Geisha Hunt

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Spotting a real geisha is not easy; they are like butterflies- beautiful, colorful and ethereal.
Despite the differences in the cultures, everyone, sooner or later, starts to admire their elegance and strive for perfection. Gion in Kyoto is the most famous geisha districts in all of Japan, where a chance to see a real one are pretty high. It is a place, where kimono rental shops grow like mushrooms after rain, offering a glimpse of a traditional life style to whoever desires it.

Geisha means ‘artist’ and refers to Japanese female hostesses who serves and entertain powerful, wealthy male businessman and politicians- the ‘modern samurai’. The ones who live in Gion are called geiko, understood as ‘a woman of the arts’. The geishas still in their training period are called maiko– ‘dance child’ and usually receive only half of the geisha salary. It takes years to master traditional Japanese arts such as dance, classical music, art of games and conversation, before an apprentice becomes initiated into the geisha community.

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After hours of a ‘Geisha Hunt’ I lost hope to see one. The moment I complained aloud a geisha almost run into me. She was in a big hurry, apparently trying to reach the pick-up spot, which was exactly where we stopped a few seconds earlier. I stood there not believing my luck. Feeling like an intruder in her presence, I was brave enough to take only this one picture (above). A few seconds later another geisha rushed by (below). Honestly, photographing running cheetahs was easier, and even though the pictures could have been better I was extremely happy to see real geishas in an atmospheric Gion district.

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Gion remains an enclave of old-style Japanese houses called machiya, some of which are okyia– the geisha houses. There are also ‘tea houses’ called ochaya, where geishas work in the evenings. The most famous one- Ichiriki Chaya, is located right at the entrance of the Hanami-koji street. It is one of the oldest and most exclusive in the country, thus the access is strictly invitation-only. It became famous because of the story of 47 Ronin and their leader- Oishi Kuranosuke’s, who spent time there trying to mislead the potential spies. Some of the most prominent scenes from the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ were also located there. It is easy to recognize thanks to the groups of tourists waiting in from of it with their cameras on a stand by :)
The ochayas usually have no kitchens, therefore, the food is being delivered from the nearby restaurants (below).

DSC_0497cMemoirs-of-A-Geisha-Image-Source-gabtorbA scene form the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Movie; Ichiriki Chaya in the background.

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Thousand Vermilion Gates.

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One of the first directions we took in Kyoto was its Southern Part.

Fushimi Inari is said to be the most important Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion tori gates, which mark out the whole network of paths through the forest of Mount Inari. This was a good physical exercise for us; a quick way to warm up and loose breath ;) We were definitely not fit enough for these trails, unlike small Sayuri in a famous scene from ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ movie (below).

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A priest in a shrine.

DSC_0679cFoxes are believed to be messengers of Inari, thus there are a lot of statues resembling foxes can be seen on the way. 

DSC_0723cDSC_0793cDSC_0715cDSC_0797cWe were not the only ones who were cold :)

DSC_0802cDSC_0805cDSC_0729cA beautiful panorama of Kyoto from the viewing platforms on Mount Inari.

DSC_0665cDSC_0678cDSC_0836cA tiny restaurant was bursting with guests- either fried fish was really good or the spectacle of preparing it worked like a magnet on its clients… the second definitely worked on me as I must have been observing it for good 10 min.

DSC_0637ccHello? Can I call you Mr Nakata? ;)

‘Kafka on the shore’ by Haruki Murakami was a good companion in Japan.

Sleeping on tatami.

IMG_2167A big variety of movies, which take place in Japan, give us quite a good picture of how a traditional Japanese house looks like. Paper sliding walls, floors covered with tatami and squeaking shiny floors- this is what I expected to see in the first hostel we stayed in.

DSC_0479ccJapanese traditional houses have no clear devisions- the walls can seperate rooms or disappear when needed, crating more spacious interiors. Only sanitary- a kitchen, a toilet and a bathroom have a distinct and defined location. The most characteristic elements of the interior are the tatami straw modular mats covering the floors and defining the proportions of the rooms- and the shoji– sliding doors made out of wood grid, covered on one side with a paper layer that allows soft light to pass through.

In the pictures you can also see
tokonoma– a kind of a small alcove, located in the guest room, were usually a vertical scroll of calligraphy or piece art is hanging, decorated with traditional ikebana flowers. (In this case the ‘piece of art’ wasn’t very impressive ;)
rōkasmall hallways connecting the roomsDSC_0481ccDSC_0487ccNot really knowing what to expect I kept wondering if thin, single-layered glass walls can keep the warmth inside? The moment we entered the hostel through a tiny sliding doors to a tiny low corridor (genkan), my concerns did not disappear. It was freezing cold inside! I had no intention to take my jacket off and soon my feet turned into icicles. The nice reception girls offered, however, warm slippers and invited us to a peculiar table. Only later have I found out that it is a kotatsu a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon, or a heavy blanket. Underneath was a heat source and a hole for the legs, so we could sit comfortably enjoying the warmth and pleasant chat with hot green tea in out hands.326DSC_0491cc DSC_0488cc DSC_0492cEntrance doors from inside of genkan. The doors lock can not be more advanced ;) (above).IMG_2393Backpackers Guest House, Nara- than you for your hospitality.

Men on fire and deer poop.

DSC_0433cJapan is famous for its spectacular festivals, which are essential parts of strong, well-rooted traditions. The Fire Festival was the main reason why we chose NARA as our very first destination. The mystery around this event mixed with the fine festive atmosphere gives the audience show and fun they came for.

Here is a bit of explanation I found:

The Wakakusa Yamayaki is an annual festival during which the grass on the hillside of Nara’s Mount Wakakusayama is set on fire. The mountain is located at the eastern end of Nara Park, and when it is set alight it can be seen throughout the city. The burning of the mountain itself is preceded by a fireworks display. The festival takes places every year on the fourth Saturday in January.

The Wakakusa Yamayaki has been taking place for hundreds of years and its precise origins are unclear. One theory claims that the burning of the mountainside began during boundary conflicts between Nara’s greattemples, while another claims the fires were used to drive away wild boars.

DSC_0303cMount Wakakusayama before and after the festival.DSC_0552cDSC_0320cLocal Police and Fire fighters wait for the sunset (above).

Representatives of local monasteries take part in the procession, which precedes a really long prayer and setting the hill on fire (below).DSC_0348cDSC_0377cDSC_0443c

15 minutes of fireworks are followed by setting the hill on fire, which lasts around half an hour. In the mean time the artistic program kicks off.

DSC_0560ccMost of all Nara is famous for its 1500 DEERS, which wonder around and pose for pictures. Local gift shops are full of objects, which either have something to do with horns or fur. Sweets, called ‘deer poop’, can be found in all different sizes and flavors. Enjoy ;) IMG_2399DSC_0556ccThe local deers know their ways with girls ;)

DSC_0540cMy favorite afternoon snack- Matcha Latte (above) and Matcha cookies (below). DSC_0507c

The first capital of Nippon.

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Many months ago we run across cheap tickets to Japan and without much thinking we booked the flights. Only later have we realized that we are going to spend 1.5 weeks in the area, which is not so close to the equator any more. At the end of January we packed our ridiculous winter jackets and off we went to a lifetime adventure!

Kansai Airport, the one close to Osaka, is only a 6 hours long flight from Singapore. From there we went straight to Nara, where an annual fire festival was taking place that same evening! More about that in the next post.

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Nara was the first capital of Japan for only 74 years, before it was moved to Kyoto. This short period of time was, however, enough to turn a sleepy village into a significant spot on a cultural and architectural map of Japan. Among temples and shrines, which together are part of UNESCO Heritage Site, the Eastern Great Temple is definitely the most impressive. So called Tōdai-ji is a temple complex and one of the biggest wooden structures in the world. Its Great Buddha Hall houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha.

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The columns in the Hall are massive! One of them has a hole at the bottom. Whoever manages to squeeze through will leave the temple with a lot of luck. The spot seem to be extremely popular among students, who line up in long queues to face the challenge. The smart ones start with the arms up and have their friends to pull them out- lets say it works as well ;)

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In stead of real donations, one can buy a real roof tile, sign it and become a part of the temple for another few years.

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The Great Hall, just like all the other historical places, were always full of Japanese school trips. DSC_0140cIMG_2395IMG_2147IMG_2396

Nara was the coldest places of all we have visited. The monks in this particular monastery were kind enough to offer hot free tea in a warm and cosy room to weary travelers and local worshippers.

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On the market.

DSC_5726cI like looking at people. In fact, people can tell you the most about the country they live in, without even using words. They are the backbone of the place. Even the most impressive architecture or landscape would be dull without them. They bring flavor, scent and texture to whichever travel you are ‘consuming’.
The Cambodian must make an incredibly good impression on every foreigner. Those outgoing and friendly residents make their country hospitable and even more beautiful. While cycling through the rural areas we were greeted by each and every person met on the way. The kids were eagerly involved in the ‘spot the foreigner’ game. The moment they saw our ‘caravan’ approaching, they run and screamed ‘Hello’. Those who almost missed us run behind our bikes for a while making sure we heard the greeting ;)

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The local market we had a chance to visit overwhelmed us with the amount of colours and scents of fresh food. The bikes and motorbikes are not only means of transport but also mobile stalls, which travel with the owner (see the butcher). DSC_5785c DSC_5783cDSC_5788cDSC_5797cDSC_5742cThe net wrapping- a new way to tame toddler? ;)

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Mobile butcher shop. The piglets on their way to the market (above), and alredy on sale poor things (below).DSC_5735c

Not the best example of incredible acrobatics done on a single vehicle- the maximum capacity of a Cambodian motorbike is up to 8 people, including kids!!!DSC_5103c     

The amazing Angkor Wat

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Despite all the incredible temples we have seen, the ‘oscar’ definitely goes to Angkor. As the prime attraction of the whole Cambodia, it overwhelms with it’s grandness, picturesqueness and variety of details. Build originally as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century, Angkor is the largest religious monument in the world. Currently it is a hindu sanctuary, eagerly visited by big groups of monks. Honestly, vivid orange robes is a cherry on top of a visual deligh of the Angkor Wat’s panorama.
If you still don’t have it on the ‘must see before I die’ list- put it there!

DSC_4792cDSC_0390c:)cambodia-panorama06dDSC_4883cDSC_4891ccambodia-panorama08cDSC_0498cDSC_4598cTime to go further!

Cambodia: Ta Prohm

DSC_4467cCambodia always appeared to me as a mysterious land, unspoiled by the modern civilization. On the spot it turned out to be more than true.

Angkor is a region in Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire, the largest empire of Southeast Asia that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. This ancient and revered Cambodian province is home to astonishing and enduring architectural evidence of the Khmer Empire’s Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs. There are over 100 stone temples scattered throughout the Angkor area, out of which we managed to visit 9 during our 3-days bike tour. Most of the sanctuaries are completely deserted in the jungle, thus exploring them makes you feel like Indiana Jones or Miss Lara Croft. Tomb Rider by the way, wether you find it ridiculous or not, made me fall in love with Cambodia for the first time. And even though I did not dress like Lara (some female tourist actually do that!!) or did not manage to find ‘the only jasmine tree’, roaming the ruins made me hungry for adventures :)

P.S. Big thank you to Daniela and Michael for making this happen and for great time we had in Cambodia!

P.P.S. Thanks also to National Geographic for including a guide book for Cambodia in the package of books I won last year.

CHAPTER 1: TA PROHM

DSC_4359cDSC_4361ctr_angelina_jolie_cambodiaDSC_4553cThe trees’ roots are not only picturesque but proved to hold the temples’ stones together. The few attempts to remove them resulted in collapsing the structures.DSC_4505cThe most remarkable spot from Tomb Rider is occupied by lines of tourists. We did not want to be worse ;)DSC_4506bcDSC_4488cDSC_4402b&wcDSC_4432b&wcDSC_4443cDSC_4428cDSC_4516cDSC_4408cDSC_4395cDSC_4394cDSC_4386cDSC_4384cDSC_4406cDSC_4423cDSC_4372cThe president of the European Council- Herman Van Rompuy turned out to be a historic architecture fan ;)DSC_4371cDSC_4377cDSC_4416cDSC_4564cOur reliable companions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kids.

Do you sometimes have this day when nothing works, everyone is irritating and you are just about to scream or run someone over ;)… or at least sit down and cry? Well, we were somewhere there yesterday. Things are much better now and soon I will even be able to tell you the whole story :)
In stressful situations it’s good to have a way to escape. Majority reaches for a cigaret, some use a relaxing mantra or buy a favorite chocolate bar (not available in Ethiopia, though). What do I do? Good question. Not much, except for drinking water to avoid a headache. Yesterday, however, the kids of Addis made me smile a few times and simply helped me with my day.