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December 28, 2005

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                                                     Kyoto, Japan


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I was on an exclusive "Memoirs of a Geisha" tour of Japan, and we were making our way to Kyoto. Everyone in our small group of six was excited to spend a couple of nights there and we all hoped we would get a chance to meet a real-life geisha or maiko. I had never visited Kyoto, but I felt like I had because of the countless pictures and scenes from movies (most notably "Lost in Translation"). After visiting this spectacular place, however, I realized I didn’t know jack about it.

Kyoto is Japan’s seventh largest city (1.4 million residents), and widely regarded as the prettiest. Kyoto welcomes 43 million tourists a year; surprisingly, only half a million of those come from outside Japan. One reason Kyoto is so popular with visitors is because it has 17 World Heritage Sites (only Rome has more). Our drive from Miyamacho (where we left off last week) took 90 minutes, but most people travel to Kyoto from Osaka. That takes an hour by bus, but just 30 minutes on the Shinkansen (bullet train). A bullet train from Tokyo takes less than three hours.

Our first stop was Kinkaku-ji Temple. It is formally known as Rokuonji, but everyone refers to it as The Golden Pavilion. This was my first sign of crowds and Westerners on the entire trip. The parking lot was filled with tour buses, which in my opinion is the ugly side of travel. I know, I’m a hypocrite -- I was in a tour bus myself. But mine was a small one.

There were large crowds at Kyoto’s most famous landmark, but that did not diminish its beauty. The Golden Pavilion started out in the 1220’s as a villa; in 1397 it became a Zen temple. The Kinkaku-ji Temple includes 20 kilos of gold leaves. The original building was burned down by a crazy monk in 1950, but an extraordinary replica replaced it five years later. Visitors are not allowed inside the temple, but that’s okay. Just admiring this structure while walking around the shiny pond (called Kyoko-chi, which appropriately means "Mirror Pond") which surrounds most of the temple is worth the 400 yen ($3.45) entrance fee. An added bonus is a splendid path through the manicured grounds, taking visitors by a classic tea house, and a Fudodo shrine just before the exit. Rokuonji, The Golden Pavilion, 1, Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku; tel. 75-461-0013.

A short drive down the road brought us to the Ryoanji Temple. It is famous for its 82 x 10 foot rock garden surrounded by low earthen walls, thought to be the quintessence of Zen art. This world-famous garden is believed to have been laid out by Soami, a painter and gardener who died in 1525. There are no trees in the garden, just neatly raked white gravel and 15 moss-covered rocks strategically placed so it is impossible to see all of them from any vantage point. The garden, a masterpiece of Japanese culture, inspires philosophical meditation with its simple beauty. As I sat quietly on the steps alongside many other visitors from across the planet, I couldn’t help but think about a famous monk proverb that our tour guide taught us: "The beauty of the garden is not in the garden, it’s in the mind of people watching the garden." Admission: 500 yen ($4.30). Ryoan-ji Temple, 13 Goryonoshitamachi, Ukyo-ku; tel.: 75-463-2216.

Another Kyoto must-see is the Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). Originally built in 1601, it was the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu. This lavishly decorated castle includes five buildings, with 33 rooms (unfortunately I have no pictures; photography is not allowed inside the buildings). The structures represent the height of Momoyama architecture, which in its day served as a symbol of the power and authority of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The sliding doors and walls contain amazing pictures created by leading artists of the period. I walked around much of the 900,000-plus square feet of property, admiring the beautiful Japanese gardens and ponds. This place is so special that in 1994 it was registered on the World Heritage List of UNESCO. Nijo Castle, 541 Nijojo-cho, Nijodori Horikawanishiiru, Nakagyo-ku; tel.: 75-841-0096.

Before checking into our hotel we made a quick stop at the Kodai Yuzen-en and gallery. We were there to try Yuzen-Zome, the magnificent work of dyeing art with bright colors and fancy patterns. Most of this work can be found spread over a kimono (the Japanese national costume). We were not about to test out our skills on an anything expensive; instead we made decorative handkerchiefs. Cost: 1,500 yen ($13 USD). Takatsuji, Inokuma-nisi, Shimogyoku, Kyoto; tel.: 75-823-0500.

As much as I loved my experiences in the ryokans (Japanese-style inns), I was ready to relax at a western hotel. The Kyoto Brighton Hotel was a perfect escape. Not only do guests not have to remove their shoes when entering; it has all the luxuries of home, and then some. The lobby features a six-floor atrium, with punctual glass elevators. The rooms are huge -- especially by Japanese standards -- and they come with a normal minibar (not like the one in my Osaka airport hotel that required coins). Free high-speed internet is available in the computer room (though they should have wireless throughout the hotel). My favorite part was the fancy heated toilet seat with bidet buttons. At first I was afraid of pressing them, because I didn’t know what to expect. Except for the two nerve-racking seconds it took for the mechanical hose to make its inaugural way to the center of the bowl, I was glad I experimented. My body knew something was going to spray it, but I wasn’t sure exactly where, or what the temperature would be. But this thing hit the bull’s eye: It shot warm water up you know where. I imagined myself jumping off in agony, but the opposite happened. In fact, it felt so good that for the next few days I slipped the bus driver a few extra yen so he would get us back to the hotel quicker. Kyoto Brighton Hotel, nakadachiuri,shinmachi-Dori,kamigyo-ku,Kyoto; tel.: 75-441-4411. Rates start at $150 USD a night.

On our first night the heads of the Kyoto tourism board hosted a swanky welcome party for our group in one of the hotel banquet rooms. We enjoyed both Japanese and western buffets (my compliments to the chef!). An American man can take only so much Japanese cuisine, so having familiar food available for the first time in a while really hit the spot. We weren’t the only ones privileged to have Western food. The hotel has a French restaurant, as well as Chinese and Kyoto-styled Japanese ones. Don’t miss the breakfast buffet (included in most room rates). The French toast, pancakes, eggs, fruit and fresh juices are delicious.

The only negative aspect of the hotel is that it’s not in the best location (there are not many restaurants or shops nearby). However, it is just a few blocks away from the Kyoto Gosho (Imperial Palace). After stuffing myself with the American- style breakfast, I took a short walk to see this palace that dates back to 1855 (though several times the palaces were burned down, and moved around the city). The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the residence of Japan's imperial family until 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. I didn’t have time for a tour, but I did walk around the city block-long walls. At any rate, getting inside is not easy. I later read that the palace "can only be visited on guided tours held by the Imperial Household Agency. In order to join a tour, you need to apply for permission in advance with your passport at the agency's office in the Kyoto Imperial Park. Reservations over the internet are also possible." Kyoto Gosho, Kyoto Gyoen, Kamigyo-ku; tel.: 75-211-1215. SOURCE: Japan Guide.

Later that morning our group went to downtown Kyoto. Our first stop was a fancy-looking candy shop called Kameya Yoshinaga. Though the Japanese don’t eat the same sweet treats I’m used to, they make theirs into mini-works of art. Soon it was our turn to make our very own. The pastry chef showed us his secrets in the back room. Our instructor took us step by step through the Play-Doh-like dough (ingredients: bean curd, sticky rice, sugar…). He taught us how to make edible maple leaves and persimmons (we made two of each). I messed up one of my persimmons, so I turned it into a character. Everyone thought it was hilarious -- except the instructor. After the look he gave me, I thought I would have to break out my karate skills. It was a good thing I didn’t: The only moves I know come from watching "The Karate Kid." Cost: 2,000 yen ($17) per person. Kameya Yoshinaga; tel.: 03-3222-9696.

For lunch we went to an incredible tofu restaurant. I know: How can the words "incredible" and "tofu" be in the same sentence? I’m not a big tofu lover, but the tofu here wasn’t the usual cold, bland, lumpy stuff you get everywhere else. Here it’s called yudofu, and is served hot (see the video below for a better visual). But the yudofu set lunch that most people get (cost: 3,000 yen = $26) comes with other tasty (tempura and rice) dishes, and others that are not so tasty: dengaku (grilled soy bean paste on tofu skewer -- I’m so glad I read what it was after I ate it); hiousu (stewed fried tofu in a small jar -- that’s gnarly); sesame tofu, and pickles. But it didn’t really matter what we were served, because the atmosphere was truly memorable. It made you feel like you were in Japan. The architecture is traditional shoinzukuri (the standard style of house construction, beginning in the 13th century), and the place has been designated a national cultural property. The Junsei Restaurant began in 1839 as a medical school, but today it serves a tasty lunch that won’t put you in the hospital. Junsei Restaurant: tel.: 75-761-2311.

For tea we went to Kodai-Ji Temple, in the Higashiyama mountains of eastern Kyoto. It was created in 1605 by a noblewoman, in memory of her late husband. Today the temple is renowned for its beautiful design and exquisite craftsmanship, and is even recognized by the Japanese government as "Important Cultural Property." Property is the key word, because you don’t come here just to see the temple. You also visit the garden, which is famous for its excellent stone layout. You also come for a private traditional tea ceremony. Cost: 2,000 yen ($17) per person. Kodai-Ji Temple, 526 shimogawara-cho, Kodai-Ji, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto; tel.: 75-561-9966.

You can’t come to Kyoto without visiting the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It’s located in the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto. It’s not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the views from the grounds are incredible. There are many grand and elaborate structures on the property, but getting up there requires a long, steep stroll along a very crowded shopping street known as "Teapot Lane." The first structure tourists and pilgrims see is a 3-story pagoda (Sanju-No-To). Behind that are more stairs to the main attraction. Admission is 300 Yen ($2.60), but it’s worth it just to hang out the main wooden deck. That’s where you get one of the best views of the Kyoto skyline (and see what a huge city it really is).

The crowd was mixed in age, but 98% were Japanese. Many of the children were dressed in school uniforms. I even saw a couple of young women dressed in traditional costumes. They didn’t speak English, but I smiled and I’m sure they knew I thought they looked cool. Down the stone steps is Kiyomizudera ("Pure Water Temple"). Devout worshippers line up here to stand beneath the waterfall and perform the rite of cold water ablution while worshipping Fudo Myoo (the God King of Fire), who is enshrined at the waterfall's fountain. Instead of waiting in the long line I bought a 100 yen (86-cent) fortune. I picked a lucky stick, because the fortune associated with that stick was very good (or so I was told). If it wasn’t, I could've left it behind with all the other bad ones.

Of course, I saved the best for last. Remember, I was in Japan on a "Memoirs of a Geisha" tour. If you’ve been living in a cave for the past nine, years "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a best-selling book that has been turned into a major Hollywood motion picture. Our trip to Kyoto would not have been complete unless we got to meet a real life geisha -- and you know I wouldn’t let you down. NOTE: These days, geishas are seldom associated with prostitution, so get that stereotype out of your head. Instead they are highly trained singers, musicians, conversationalists and confidants.

At 7 p.m. we were dropped off in the small, famous district of Kyoto called Gion. This is the area where geishas and maikos (geisha apprentices) have lived since the 1600s. We walked down a quiet, charming street until our guide found the door she was looking for. She knocked, and immediately the door opened. I felt like I was entering someone’s house, but instead it was a private banquet room. We were greeted by two polite, often-bowing Japanese women. We removed our shoes, then walked up the stairs and through short narrow halls, ducking through the low doorways. The place was very clean and well decorated. We were led into a large room with an oversized tatami (straw mat), and a long, wide, low table. Eight baby blue chairs with no legs -- but backing – were waiting for us to sit in.

After the hosts took our drink orders, we got the thrill of our trip. Ever so quietly a sliding door opened (I didn’t even notice, but my colleague across the table did). He looked like he’d seen a ghost -- he was speechless, his mouth wide open. I looked to my right, only to get the same reaction. There they were: a geisha and a maiko, kneeling with our drinks next to them. I shook my head rapidly to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Luckily, I wasn’t.

They were dressed exactly as they were described in the "Memoirs" book. Their exposed skin was painted white (except for a small section of their neck); their hair and makeup were perfect, and they wore beautiful kimonos. When they first walked over with our drinks, the room was silent. No one knew how to act, or what to say. We were stunned. We thought that we were going to a dinner theatre to watch some geishas perform a song and a dance for hundreds of people. Instead they were serving us dinner, and spending a private evening with us.

The first few minutes, all we did was stare at them. It felt like I was witnessing a doll come to life. I sat quietly, and watched every move. They were so graceful, taking small but elegant steps. They performed even ordinary duties with class. For, example when they refilled our glasses with ice they made no noise. And they took their time, lifting one cube slowly after another with the tongs.

They spoke very little English, but were almost as interested in our lives as we were with theirs. We acted as if they were aliens, and we had only a few hours to find out what life was like on their planet. After all, their life is like no other. By the end of the evening we had asked them every question imaginable. We learned that it takes only 30 minutes to get ready for the evening, and they put their makeup on themselves. The maiko’s name translates to "Chrysanthemum" and Chrysanthemum was so beautiful that she made my heart pound. Her voice was soft and sweet. She is allowed to wash her hair only once a week, which means she sleeps on a special pillow to protect it. The geisha wore a wig. Neither of them had her own TV, computer, email or cell phone. Their favorite American movie star is Johnny Depp. In Chrysanthemum’s broken English it sounded almost like "Johnny Jet"! And the answer I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for is: Yes, they both read the book "Memoirs of a Geisha." Both agreed it was not an accurate portrayal of today’s geisha life. They said, however, that maybe it was like that in the old days.

During dinner they entertained us. As the night progressed they taught us their songs, dances and games. By the end of the night we were all dancing and having a great time. Everything was so simple. There was nothing extravagant (besides their clothes). There was nothing high tech. It was just a night filled with good, old-fashioned fun and laughs. None of us will ever forget it.

Here’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Kyoto (including the evening with the beautiful ladies). With high-speed the video takes about 3 minutes to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.

Next week we make our way back to the U.S. -- after first spending a weekend in Tokyo.

Happy New Year!
Johnny Jet

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Pictures From Kyoto


Driving To Kyoto


The Golden Pavilion



Johnny Jet at

The Golden Pavilion


Rock Garden


Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle)



Kyoto Brighton Hotel



Kyoto Imperial Palace

Making Sweets




Hot Tofu


"Teapot Lane"


Kyoto Skyline




Gion District







Exposed Skin


Playing Games


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  • I'm loving it! I was in Japan in '98 for the Fulbright Teacher Exchange and saw only a small segment of the country. I want to go back and am enjoying Johnny Jet's commentary and will definitely refer to it when planning my next trip to Japan. Is it available in hard copy? C. D. - Melville, NY
  • I must admit that your report looks as if you were given an excellent tour into Japanese culture. I don't know how much traveling you've done in Japan, but your 'trip' has made me a touch 'homesick' for my second home! Great job! Sincerely, Rich Pinkston - Farmington, Missouri
  • The Japanese tour reports are terrific. I always wanted to travel around Japan (perhaps with a guided tour like you, just not with the price tag.) Ryokan are the way to go! It looks so… serene. And yummy. Thanks and keep up the writing! I am looking forward to the next Japan report. Brenda C – New Jersey
  • I loved your article. Jerry B – Delray Beach, FL
  • After reading your last paragraph I know you are such a romantic! P.H. - Irvine, CA
  • The various resources listed at the end of the article are great. Gail C - Maine
  • Enjoyed your description of visiting Kinosaki. I have stayed in onsen hotels where the furo (bath) room switches gender day to day. Too bad they didn't include the universal male/female pictures to assist those who can't read kanji. One additional suggestion for dealing with money issues in Japan. Since it remains essentially a cash-based economy, I've found that getting Japanese yen from my U.S. bank ahead of time is pretty painless. The trip over is so tiring and with jet lag, you really don't need the hassles of trying to get money when you first arrive in country. Though the international airports have ATMs that take U.S. bank cards, most banks in Japan don't accept foreign cards, as you discovered. You were correct in mentioning that post office ATMs will work, but it isn't always convenient or easy to find them. Regards, Scott Voorhees - Durham, NC
  • Happy Travels! I love living through you! A. B. - Atlanta

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