my Jody. Believe me, I have looked and searched, and while the Japanese can come close (see a fellow blogger’s related trials and tribulations here), bras simply aren’t like hand grenades and horseshoes, and “close” isn’t good enough. Jody will just have to settle for a form-fitting wetsuit instead, an Okinawan-equivalent of lingerie for diehard scuba divers.

Jody's heartfelt wetsuit, an Okinawan version of diver lingerie

Jody’s heartfelt wetsuit, an Okinawan version of diver lingerie

Okinawa White Day 2014, beautiful Japanese chocolates!Okinawa White Day 2014, beautiful Japanese chocolates!!Taking a few trips to the main department stores on Okinawa (Jusco and San A), I found a wide array of gifts devoted to White Day. In fact, there was so much floor space devoted to such gifting, that I soon found myself overwhelmed, and ended up spending quite a bit of time culling down my selections so that I didn’t appear to go too over the top (although spoiling Jody is part of my agenda). The chocolate sets that the Japanese offer are works of art unto themselves, while some of the themes are quite relevant, like Mount Fuji candies where we will climb next year and a candy-filled JR train reminiscent of our Kyoto adventures this past January. The best thing about shopping for these sets is that the stores all have a display area where shoppers can examine the sets’ contents. While this helps negate the thorny issues of translation (what exactly is that candy and what is it made from?), there is still a healthy amount of adventuresome guesswork in ultimate selections. And an equal amount sometimes in trying the items brought home! Oh, and don’t forget about the on-site customized gift-wrapping services which any Christmas-time Macy’s back home would be envious of.

Jody enjoys her tripled returns!!

Jody enjoys her tripled returns!!

Okinawa White Day 2014, space trip rocket to love!Okinawa White Day 2014, Jody's gift table for White DayIn my opinion, having two different days dedicated to male-female gift-giving seems to make a lot more sense. Yes yes, if you’re overly cynical, the split is really just all about sales, money and big business. However, being a little more familiar with the Japanese psyche, I do believe that men did in essence “need” their own gift-giving day; the Japanese are much more socially endeared in ways that most Western societies may not be. I for one enjoyed having a day for Jody to spoil me, and I certainly enjoyed my time planning, shopping, and spoiling her back, at triple the return!

Okinawa Mar 2014, White Day, gifts for my Love

Oh, and the smiles included and incited by White Day? All free and given freely…to the one I Love.

Okinawa White Day 2014, Jody models her Japanese white day chocolates

Timeless Townhouse: Our Machiya Stay in Kyoto


 井の中の蛙大海を知らず, I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu: A frog in a well does not know the great sea. Or, people are satisfied to judge things by their own narrow experience, never knowing of the wide world outside.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entrway on the small alleywayWanting to avoid being narrow American frogs overseas , and equally desiring a more authentic stay in Kyoto, Jody and I elected to stay in a traditional Japanese machiya called Seuin-An, “Blue Cloud Hut.” Seuin-An is a historic Kyoto townhouse were the essence of the Japanese tradition of Geisha was taught: dance, music, tea ceremony, flower arrangement and more were handed down here for generations from teacher to the young ladies who chose this mysterious world as their way of life. While it has been renovated to provide more comfortable quarters to guests, it still retains a cozy machiya’s spirit, esthetic, and beauty of these wonderful traditional Japanese townhouses.

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Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, bamboo garden and entrywayMachiya (町屋/町家) are traditional wooden townhouses found throughout Japan, but typified in the historical capital of Kyoto. Kyoto, largely spared the devastating fire-bombing campaigns of World War II, retains many old and quite historic wooden buildings, including many machiya. These townhouses, along with Japanese nōka (farm dwellings) constitute Japanese minka architecture of “folk dwellings.” Machiya have a long history spanning many hundreds of years, and traditionally housed chōnin (townspeople), primarily consisting of urban merchants and craftsmen. The plot’s linear footage along the street was in the past a visible index of wealth, and typical machiya plots were only 15-20 feet wide but over 60 feet deep, leading to the nickname “eel bed.” Machiya is written using two kanji: machi (町, “town”), and ya (家 or 屋) meaning “house” (家) or “shop” (屋) depending on the kanji used.

Main Living Area

Main Living Area

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, asian Japanese living room accentsThe typical Kyoto machiya is a long, narrow wooden home, often containing a small courtyard garden. Machiya of the past incorporated earthen walls behind wood lattice works and baked tile roofs, and were usually two stories high. If used as a shop, the front of the structure served as the retail space. The remainder of the building is then divided into the kyoshitsubu (居室部, “living space)” composed of divided rooms with raised timber floors and tatami mats, and the doma (土間), an earthen-floored space that contained the kitchen and passage to storehouses.

Master Badroom

Master Badroom

Multiple layers of sliding doors are used to moderate the temperature inside; closing in the winter offers some protection from cold, while opening in the summer offers some respite from heat and humidity. Machiya homes traditionally also used different types of screens, using woven bamboo screens in summer to enhance airflow but block sun, while solid screens were used in winter to retain more heat.

Functional Kitchen

Functional Kitchen

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, functional kitchen 2On a sad note, between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of the machiya in Kyoto were demolished. Roughly 40% of these were replaced with new modern houses, and another 40% were replaced with high-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, or modern-style commercial shops. Of those machiya remaining, over 80% have suffered significant losses to the traditional appearance of their facades in a process called kanban kenchiku (看板建築, “signboard architecture”); they retain their basic machiya shape, but their facades have been completely covered over in cement, which replaces the wooden lattices of the first story and earthwork walls of the second, along with losing their tile roofs.

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Asian bedroom lamps and skylightsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Japanese wall hangingsJody and I were lucky enough to be able to experience this corner of a quickly disappearing tradition in Kyoto. Stay at Seuin-An was an experience neither of us will soon forget; imaging who may have passed through its doors and contemplating the full range of Far Eastern humanity that the structure encompasses allowed us to make a much stronger connection to not just Japan, but to our collective and shared pasts. In a phrase, we Western frogs managed to jump from the well of our narrow experience to see the wider world of Kyoto beyond.

Bathing Room

Bathing Room

I ended up writing a review for Trip Advisor, which is included here for your review. You may note my sensitivity to the owners, who seemed to be quite insulted with any type of less than good review online. It’s interesting to note that my review did not solicit any response, which I am pleased about, as anyone wanting to stay at Seiun-an. Read on…if you’d like.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, upstairs futon and tatami

“A Diamond…in the Rough” (3 of 5 Stars)

I’m going to try and write this review without having the owner get overly defensive while hopefully portraying our stay accurately. After all, that is the point of Trip Advisor.

This home COULD easily be 4 stars…with just a little bit of work. If I could on this site I would have rated the home as 3.5 or even 3.75 stars (instead of the 3 I did rate it). We enjoyed our stay, and the location of the home is excellent. And, it does give one a personal, authentic experience of living in Japan. Let me explain.

This is an old home, in mostly original style and layout, and that should be clear to anyone renting or staying. That was exactly our point in renting this type of accommodation – for a more authentic experience while traveling and staying in Japan. Expect the home to be cold and drafty in the wintertime, with the bathroom floor being VERY cold. The heat on the 2nd floor sleeping area works well (one wall unit and one floor electric radiator), and is very comfortable at night. Only one pair of slippers is provided in the home, but no robes, which would be a very nice touch since one has to go downstairs at night to use the only toilet in the home. The toilet is a modern Japanese one, with a welcomed heated seat!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The tub is fantastic, a deep-soak iron barrel sunk into the floor. However, the small plastic-framed bathroom mirror is much too small and is miss-hung for it to be of any use at all. My wife ended up using her iPad camera on herself, turning her iPad into a de facto mirror at the living room table. The sink installation is rather haphazard and lacks any sort of refinement; there is no medicine cabinet or other storage areas in the bathing room (sink & shower being separate from the toilet).

The lighting takes a few moments to figure out, and while adequate, we had numerous lights that were burnt out, including the outside light, two hallway lights (we replaced one with the over-the-stove hood light), one accent light in an art/panel area, and there was a broken and missing light fixture in the living area that resulted in quite an eye-sore. We only asked for the outside light to be fixed, since we are not fans of having people enter our living spaces while absent, but it is also not much to ask that lights be operable before we take residence. And there was no explanation for the broken fixture, which really detracted from the appeal, look and feel of the living room.

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

The living area furniture is not dark wood like in the website photos, nor is it located where it is as pictured there. It is however very functional, and there is plenty of room downstairs for eating and socializing.

While I understand the sliding doors are old and fragile in the home, the sliding door to the kitchen is very tough to use, and constantly was getting jammed. It is not really on a track, and is heavy to move, lacking any type of handle. We kept it closed most of the time though since heat downstairs was a constant issue in the middle of winter. The kitchen is functional.

There is really no weather-sealing or insulation at any of the doors, and this causes the draftiness of the downstairs area. The heater downstairs (one wall-mount and one electric floor radiator) both ran on high full-time; they simply couldn’t keep up with the cold. If the entryway bamboo vented screens were backed with Plexiglas (or glass), and if the door to the outside mechanical area were sealed properly, this would be a much warmer residence.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entryway

Finally, there are some aesthetic flaws that interfere with the charm of the machiya. The patches in the rice paper doors are too numerous and visible, along with the damaged bamboo entry sliding doors. The bathroom sink area really needs some updating, which could be accomplished while keeping the experience “authentic.” The bamboo water “garden” in the entryway would, if functional, provide some terrific ambiance to the entire structure, as well as some soothing water sounds….

The owner-recommended café “Yamamoto” around the corner is an excellent choice, and was much easier for the taxis to find than the house’s address!

Like I said, this home is a GEM, but with some pretty rough edges. With some much needed attention, it would easily be a 4-star home, and with some further investment, much higher rents could be charged given the potential charm of the residence and its location. It’s a recommended place to stay, but be forewarned: if you are looking for western style kitchens and bathrooms, and if you want to be pampered with warmth, look elsewhere.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, photo collage of our accommodations in Gion

 

 

 

 

 

Far East Flicks: Cinema in Japan


“Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater.” ~ Roman Polanski

“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” ~ Jean-Luc Godard

“The secret to film is that it’s an illusion.” ~ George Lucas

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, goin' to the movies, deciphering the automated ticket machines, but no lines!

Ready to confront the automated ticket machines….

The refreshing experience of going to the movies in Japan is certainly no illusion. Rather, it’s a refreshing reality!

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The mix of English in Japan is interesting….

Jody and I were in Kyoto, and found ourselves rather exhausted from being continually on the go, playing the role of foreign tourist to a tee. Our feet were aching, our legs tired, and minds overwhelmed from the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this enchanted Far Eastern foreign land. We had been transiting a major subway/rail station, and noticed that there was a movie theater on the 4th floor in the “small” mall attached to the train terminal: the TOHO Cinema in Nijo, Kyoto. I thought out loud, “Why not take in a movie?”

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If this isn't Academy Award material, I'm not sure what is!

If this isn’t Academy Award material, I’m not sure what is!

The cinema of Japan (日本映画 Nihon eiga, also known domestically as 邦画 hōga, “domestic cinema”) is one of the oldest and largest film industries in the world. In fact, as of 2010, it is the fourth largest as measured by the number of feature films produced, and earns domestically on the order of 55% of the box office total in the United States, a respectable amount indeed. Japan has won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film four times, more than any other country in Asia. Too bad Godzilla wasn’t one of them. Thanks, snobbish saurophobic Academy members….

The Japanize movie "Zomboobies" was not a winner.  Yes, it's a real movie....

The Japanese movie “Zomboobies” was not a winner. Yes, it’s a real movie….

Sailor-suited Japanese Vampires never looked so good

Sailor-suited Japanese Vampires never looked so good

It’s rather funny that the second movie theater date that Jody and I have enjoyed over the last 4 years happened in Japan. Yes, we don’t go to the movies…much. Having a very large screen TV at home, along with our precious “char-and-a-half” (see the blog Easy Chair), combined with on-demand movies , our constantly updated Netflix Blu-ray movie queue, and reasonably priced extensive snack collection, there isn’t much reason to spend the money at the theater, only to sit with and next to strangers who seem more fixated on their cell phones than the movie…or on good manners.

The movie posters alone were worth the visit!

The movie posters alone were worth the visit!

Gravity was out back home, and I knew that it was one of those films that needed to be seen on the big screen with a massive sound system. We headed over to see what was playing, and sure enough, there it was, and showing in English at a time which allowed for us to maneuver successfully through this foreign experience.

The Mihama 7-Plex on Okinawa

The Mihama 7-Plex on Okinawa

A Geisha Franken-Girl??

A Geisha Franken-Girl??

I had been to the movies in Okinawa during my previous tours on Okinawa, and knew how pleasant the experience and venues could be. For starters, minors under 16 are not allowed in the theater past 6 pm, and there is no one under 18 after 10 pm, regardless of movie ratings or fake identifications in hand. In other words, it’s really a place to date with fellow adults, which significantly alters the theater cliental in Japan over what we normally encounter at home. While the ticket prices are a bit higher than the states, the food is much better and prices are actually reasonable¸ a quite refreshing relief from the fast-food capitalistic highway-robbery we often suffer through back in the states. As a passing note, there appeared to be an unnatural obsession with multi-colored churros, of which we chose not to sample. The tickets for our movie cost about $21 (each), plus an additional $1 for 3D glasses rental.

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Picking our assigned seats!

Picking our assigned seats!

However, prices are just the start. Like most transactions in Japan, buying tickets is totally automated and cash-free, which you might be thinking, is just like many theaters back home. However, there is a serious difference here in Japan: the automated system that dispenses tickets also allows you to reserve seats. Yes, reserved seating, all automated and quick! Oh, and the ticketing process can be all in English…after one finds the “English” button on the kanji-crowded touchscreen.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, goin' to the movies, Jody is the absolutely beautiful theater!

Jody following the rock garden in the floor.

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Not just for kids

Not just for kids

The theater was beautiful, incorporating a Kyoto-inspired rock garden under the floor, viewable through translucent floor tiling. Like most movie-going experiences, “coming soon” movie posters are seriously one of the more entertaining aspects of such an adventure! The seating is stadium style, and booster seats are so plentifully stacked by the theater’s entrance, it leads one to believe that not just children here use them. However, perhaps one of the coolest aspects of this movie-going experience was also one of the simplest: food trays ergonomically shaped and designed to fit the drink holder along the seat armrest. The tray, a cantilever design for you mathletes out there, incorporated its own dual drink holders, and served in essence as our table during the movie. Why we don’t have such small yet important conveniences back home is seriously a mystery to me….

The food tray was COOL, cool enough for DOUBLE peace signs!

The food tray was COOL, cool enough for DOUBLE peace signs!

 

cast me if you canThere were, unfortunately, commercials before the trailers (thanks again, American capitalism), which alternated between English when Western English-speaking directors explained their upcoming films in oddly dry and flat script and film, and also in Japanese. The audience was really respectful and almost too quiet. The Japanese, almost as a rule, actually adhere to the warnings about not using cellphones, talking, and even to the theater’s on-screen reminder not to kick the seats in front of you! If they can put down their cell phones here, certainly you can too in America. No one is that important.

JapanCinema_Small

vampire-girl-vs-frankenstein-girlThe movie, besides being fantastically visually stunning and overwhelmingly action-packed, was in English with Japanese subtitles. After a very short period of viewing, the subtitles seem to disappear, and really not once detracted from the viewing. It’s interesting to note that a Japanese version of the movie was offered at other times; no doubt voice-overs would detract from the any film’s very essence. The sound system was energetic, and combined with the wide-screen and 3D effects, seeing Gravity in Kyoto certainly accelerated our enjoyment in this fanciful foray of our Far East Fling.

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Catppucino? Cat Cafés in Japan


“What greater gift than the love of a cat.”  ~ Charles Dickens

“Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.”  ~ Garrison Keillor

“Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the leash.  That one is the cat.  If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”  ~ Mark Twain

How ‘bout this idea for a business plan:  the public paying for the opportunity to just sit in a room full of cats, while hazarding cat hair in their “catpuccino”??

Nekokaigi in Kyoto

Nekokaigi in Kyoto

Probably seems like a non-starter to most of us in the West, but “Cat Cafés” are actually quite popular in Japan.  In short, most apartments and condos in Japan do not allow such mousers, and many young Japanese adults continue to live with their parents until late in the twenties, where there may not be a family feline.  The Japanese people love cats no less than anyone else in the world, and thus, cat lovers here need places to go to visit temporary tabbies, all the while enjoying a favorite drink or two.  Hence, the birth and popularity of Cat Cafés in Japan.

If the cats don't like you, you can buy treats and bribe them....

If the cats don’t like you, you can buy treats and bribe them….

“The cuteness of cats is common to the whole world!”  ~ from the Nekokaigi website

Nattsu

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Kevin making new cat friendsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, high perched catNekokaigi (neko translates as cat 猫), located in Kyoto, is one of the more famous Japanese Cat Cafés, having been featured in many TV programs and newspapers since opening.  Although I swear that I had mentioned Cat Cafes to Jody sometime a few months ago, for some reason, I happened to mention it again during our recent winter holiday in Kyoto, Japan.  Probably as a joke.  However, when I merely touched on the concept, Jody quickly became utterly consumed with the idea.  Like in searching the internet, reading various articles, and finally, localizing Nekokaigi in Kyoto over the course of about three hours.  Of course we had to go!  Or at least one of us did.  I had to admit though, that after almost a week of walking the many tourist attractions throughout Kyoto and the surrounding areas, all the while missing our own personal feline friend back home in Okinawa, we were in need of just this kind of respite from our vacation.

Moka

Uh, she might look sad ’cause she has to wear clothes!

The concept behind a Cat Café is deceptively simple:  found only in Asia, it is a space designed primarily for the creature comfort and amusement of cats, but which also can serve to host humans, so that both can touch and play with each other at will…while only one side enjoys a beverage or two.  Is it you playing with the cat, or the cat playing with you?

Tampopo

Foxy Lady. Who wouldn’t like to rest on a cat??

Menu

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, cat staring contest go! 2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, cat mommaNekokaigi, located in the center of Kyoto, would be a great place to cool off during a hot and humid summer’s day, and we can attest that it’s a wonderfully warm abode to reinvigorate oneself on a cold winter’s day.  In either case, it’s ideally situated and serves as a pleasant spot to rest your feet during a breather from the day’s trek through the city’s many temples, shrines, and parks.  It has even become a popular spot for first dates and dating in the city, allowing the cats to help break the ice and facilitate displays of emotion and affection for the traditionally shy Japanese.  In our case, it afforded Jody her feline fix to help makeup for her time away from Cleo back home.

Futaba

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy cats and Japanese visitor

Where’s the furniture for the humans??

After literally an afternoon of researching and reading aloud about each non-human resident of Nekokaigi, we were ready to head out and make some new furry friends.

Sumomo

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Jody finds the sign!Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy clothed catHowever, be forewarned:  this cat café is fairly hard to find.  The café is not easy to spot so make sure to check the website if you do not read any Japanese. While there is a sign on the sidewalk, it is small and non-descript.  Oh, and it’s in Japanese.  According to the maps on the web and their Facebook site, we knew we were in the right area, within even a block (or two).  We initially couldn’t find the café, and searched for a good while, to the point where I began to question if there really was a cat café…while we were walking right by the place!  Only by looking at some of the photos posted from inside the café in the previous 30 minutes could we confirm that indeed they were open…and nearby.  And upon viewing the photos taken from within the café looking out of their storefront, we could then triangulate its position by finding the objects (in this case some uniquely Asian inspired rooflines) visible in their view shed by looking across the street.  We required multiple passes in front of the café before actually finding it.  Oh, and it’s on the 2nd floor as well.

Tortoiseshell Cat

As advertised, she was asleep the whole time.

Entrance

Not my scrawl mind you. A professional produced graphic from the shop’s own website. This photo WILL help you locate the café!

nk2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, peakaboo with new feline friendsAfter finally finding the cat cafe, we did notice a cat drawn on their small portable sign along the sidewalk, but it’s just too easy to miss.  Admission for one hour is 900 yen (it has increased this spring) and 30 minutes extensions are 450 yen; drink purchases are not required, but are extra.  The website calls attention to just how busy the café can be on the weekends and holidays, and the proprietors therefore endorse visiting on the weekdays.  There is a list of “rules,” but they are nothing awkward or unreasonable, except they don’t allow guests under 13 years of age.

Banira

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy crotch cat friend

There aren’t many pictures of Jody with the cats…(wink).

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Japanese bath bathing cat 5

Japanese Bath

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Japanese bath bathing cat 2Although the staff – called “submanagers” in Japanese – at Nekokaigi don’t speak much English, they certainly try their best to communicate.  There are English guides available, and they attempt to corral the cats in your direction if you remain embarrassing lonely for an extended period, and make sure that your refreshment needs are well attended.  When we were there on a Friday afternoon, there was a staff of two, two young Japanese girls, a Japanese woman (who seemed to be working and totally ignored the cats), and then only one other male-female (human) couple.  There was plenty of room for all of us – human and cats, and, in fact, the cats outnumbered the humans during our entire stay.

Himawari

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Kevin playing ball with his new feline friends

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Kevin making new cat friends 2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy clothed catWe arrived in the afternoon, which if you know anything about cats, is probably not the best time to expect any meaningful interaction.  Rather, it was lazy afternoon nap time.  Still, we had our share of friends for the afternoon, or at least one of us did.  For someone who was so taken by this idea, let’s just say Jody was lucky to have me there to be her friend.  Even though catnaps seemed to be the rule, we paid for two extensions of our stay anyway, enjoying our hot tea along with matching up the online cat characterizations (posted throughout this blog) with the actual citizenry.

Yuzu

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, my new cat friend is a crotch snuggler

Cleo didn’t meow at me for a WEEK after seeing this photo, the cat-equivalent of lipstick on the collar….

If you find yourself with some idle time in a major Japanese city, and want to experience something truly different and totally Asian, check if there is a local cat café at your particular destination.  It’s well worth the few dollars you’ll spend for a coffee or tea…but the new friends you will make remain priceless.

Saying "Sayonara" at Nekokaigi

Sadly Saying “Sayonara” at Nekokaigi

The details on the Nekokaigi are below:

MapOikekano bldg 2F, 590, Oikedaitocho, Nakagyo-ku Kyoto, Japan

(京都市中京区御池通麩屋町西入ル 御池大東町590御池加納ビル2F)

Phone:  075-212-0577 (Japanese only)

Email:  kyoto@nekokaigi.com

Hours:  11:00~20:00 (Last admission 19:00)

Closed on Tuesdays

https://www.facebook.com/catcafe.nekokaigi

*** No children under 13 years old ***