Return to Japan: Day 9

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I’m winding down to my last couple of days in Japan, so fittingly, today was a special day…I visited Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and attended the Plum Blossom Festival, where the maiko and geiko of the Kamishichiken District host an outdoor tea ceremony for the public. Geisha are the graceful yet exclusive artisans and traditional entertainers of Japan and the ones from Kyoto are the most famous. For us regular Joe Schmos to be able to get this close to them for a small price is amazing.

Anyway, I woke up very early – around 6:15 am – to get ready and make it to the shrine before the crowds got there. I checked out of the hostel, leaving my luggage in their storage room, and took the bus to the shrine, arriving around 7:45 am. On the 25th of every month, Kitano Tenmangu also hosts a huge flea market, and I was so early that the vendors were still setting up.

 

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and the plum blossoms it’s famous for.

 
I took the opportunity to wander around the grounds and easily found the space the tea ceremony would be. The only thing was that I had no idea where to get the timers, as there were no obvious signs. I walked around the entire shrine, and as I looked, took the time to enjoy the plum blossoms in bloom. Later, I would talk to a lady who said that, usually, by the time the Plum Blossom Festival is held, the plum blossoms are only starting to bloom, but because winter has been warmer than usual in Japan, the plum blossoms have already bloomed. This means that we get the opportunity to enjoy the tea served by the geiko and maiko under the plum blossoms, which is rare.

Anyway, I asked around with my broken Japanese and eventually found the entrance to the tea ceremony area. There were already a few people there. Another tourist asked where to buy tickets and a kind man took us directly to a little office that was selling them. Thank goodness for that because I never would have found it without him! Later, they would open up a booth to sell tickets directly next to the entrance, but by then, the line up was already sizeable.

I chatted with a woman behind me as we waited. After all, it was a bit before 9 am when we got in line and the tea would not start being served until 10 am. Anyhow, this lady was from a town west of Kyoto and spoke excellent English. When I told her I was from Canada, she said she had traveled there when she was younger, about 40 years ago. She said she remembers it as being very beautiful and spacious.

At 10 am, we were let inside. I am so grateful I got there early because I was part of the first group to go in. On our way in, we were handed some sweets to offset the bitterness of the tea, and then got the choice to either sit on some mats on the ground or seated at tables. I chose the ground option and ended up sitting very near where the green tea would be prepared and poured; there were only two people between me and it! And when a geiko came out to prepare the tea, I was right there to see everything.

 

Baikasai, the Plum Blossom Festival, where geisha host a tea ceremony for the public. The price of your ticket (¥1500) gets you entrance, matcha tea, some sweets, (pictured to the right, plus a sweet bean cake), and enteance to the shrine’s treasury.

 
I took as many pictures as I could, but I did get a bit distracted by the lady next to me who I think was trying to be helpful by explaining what to do, but unfortunately pulled my attention away from the experience itself. It’s tough trying to drink your tea, take pictures, and try to decipher someone’s Japanese while being as polite as possible all at the same time.

Anyway, we were instructed to leave as soon as we were finished since there were so many other people waiting for their turns, so photo opportunities were limited. I hung around the exit for awhile to take more pictures with my cruddy zoom (what I wouldn’t do for a telephoto lense then!) but I did eventually leave to explore the flea market.

Since I hadn’t eaten anything yet and it was already past 11 am, I bought random food from some of the vendors, including yakisoba and karaage (fried chicken). For dessert, some dried  sugared orange slices. I bought a haori (kimono coat) and an obi I really liked. At that point, it was about 1:30 pm, so I grabbed a custard cream taiyaki (the fish-shaped pastry) and walked down the street to catch a bus that would take me back to the hostel.

 

Top: the train that took me back to Osaka before it filled up. Bottom: the view from my hotel room on the 38th floor! there are over 50 floors in this building, although not all are for guest rooms.

 
I picked up my luggage and made my way back to Kyoto station, where I took the train back to the Kansai Airport. I took a shuttle bus to my hotel, where I’ll sleep the night and take the shuttle bus back to the airport early pin the morning to fly back home.

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