Japan, April 11th - Osaka and Kyoto
Our first activity on Elizabeth's birthday was a "private" (~50-person) tour of Sento Gosho, the emperor's retirement palace and gardens. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time, but the gardens were, I think, more beautiful than Kenrokuen park and the imperial palace itself. There wasn't much to the residence since it had burned down so many times they eventually gave up on rebuilding it. But we did get to walk through one of the garden teahouses and traverse the winding paths and bridges of the garden itself. A heron poised by the central bridge made the scene particularly poetic.
Special activity #2 was a trip to Miyako Odori, a lavishly decorated traditional spring dance play performed by the maiko (apprentices) and geiko (geisha) of the Gion Kobu district in Kyoto. After our fairly negative experience with Kabuki, we were afraid that the performance would be so stylized as to be arcane, but the dancing was spot-on, the costumes and sets were beautiful and vibrantly colored, and the overall performance totally accessible. A few acts involved dances celebrating the seasons, and another told the folk talk of Urashima Taro, a boy who returns a turtle he caught back to the sea and is rewarded with a turtle-back ride to an underwater palace. It felt special to see some of the few remaining authentic geiko and maiko in action.
In the evening, we walked around Gion and visited Maruyama Park, known for its enormous drooping cherry tree on a pedestal, as well as its pretty landscaping and other cherry blossoms. Only a few cherry-viewing parties were going on, in makeshift tents, because of the rain, but the big, illuminated cherry tree was still surrounded by hordes of photographers, capturing what is probably its last day of full blossoms this season.
For dinner, we sought out okonomiyaki, Elizabeth's favorite dish. After lots of fruitless and wet walking, we were one shop away from the department store where we had conceded to eat when we found an okonomiyaki shop. Elizabeth ordered the standard pork pancake, covered with ginger, dancing fish flakes, dried fruit-based barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise. David made a more unconventional choice of a "2-ply" okonomiyaki that contained potatoes, corn, eggs, and cream sauce. It must have been the foreigner's okonomiyaki, because they served it to him with an American flag toothpick atop it.
For dessert, we found a bakery restaurant, and Elizabeth had a bowl full of mochi, jellies, green tea ice cream and adzuki with molasses syrup and green tea. David had a choco-banana parfait. We stayed at a Japanese-style inn for the night, and slept like logs.