Monday, May 23, 2011

Fale and Win

The last morning in Osaka was pretty much a bust. At the last minute we found out that there was a Franck Mueller store in Osaka, and apparently they had a huge special showing just a few days prior to our arrival. Not that any of us could actually afford to buy a Meuller watch, but we both like them and thought it would be a cool place to visit. In addition there are lots of other ultra-luxury brand stores scattered throughout the Shinsaibashi district in Osaka - Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Dolce and Gabana, Cartier and Imani to name a few.

As it was a weekday morning people were out and about trying to get to work on time. We were nearly run over by about 10 separate people all flying past us on the sidewalk riding bicycles. Many of the women were riding in heels, many men were wearing suits, and none of them were wearing helmets.

Unfortunately, people who buy things from ultra-luxury stores can't be bothered to have their servants leave the house before 11A so we were up way too early. We had already booked a 4PM appointment in Kyoto and didn't have time to blow window shopping.

We meandered a little through some of the side streets of Osaka and saw some cute little neighborhoods including a hipster boutique complete with super-expensive vintage clothes and a track bike. We also saw some graffiti in this area which is pretty rare for Japan.

After our walk, we checked out of the Osaka hotel, bought our last Macaroons and headed for the train station.

Upon arriving in Kyoto we walked a few blocks from the train station to the hotel, which turned out to be our best hotel of the trip. Hotel Kanra opened in 2008 and had all the trimmings of a cute boutique hotel in the west. Right down to the free-to-borrow solar-charged electric-assist bicycles.

We got our rooms upgraded for free because when Taka originally booked the smaller room was not available for both nights. It turned out that we could have all slept in the same room because they were fantastically huge. In addition to the customary bed and bathroom, our rooms sported a large section of tatami mats with a low table and chairs near the flat-screen TV mounted in the wall. The hotel had a great warm modern feel with fun materials including a cypress soaking tub. It's a good thing that the tub was secured to the floor because I'm pretty sure that Lisa would have tried to take it home. We were tired from traveling, and as there was a 7/11 next door we decided to grab some tasty treats for lunch - onigiri, inarizushi, and Japanese chocolate :-)

After our late lunch, it was time to head out to the geisha dance show. While many geisha dance and entertain clients in a private setting there are a few special public performances. We were lucky to get tickets to the last show of the day, at 4PM. We arrived early and decided to explore the neighborhood, and unfortunately we got trapped in a downpour. It was a great day for Jon to wear his white jeans. After drying out in a subway station, browsing a 100 Yen store (like a dollar store here), and seeing another amazing bread shop, we walked to the theater for the show.

The show itself was interesting, but I can't help but think that we missed a lot of the subtle nuances that made it an excellent performance. The first half was a play involving a "classic" Japanese story: boy meets girl, other boy meets girl, fighting ensues, fake "switch" of another girl with boy #2. You get the picture. Unfortunately, it was hard for our western brains to keep the female characters straight, especially as they changed outfits and hair styles several times during the night. The second half of the performance was much easier to understand - the four seasons, complete with a live geisha orchestra wielding shimasens, flutes and "something that sounded like a dying cricket". There were two older geisha performing, in the second act both of whom received a standing ovation, for some reason that wasn't perceptible to either Lisa or me.

The theater was in a super-cute neighborhood with super-narrow walking only streets lined with restaurants and shops. There were many older Japanese couples out for a night on the town with men dressed in sharp suits and women in beautiful Kimonos. We left the show and set out on the adventure of finding a restaurant.

It turns out that among other things Kyoto is known for it's tofu. Who would have thought that there was any kind of tofu other than silken - soft, firm, and super firm? Taka had done some research ahead to find a tofu restaurant. The tofu restaurants prepare and sell their own specialty tofu. Unfortunately the restaurant that she found was oddly only a tofu restaurant when the geisha show was the Gion neighborhood (which it wasn't currently). As everyone was cold and pretty hungry we decided to go there anyway and it turned out to be an excellent decision.

After removing our shoes and walking upstairs we were seated in a traditional room filled with tatami mats, low tables and pillows. Taka took care of ordering for us and even though they weren't currently a tofu restaurant they made special provisions for Lisa including sending someone out for a specific tofu that they didn't have on hand. One of the options on the menu was a $15 sake tasting with three pours. The waiter asked if we wanted to all three taste the same sake or to have 9 different sake to chose from. Obviously we opted for 9 tastes instead of 3 ;-) However, when he brought out medium-sized sake cups and saucers and began to pour the cups to overflowing and filling the saucers with 180 ml we all agreed that 9 would be too many as Taka doesn't drink and we didn't want to stumble home through the red light district. We had six sake to chose from - a house grade junmai, a junmai gingo, and a junmai daigingo which the waiter explained had to do with the grade of rice used, and the amount of polishing of the rice. The other three sake were more exotic - an all organic sake, a sake with added alcohol, and finally a local sake that was made from very highly polished rice. We all agreed that our favorites were the ginjo, daiginjo and the organic sake.

For dinner, we all had soups prepared at the table. Lisa had two similar soups, one made with soy milk base instead of broth, both featuring different tofu. The special tofu that was sent-for turned out to be completely different than any we'd had before with a very rich texture and an almost fatty mouth-feel. Still not much of a taste, but good none-the-less. Jon and I had a tasty soup with a super-tasty chunk of fried-chicken. Some of you may know that I don't often eat chicken, even when I'm cheating on my diet because for the most part it's boring, blah, and just the "filler" meat that people put in dishes when they don't want to use something tasty like beef or pork. This was different, and I ate the whole thing. At the end of the meal, as we've found is traditional in Japan, they brought bowls of gohan (rice) and Miso soup. The Miso soup in Kyoto is different from what we have commonly in the states and in Nagoya. In Kyoto they use white miso which is slightly sweeter, and has a creamier appearance and texture. The rice was soo delicious with green onions and tiny fish that it's hard to describe.

After dinner we walked through the nearby red light district which was quite a bit higher-class than the one we had walked through previously in Osaka. Many of the streets were lined with homes and private residences where Taka said that Geisha live and perform privately. We went back to our beautiful hotel and passed out, resting for the adventures of tomorrow.

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