Kyoto – Miyako Odori Spring Dances

Today, it was farewell to the Diamond Princess and Choo, our very helpful and unobtrusive cabin steward. We left him a little recycling to take care of when we left… one week’s worth of sake that we ‘smuggled’ onto the ship by very cleverly putting it in our backpacks or our shopping bags and putting it through the ship’s scanners as we re-embarked in each port. Now, everyone, knows transit days suck balls… big hairy sweaty ones on occasion, and this is why the No 1 Golden Rule of Travel is: Never plan to go sightseeing on transit days!  So what did these very well travelled individuals plan for today?  Well, we broke the stupid rule and planned to disembark the ship in Yokohama, take a train to Kyoto, put our luggage in storage, and go to the famous Minamiza Theatre in Gion to see the Mikayo Odori Spring Dances.  It’s barely a 20 minute trip on the Shinkansen from Osaka to Kyoto, and ideally, we would have come back at some point over the next week to see this uniquely Japanese cultural experience – but the season quite literally ends today, and we were able to buy tickets for the second last performance for 2019. So here we were, breaking the Travel Rules.

Here’s some Shinkansen info for players at home – if you are ordering a Japan Rail Pass online from home (for unlimited rail use for a specified time) you can NOT reserve seats on specific journeys the way you can if you are just purchasing a single trip… so what happens is you will turn up to the train station with your Rail Pass and have to make your way down the platform of the train you want to catch and line up to try and get into one of the unreserved carriages (usually the first three carriages of each bullet train which goes every 3-5 minutes).  At about 90 persons per carriage, that sounds like a lot of unreserved seating is available – and with a 2 hour journey ahead of us, I’m not capable of contemplating a standing journey of that duration.  But alas!  It is not so!  The train we were attempting to board in Yokohama was coming from Tokyo station and each train was full by the time it arrived in Yokahama.  After seeing about three or four trains come and go where our options were to take a standing position or wait for another, we decided to switch platforms and go backwards to Tokyo station and get on where the trains were starting out from.  This turned out to be a good move – most of the trains were leaving Tokyo totally full and people jumping on to stand, but we were able to wait and get a seat for the journey… the lesson here is: it sure helps travelling with someone who knows the ins and outs of public transport sometimes!

With only a small delay of about forty minutes, we arrived in Kyoto and made our way to Kyoto Central Post Office which has a very convenient luggage service – cheaper than the DIY coin lockers that are scattered throughout Kyoto station and it is manned until 19:00… Just in case you ever find yourself in Kyoto and in need of storage solutions.  They also do a hotel delivery service for Y1500 per piece, which sounds like a brilliant idea if you have limited time to enjoy the city and can’t check into your hotel until late afternoon.

We hopped a cab down to the Gion district, and having rushed off the ship at 07:30 we thought it was time to find some breakfast now that it was well past midday.  We found a wee strange okonomiyaki place not far from the Minamiza Theatre and stopped in for some quick and delicious okonomiyaki and sake, while enjoying the kooky pop culture decor.  I didn’t remember to take a photo of this, but several of the tables in the restaurant had life-sized mannequins, dressed in traditional yakuta seated at the tables?  I realised as we were leaving that diners who happened to be eating solo were sitting next to the mannequins and looked immediately like they were dining with a friend!  It was bizarre, but I guess if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t enjoying eating out alone, maybe it works?  Who knows?  🙂 The Miyako Odori spring dances have been held at the Minimaza theatre (which was built in the 1600s) since the late 1800s.  The place has quite a history and each year the dances are designed to celebrate the spring/cherry blossom season and to show off the talent of the maiko – the apprentice geisha who grace the Hanamachi, (the ‘Flower Town’ pleasure district) of Gion that is full of historic ochaya (teahouses) and okiya (geisha houses).

There is quite a lot that can be said about the Miyako Odori, and the Minamiza Theatre, but rather than bastardise it all with my interpretation – here is a blurb from the official website for this year’s dances:

“Highlighting the springtime atmosphere, “Miyako Odori” is performed in the newly renovated Minamiza Theatre where festive kaomise kabuki marked the end with a great success.
In order to celebrate the reopening of the Minamiza Theatre located in the birthplace of kabuki, this year’s theme is entitled “Miyohajime Kabuki no Irodori” (displaying places of interest of Kyoto in the new era, depicting scenes especially related to the theatre, and geiko and maiko perform a dance with a wish of happiness and prosperity of the new Emperor to be enthroned in May.)
“Miyako Odori first held in 1872 is a beautiful dance performance of eight scenes which begins with the unique loud call “Yoi Ya- Sa-” and all performers dance together in front of sliding screens put on silver foil, representing a court noble house. The dance, this year, progresses from the scene of “Shijo Kawaramachi” the birthplace of kabuki, “Katsura Imperial Villa.” “Gian Chaya.” and other places of scenic beauty and historic interest in the vicinity of the Minamiza Theatre and in connection with the Imperial Family, and the finale comes with a scene of cherry blossoms in full bloom at Daikakuji Temple.

“Miyako Odori” featuring Kyoto’s four seasons has been shown for more than 140 years; please enjoy the elaborate stage by maiko and geiko in the traditional Minamiza Theatre.”

I remember these kimono from when we were last in Kyoto in 2015 – we visited an exhibition called ‘The Maiko Story’ that highlighted the history and traditions of the lives of the maiko and geiko that grace Gion. Today we would get to see the maiko dancing in them.  That ‘Maiko Story’ is HERE if anyone is interested.

Inside the newly renovated theatre, we found our seats with some assistance – we were situated in the third balcony and as you might expect, accommodations are not as generous as we have become accustomed to in modern public theatres.  Our seats were up steep steps and even though I am barely 5′ tall, my knees were pressed up against the seat in front of me.  Mr K at 6′ tall didn’t have a hope… even manspreading couldn’t help him. He ended up watching the performance sitting to his side with his legs in the aisle beside him. There is no photography allowed in the theatre during performances, so I have ‘borrowed’ some images from official promotional material and ever helpful Wikipedia.  The costumes were lovely, the dancing was precise, graceful and exactly what I expected to see from these highly trained artisans.  The music, however, was at various points during the performance ear piercingly painful!  The flutes, they’re so high!  Ouch.  The singing too, while not as bad as the caterwauling we experienced at various cultural performances in China, was likewise not always ‘pleasant’.  Still, it was quite the visual spectacle and it was wonderful to add this quintessentially Japanese experience to our ‘When in Rome’ List.
The final scene was quite the spectacle with all the performers returning to the stage and dancing in unison – except for two obviously very senior geiko who seemed to be marching to their own tune. After the performance was over we hopped another cab back to the Post Office to collect the luggage and made our way back to the Shinkansen to catch a train to Osaka.  Thankfully, we didn’t have much trouble finding seats – it is the Tokyo to Kyoto segment that seems to be super popular at the moment and we were not surprised given it is Golden Week.

We made our way to our hotel, called Hotel Samurai, which was chosen less for its location (I usually make all accommodation choices based on location!) and instead was chosen for its size.  We are here for a whole week and have some work to do whlie we are here, so there is no way we wanted to be doing it in an APA Hotel shoe-box of a room. Our suite turned out to be about the size of my living room/study at home – about 6m x 4.5m – and has a king sized bed, a double sized bed, a futon bed a kitchenette and a huge ensuite bathroom with a spa bath tub.  It was booked so long ago I forgot about all that! After we got settled, we were a bit shattered to be honest (that is what you get for breaking the Travel Rules), so Keith popped out for some milk to make tea and some sake for well,…for obvious reasons really!  Eventually, we opted to go out for a late dinner and we ended up at a restaurant called Shinanosuke Ueroku, located across the road from the Osaka-Uehommachi train station. It was the over the top display of sake bottles at the front door that sucked us in! Dinner was a delicious boat of fresh sashimi, some takoyaki and yakitori and of course sake! (If it looks like I am using alcohol to help me sleep in the absence of some of my medications and my own bed – that is probably because I am!)
The place has a lively atmosphere, a lot of laughter from the rabbit warren of individual little dining rooms, and the free-flowing liquor.  If it weren’t for the Japanese propensity to let people still smoke cigarettes in these types of restaurants, I’d say it was a perfect fun spot with great food and we’ll be back – but, there are too many other places to try and if we can find great food sans smoking, we’d much prefer it. Then, it was time to head back to the hotel, write all this guff up before we have new adventures tomorrow and I forget all about the details of today.

In short, we totally broke the Travel Rule of Transit Days today – but it was totally worth it!  I’m going to sleep like a log tonight.

Ikebukuro and Tokyo Tower

After yesterday’s monster cultural walking tour of Tokyo, today we thought we’d take it a little easier and head to some pop culture highlights instead.  Last time we were here, the Teenager was all over the Pokémon stuff on his DS and was loving the Pikachu love that was often on display in Tokyo.  We even took him to the Yokahama Pokémon store and he loved it.  This time, well, this time we are all a little Pokémon mad, having taken up Pokémon Go (which btw has proved to be excellent exercise over the last year) and so we decided to head to Pokémon central this morning – the Tokyo Pokémon Mega Centre in Ikebukuro’s Sunshine Centre.Ikebukuro Main Street.

The Sunshine Centre is covered in Pokémon murals and accents before you even get anywhere near the place… And then we found the place – basically a Disney Store but for Pokémon, and at this time of year – packed to the gills with people, lots of loud annoying music, kids running  amok and more plush toys than you can poke a stick at. Unfotunately not a lot of merchandise that was designed for adults… I was hoping to find something I could buy in bulk to take home for our local raid teams, but seriously?  Golf balls, stationery or phone cases was about the extent of useful stuff that adults might like.  I don’t think they are catering for their PGO market here – which from what I have seen is largely being played by 25-45 year olds.  Oh well.  Marketing opportunity missed there, Nintendo. While we were there a legendary raid popped on the Pokemon Mega Centre gym, so of course we had to raid the Groudon.  I managed to catch it, but Mr K had to try again on the other Pikachu gym right beside it.

Just as we were leaving, things got really out of control – a Santa Pikachu turned up with the staff and the kids went crazy!  So much noise and excitement and absolutely none of it decipherable by non-Japanese speaking tourists like us.And of course the ubiquitous vending machines full of Pokemon crap.  Mostly Ditto for some reason…

For lunch, we found this restaurant which had some amazing looking okonomyaki in the display window… well, amazing for over glossy plastic representations of food, but we thought it looked like a potentially delicious cabbagey omelette spot for lunch.However, we got inside and rapidly discovered that it was teppanyaki okonomiyaki?  Cook your own damn cabbagey omelette restaurant?  The Teenager looked somewhat unimpressed at having to cook his own lunch, but when in Rome, right?  There was a pile of useful instructions, not in English of course, but it gave comfort knowing that locals don’t necessarily know how to cook their own okonomyaki either.  😉  Our lunches arrived – raw.  And looked full of possible deliciousness… so long as I didn’t fuck up the cooking bit.  😀  Thankfully, our server was kind enough to show us how it’s done – for the first one.  Preparing the plate, cooking the meat/seafood, mixing the cabbagey mixture and then forming it into a 14cm pancake.  Cook covered on one side for 4 mins on a lowish temperature, then use the spatulas to flip it over and cook for another 4 mins on the other side.  Handy hourglass timers were provided to make sure your okonomyaki was cooked through.   Et voila!  Tasty tasty okonomyaki lunch! Lunch was delicious and went down lovely with a cold glass of umeshu and biru.

Next stop after lunch was on the Teenager’s ‘must do in Tokyo’ list – a place called J-World, which is an amusement centre based on his favourite anime shows, One Piece and Dragonball Z.   He was pretty excited to be there… but only pulled this face for me after I prompted him to not look so blasé.   Now I am not an anime fan, and have no idea who all the characters are but this amusement centre/theme park was pretty full on.  Rides, interactive experiences, virtual reality stuff, Segway clouds (?), a restaurant full of themed food, and of course the inevitable gift shop.  I had no idea this One Piece thing was so huge… it’s about a pirate named Monkey.D Luffy on his quest to claim the treasure, the One Piece.  From what I can understand it involves a lot of high drama and screaming alarmingly in Japanese at other adventuring characters.  This of course is the token female character… Nami.  And this is how she is attired while her cohorts are wearing shirts and shorts or even suits or a long pirate coat.  Poor thing, can’t afford clothes.   Kinto-un from Dragonball Z apparently.

Many rides and hilarity later, it was time to get the hell out of the noisy anime amusement centre and find some solace… in sake!  We left the Sunshine Centre and back to Ikebukuro for dinner.  We wandered past some chain restaurants, and even a bloody Denny’s before we decided to head into the back streets to look for something a bit more local.  We found a restaurant with a great looking menu, actual chairs instead of stools, and *drumroll please*… cheap sake taster plates!! Sake fuelled, Mr K soldiers on through his biru while we wait for some dinner.   Ooh.. maybe there is fugu / blowfish on the menu?  Do we risk it?  Ah, not so much.  Drinking on an empty stomach is never advisable but dinner was well worth waiting for… fresh sashimi – the tuna is so much better here, I swear all the tuna we have in Australia at sushi restaurants is frozen, or frozen poorly or something.  In comparison, I can honestly say I have never had good tuna back home, excepting maybe Sono at Hamilton. The texture is entirely different.
Grilled chicken and pork pot stickers.
Gyoza – of course, no meal seems to be complete without some. Some weird bean sprout omelette yumminess the name of which I can’t remember. Sake!  All the sake! Then it was back to the trains – have I mentioned how awesome Tokyo trains are?  Cheap, clean, efficient… kinda easy to navigate once you get the hang of them, super easy to navigate if you travel with your own transport industry professional!  😉  They’re great, and people are polite and mind their space, I love them – to go to Tokyo Tower. Several stops and what seemed only a few minutes later, and up we pop in a new part of town, and the Tokyo Tower in front of us.  Tokyo Tower is a communications with public observation decks in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 332.9 metres (1,092 ft), it is the second-tallest structure in Japan. Apparently it is inspired by the Eiffel Tower, and it is not difficult to see how.  Allegedly, its distinctive orange and white colours come from a necessity to comply international air safety regulations…which then begs the question why isn’t the Eiffel Tower orange and white?  Hmmm.  #showerthoughts I came here on our last trip to Tokyo and it was pretty cool to get a chance to go up the tower at night as well as having been up during the day.  At the moment it is all Christmassy – lights, themed photos, projected snowflakes everywhere, and live performers on the observation deck.  Oddly, but completely in keeping with our visit to J-World on Anime Day, we stumbled onto a One Piece 20th Anniversary exhibit and store at the Tower.  There is Nami again in her signature green bikini, and loads of cool merchandise – cooler stuff than they had at the offical store in the city. More One Piece – the little guy above with the ‘X’ on his hat is called Chopper, and he is supposed to be a reindeer that area a Hito Hito No Mi devil fruit which makes him anthropomorphic (or as the Teenager would say – makes him into a human hybrid or allows him to have human characteristics at will). Anyway, back to the Tower… it was covered in projected snowflakes and sparkly Christmassy stuff.  It was lovely.  The views were great and my little handheld camera either totally didn’t cope or I was completely inept, because my photos from up the Tower are not great. We stopped for a bit and had a blindingly sweet coke spider (yes, it’s freezing cold outside but there is still ice cream and frozen treats everywhere) and then after that sugar rush my photos got way better.  😉  Thus endeth out second day in Tokyo!  🙂