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Archive for May 7th, 2018

As most of you know, we spend the winter in the lovely colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, about three hours north of Mexico City, high in the dry mountain desert.  San Miguel has had periods of great prosperity, and in those times, impressive mansions and ornate churches in the Spanish Baroque architectural style were built.   In the early 19th century, at the start of the Mexican War of Independence,  the Spanish military laid waste to the town, looting the homes of the conspirators and destroying their factories and fields. The population dropped quickly from over 100,000 to 12,000 or so.  

Their gift to an unimagined future, was that all of those beautiful buildings would be preserved. 

Kyoto, has a similar, but much more recent past.  In WWII, it was exempted from the US aerial bombing program that the rest of Japan suffered.  So much of the old town still has cobblestone streets,  lined with ancient homes, shrines, and temples.  Like San Miguel, it is a holiday destination, and is incredibly popular with Chinese, Korean and Japanese tourists. Popularity has its price:   the streets on weekends are overwhelming busy and we were thankful that we could retreat to our air conditioned car, even if we were barely moving.  Parking? Not possible. 

Food markets in foreign places are my kind of tourist attraction.  The Kyoto market was  painfully crowded but we managed to see some interesting and unique foodstuffs as we shuffled along.  Green tea marshmallows, black sesame ice cream, little bits of pastel spaghetti  that turned into pretty surreal creatures when deep fried! 

There are an astonishing number of restaurants, crowded into tiny laneways along the river.  After walking up and down a “restaurant row” for 20 minutes, we settled on a busy sushi spot. Ben says that traveller wisdom has taught him to find a place that is full of locals who know good food and students who know a good deal. Outside one such spot, we  put our name down on a long list and sat with about ten others to wait. Forty minutes later, we were seated at the sushi bar, watching those wizards with knives work their magic, yelling out traditional greetings and goodbyes all night.  Great entertainment and excellent fresh fish.  

The night before, we had been advised eat to dine in our hotel with the best tempura chef in all Japan. Really.  Naturally, the multi course Michelin starred meal was wonderful, and for Western palates, unique and interesting.  Each morsel of fish or vegetable was coated with a barely perceptible,  translucent batter. (Not the average fish & chips from your local pub!)  My first ever morsel of Kobe beef was wrapped in a mint leaf and it was extraordinary.   White asparagus was my favourite of the vegetable courses.  The dinner was almost surgical in execution:  one man in white, one knife, one fry station, and not a wisp or whiff of grease.  The meal ended with a deep fried egg yolk topped with black caviar and an elaborate berry parfait from the in-house French patisserie.  The very elegant older Japanese woman seated to our left ate 15 courses with relish, but left the dessert behind.  Pity. 

 

Kyoto is associated with the tradition of the Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko (a geisha in seven years of formal training).  They live and practice their beautiful ancient art forms in preserved historical areas called “flower towns’.  The world of the geisha, like some other ancient traditions in Japan, is not, as Ben would say, “a growth industry”:  fewer younger women are choosing the role for economic and social reasons. 

An article I read pointed out that there will be broader consequences when the tradition withers away:   for generations, the “flower towns” have supported a whole eco-system of crafts people, including families who make their wooden platform shoes, the exquisite hair ornaments, the wigs, the fans, the umbrellas, the musical instruments  and  the 12 delicate, unique and expensive silk kimonos required for each Geisha.  Some of their outfits can cost upwards of $25,000 USD!   For the entertainment events that they host, they commission the best chefs, the best seasonal banquets, the best sake & tea, and the most beautiful floral arrangements.  These are supplier relationships, professional and personal, have been cultivated over generations. 

Another factor in the profession’s decline is that there are few wealthy patrons who are willing to personally sponsor a geisha, or pay to stage the elaborate musical and dancing performances that are the highlight of their artwork.   So modern geishas take roles in movies or theatre, work with the local hotels to create special events for groups, or leave the industry after training to work in hospitality.  

But here is the final indignity:  geishas and maiko are being mobbed by untutored tourists who demand photographs, grab at their outfits and try to steal souvenirs from their hair, costumes, or take valuable pieces of jewellery.  So they are confined during the day to their small group homes in the historic district, and their clients arrive only after dark to avoid the curious tourist crush. And their cameras.

Frankly, Kyoto was a bit of a disappointment for us, with the huge crowds and the artificial, somewhat Disney like atmosphere ie. women choosing to rent geisha kimonos and mince along the streets.  Perhaps it was just our tour, but the palaces, shrines and their gardens were pretty and historical, but really not very interesting.    Could I say that about San Miguel, which is mobbed by Mexican tourists every weekend and sometimes feels a little Disneyish itself? A question to think on.

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