The emperor's quarters in the Imperial Palace.

The emperor's quarters in the Imperial Palace.

Day eight was a decadent experience for the team. We visited the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle and attended a traditional tea ceremony before attending our official farewell dinner.

Impressive Kyoto Imperial Palace

Our first stop was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The wide and rocky pathways at this palace are rich with history from the past 1,229 years. Constructed in 794, the grounds of the palace were originally an aristocratic residential area. The Meiji Restoration turned the grounds into a park during their Westernization of Japan in the late 1800s. Despite burning down five times, the imperial palace complex has stayed resilient and has been built back stronger each time.

Chrysanthemum detail on a structure at the Imperial Palace
Chrysanthemum detail on a structure at the Imperial Palace.

We toured the grounds for about an hour while our guide, John Wells, gave us mini history lessons on the differences between the gates, buildings and rooms. A funny moment occurred when some other visitors at the palace joined our group to hear John’s commentary – they thought he was a palace guide!

John mentioned the importance of and symbolism in each building. Sometimes, that meant there were different rooms for people of varying social classes to wait in, but there were also a lot of interesting symbolic stories hiding in the details.

“I found the chrysanthemum symbolism interesting,” Sofia Psolka said. “It’s really cool that a family can claim a flower in the same way that European families claim a coat of arms.”

Tea time

Later in the afternoon, the team attended a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Despite the connotations of “traditional tea ceremony,” we discovered how infrequently most Japanese people do it. Our tea master, Rie-san, who has been learning the art for more than a decade, told us that tea ceremonies are more of a hobby than a ritual for most Japanese people. 

The SJMC Japan team partaking in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
The SJMC Japan team partaking in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

After leaving our shoes and bags downstairs, we sat on tatami mats and waited for our tea master. She explained what utensils each person would bring to a tea ceremony and how they would each be used. Then, she walked us through how to properly accept the tea: 

  • Finish your sweet (that’s dessert to us Americans); once you start drinking your tea, you may not return to eating your sweet;
  • Set the bowl on the middle mat;
  • Place it on your right side and say, “I will join you,” while bowing towards the mat;
  • Place it on your left and say, “excuse me for going before you,” while bowing towards the mat;
  • Place it in front of you and say, ”thank you for the tea,” while bowing towards the mat;
  • Hold the bowl in the palm of your left hand and use your right hand to turn it twice clockwise, so the front of the bowl faces outward;
  • Take a sip;
  • Turn the bowl counterclockwise, and place it back on the middle tatami.

After going through the ceremony on our own, Rie-san taught us about how the containers are switched out seasonally. The summer matcha container has a slightly concave lid and a summer-themed design. The designs on the bowls reflect each season as well, often including flowers that bloom in the season. Even the bamboo matcha scoop is changed season to season.

“I’m not usually a matcha drinker, but it was super fun to make a good memory out of it,” Felicity Guajardo said. Other students were more interested in the art of the tea ceremony itself.

“I loved every bit about the tea ceremony, but my favorite moment was hearing about how a tea ceremony master gets to their position,” Reese Zeigler said. 

Nightingale Corridors at Nijo Castle

Another site we saw on Thursday was Nijo Castle. Despite feeling the effects of a whirlwind last few days, as well as the high humidity, the SJMC Japan Team’s interest was still piqued by the fascinating history of this castle.

Ornate detailing on the entrance to Nijo Castle.
Ornate detailing on the entrance to Nijo Castle.

We learned that in 1601, the Tokagawa shogunate made the castle as a place to stay while visiting Kyoto. Like the Imperial Palace, there were many symbolic aspects in the architecture, the construction and the art found throughout the grounds.

One of the most unique things about Nijo Castle is its “Nightingale Corridors,” so named because of the distinct creaking sounds the floorboards make as people walk across them and the nails rub against the clamps. The creaks recall the sound of chirping birds.

While photography is not allowed in the castle, we were able to capture the sound via audio recording:

John continued to give us tidbits about the history of the castle, the shogun and Japan as we walked through – we are incredibly lucky to learn from his expertise!

Breaking bread

We wrapped up our last full day in Kyoto with a farewell dinner, courtesy of the Asia Institute. We were treated to an all-you-can-eat feast, and ate our fair share (and more) of beef, pork, chicken, seafood, veggies and desserts. We had a great time sampling everything on the menu while cooking it ourselves right at our tables. 

chocolate parfait with pocky as dessert
One of our desserts: a chocolate parfait with two Pocky sticks.

Despite spending the last eight days in close quarters, this dinner really felt special, as it was one of the rare times all 16 of us sat down to eat as a group. It felt like a true bonding experience as we all shared dishes: both literally, as we passed the food around, and figuratively, as we reminisced about our favorite memories of the trip.

Most students were in agreement that it was hard to believe we were already wrapping up the trip, as it felt like we just arrived. Simultaneously, we agreed that it seemed we had been in Japan forever, and we are starting to really feel at home within the culture. 

The team will officially wrap up our Japan stay tomorrow night as we travel back to Tokyo and most of us get ready for a Saturday departure back to Texas.

1 thought on “A royal day in Kyoto

  1. It was both enjoyable to see and read the about the places you have visited. I can’t wait to hear about your experiences.
    Safe travels home, Ally D. and one more thing….

    Happy, Happy Birthday!!🎉🥳🪅🎈
    Love you bunches and bunches!🥰

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