On my way back, I admired some tiny white sculpted figures in a glass case along a narrow street. As I stood beside the case, I noticed a steep, narrow stone stairway that zig-zagged up the steep slope and curled around out of sight. I followed it up. At the top of the stairs was a beautiful little garden tucked into the side of the hill, with an equally beautiful little shop opening onto the garden. I was too broke to consider shopping because this morning I thought I had a 10,000 yen note, but it turned out to be a 1,000 yen note (all those zeros). I still wanted to look, so I stepped in, and was greeted with questions, and I explained “America-jin des”(I’m American). The two women’s eyes grew wide and they began chattering excitedly and called for another person, and when he arrived, he spoke English with me.
All three of them pointed out things in the shop to me, explained that the little white things were cocoons from a caterpillar from somewhere in Japan. The sculptures were made from taking slices of the pure white cocoons and gluing them into animal shapes. They showed me photos of the artist himself. They brought me green tea, and “sweets,” and basically fawned over me every second. The man brought a pad of paper and was translating things into roman characters, so I could pronounce them with him. I didn’t really want to buy any of the little white cocoon things, but they were making such a special time for me, I was compelled to. So I explained that I collect dragons, and they helped me choose one. My dragon is mounted on a board that has calligraphy stating a wish for good luck in the future. My hosts proudly told me that the man who creates the sculptures also does the calligraphy.
Before I left the shop, my hosts had insisted that I must visit the Zen Buddhist Tenryu-ji (sky dragon temple). It was fully my intent to concede. However, on the walk back down the hill, I attempted to visit three different temples, and all charged a fee. A small fee, yes, but I had just spent my lunch money on a dragon cocoon. I intended to find Tenryu-ji, but I was losing hope for being able to enter.
Returning to the river and the train and the tourists, I stumbled upon a remarkable bamboo forest. These trees were far more mature than in the forest I walked through in Hawaii last August, likely because this area has been volcano-free for a longer period of time. I found no sign of undergrowth or midstory growth or any other kind of plant besides the bamboo trees. The forest scene is compelling. In the midst of the forest, I met Greg, another solo traveler who was even happier than me to find an English-speaker. I gratefully
accepted his company. It does get tiring on the brain to not understand the language spoken around me for an extended time.
Unlike me, Greg was not on a tour, but really by himself, catching some of the sights while visiting his daughter in college in Tokyo. Greg even paid for my tour through Tenryu-ji so we could extend our English-speaking time. Bonus! He had just returned from a couple of days as a guest at a monastery, and was much more comfortable with the ritual of exchanging shoes for complimentary slippers when we entered the temple to explore inside.
With mere minutes to spare, we excited the temple and hurried to the Totgetsu-kyo Bridge to meet the rest of the group and get on the bus. I get very caught up in exploring and tend to lose track of time.
Back at the hotel, I dropped my gear and went downstairs to catch the hotel shuttle downtown again. On the shuttle, I discovered that three women from the Iwakuni group were heading to get geisha photos done. They invited me to join them, so I decided to do it, and thus check off one more item from my Japan To-Do List. Once we found the photo place, we asked if, rather than doing photos for 3 women, they could include a fourth. They made room for me, and I had such a fun time.
The women and men who keep the place running are friendly, professional, and quick! They had us up and choosing kimonos right away. Then we stripped down to our undies, and put on thin flimsy gowns, folding the left flap over the right, and tying with a single strand. They gave us these funky white polyester socks to wear, with a sleeve for the big toe like mittens, and silver tabs that fit into slots to fasten them. We sat in front of mirrors and in twenty minutes had the full white geisha faces and necks, black liner around the eyes, and deep red lipstick. Then back to the fitting room and 15 minutes later we were all buried in layers of heavy brocaded fabric, cinched tight till we could barely breathe.
Amidst multiple cautionary admonishments not to touch anything, not anything, they dropped pre-sculpted wigs onto our heads. “Do not touch face. Do not touch wig. No, no. Lips –here the woman speaking to me pointed to her mouth and pressed her lips together– no, no, no!” Then we were off to the photography rooms with charismatic photographers who said, “Beautiful photo! Very nice! Smile big. Bigger. Show teeth.” Snap! Snap! And that too, was quick. All four of us were finished in another 45 minutes.
The photographers went off to process our photos, and we ladies were led to a room full of sinks where we got some quick instructions for how to clean our faces, and instructions for where to discard our headbands, washcloths, robes, and socks. By the time we returned to the front lobby, two and a half hours had passed from the time of our arrival, and our CDs with all our photos were waiting for us. It was a little expensive, $120 approximately, but totally worth it! The photos are awesome and it was a completely professional and enjoyable experience from beginning to end.