Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japan, April 5th - Kyoto and Kanazawa

Today we found out the Imperial Palace was open to the public, so we braved the rain to walk through its grounds. There were several TV crews there. We happened to be the only caucasians in sight, and kept noticing the cameras trained on us. The buildings and gardens were pretty from the outside, but other than painted shoji screens, the insides were fairly austere by modern standards. Still, it felt remarkable to peer into the home of men who were once believed to have divine lineage.

We made it to Kanazawa in the afternoon and loved the new train station design -- a beautiful glass atrium and an enormous torii gate in front. The lady at the tourist office complimented me on my Japanese as we made a hotel reservation...but only just after I had accidentally said "ten thousand and ten thousand" instead of "thirteen thousand". I am starting to get suspicious of these compliments, since they only seem to happen after I put my foot in my mouth. I think it's much more of a compliment when people just treat me like an ordinary client.

Our first tourist stop was Ninja Temple. I had to make reservations for the next tour over the intercom, and I thought my Japanese was sounding pretty natural until the woman at the other end said, "I see you're a foreigner."

When our tour started, it turned out that the other people on it were Chinese and didn't speak a word of Japanese. Although Ninja-dera gives English tours, this time slot was supposed to be in Japanese, so they did the whole thing in Japanese anyway. We learned that the temple really had nothing to do with Ninjas, but is nicknamed Ninja-dera for its extensive security measures and confusing design, with 4 stories of rooms in an apparent 2-story exterior built to satisfy zoning laws. The offering box in the floor of the main hall can double as a pitfall; spies can lurk in a loft and behind the stairs; passageways connect rooms in unexpected ways. One sliding door slid into a groove in a movable floorboard to "lock" the trap door quickly and without a bulky key. And the well supposedly hides a passageway to the palace 1km away. While the tour guide wasn't clad in a pink ninja suit as I thought I had read somewhere, it was still a fun tour.

We also visited the nearby geisha district, where we went to a museum with no English signs. The kindly ticket man followed us upstairs and invited us to sit in the off-limits geisha party room so he could take our picture. Unfortunately, he didn't focus on us.

An evening walk took us past Oyama shrine's pretty garden. We strolled through a more modern part of town too, with countless bars, pubs, and appealing Japanese-italian restaurants. But we got dinner in a department store basement 5 minutes before closing time, when everything was on sale. We ended up buying a massive quantity of marinated boiled potatoes out of a sense of obligation when the salesman plied us with free samples of every food he sold. We also had pot stickers, adzuki beans and sticky rice, and disgusting tasting white sake that came in a serving-size glass.

While we ate, we watched a funny TV show about robots. It was in the standard Japanese variety/talk-show format, with a panel of people offering commentary and introducing the segments. Our favorite segment involved a little robot fitted with a speaker that the host could talk through. They put the robot in a living room and brought a child into the room with it. They taped the child's reaction to the robot's conversation and waited for the robot and child to make friends. Then the robot asked the child to make a solemn promise to never tell adults that the robot could talk. If they told, the robot would be deported to his home planet.

Each child solemnly promised, then immediately betrayed his or her new friend when adults walked into the room. With one kid, they had the robot find out about the betrayal, reprimand him, and elicit a second promise...but the child lied again. There were endearing moments too. When the robot fell into a piece of cake and off the coffee table, the child carefully rescued him and wiped the frosting off.

Other segments to the show involved a robot competition with 1-on-1 battles, an obstacle course, and a "death walk" down a narrow plank 30 feet off the ground. The dollish robot in a kimono was declared the winner just before we went to sleep.