After not having much initial interest in visiting Japan before this year, I booked my flights back, this time to Kyoto, within a week of landing home from Hiroshima and Miyajima, my first trip in January. I thought it was such a beautiful, interesting country I had to go back and explore more. When I’d asked for recommendations on where to go the answer was pretty much unanimous, Kyoto. When asking what to do there, the responses were almost always, ‘nothing specific, it’s just beautiful, and you see more of an older Japan.’ So, I didn’t ask any more questions, and just booked.
Trying to minimize time off work, I chose the weekend celebrating Buddha’s Birthday (HK public holiday) to leave after work on Saturday, but with a change in jobs I spent the Saturday on the beach in glorious sunshine; swimming & snorkelling a little (yup – saw some dragonets and hawkfishes) meaning I was super chilled and more than excited boarding my SUPER PINK Peach Airlines flight to Kansai-Osaka at 1am Sunday morning.
My wise adult self (ha) made me sleep as soon as I got on the plane, so 3 hours 10 mins later I landed a little dazed, but still excited. Despite being told that Japan is hard to navigate with not much English being used I’ve found it the opposite. Arriving at T2 I took a free bus transfer to T1, then headed to the JR Ticket off to buy a ‘cheap’(er), non reserved seat ticket for the ‘Limited Express Haruka’ train. (Info here) Cheap ticket Ұ2300 (£16/U$23) opposed to the normal price Ұ2300 (£20/U$27) (Note – on the way back, even though I was queuing in a JR West ticket office, it was the ‘wrong one’ and I had to go somewhere else to buy the discount tickets. Given time constraints and that Kyoto Rail station is pretty big I just paid the normal price.) During peak hours the trains go every 30 minutes, but as it was 6am, I waited an hour for a train, then despite trying to keep my eyes open to look out the window I succumbed to another 75 minutes sleep before arriving in Kyoto.
I was staying in Gion, one of Kyoto’s more historical areas and also one of Japan’s most famous Geisha districts. I jumped on bus 206 from the train station and was happy to note that all the bus stops were electronically listed in English as well. Easy… aside from stupidly buying a Ұ 600 bus day pass. I forgot that you just pay (Ұ 230) as you get off, but after being fined 20 Euros in Latvia for buying a ticket and not validating it I went straight up to the bus driver to ask for a ticket. Smart eh? But as you don’t actually purchase tickets of him he clearly thought I wanted a day pass. Doh.
The Gion Guesthouse Yururi,near Yasajka Shrine was a minutes walk from the bus stop and thanks to free Kyoto Wifi and google maps, easy to find. After making a quick coffee and chowing down a bowl of my Weetabix & coconut powder I headed off to the Izumo no Okunito statue, on the banks of the river Kamo join the 11am Kyoto Free Walking Tour. A walking tour as always being my favourite thing to do when I arrive in a new place, especially on minimal sleep and depleted brain power. Unintentionally I walked to the river adjacent to a beautiful canal lined with picturesque wooden houses, used as a prime photo point for young ladies dressed up in Kimonos (note – not Geshias.) I was also surprised to see that many of Kyoto’s taxi’s were the same red Toyota taxis as on Hong Kong Island & Kowloon.
Despite forecasted thunderstorms the weather was glorious blue skies and sunshine – I felt truly blessed, even when seeing there were 40 other people joining the walking tour! But the guide, Mayu, was absolutely fantastic. Aside from her wealth of knowledge on present day & historical Kyoto she had a fantastic voice projection, much needed that morning. We started the tour walking down Hanami-Koji Street, with its beautiful old wooden architecture full of restaurants, teahouses and Maiko dormitories.
Mayu explained that in Japan they don’t use the word Geisha, but Geiko and Maiko. Maikos, usually between 15 – 20 years old, are apprentice Geikos and live in dorms with their fellow students. They have no income but accomodation, food, kimonos and classes are paid for. They learn to play traditional instruments (shamisen), literature, calligraphy, and to perform tea ceremonies and traditional dances. They cannot use mobile phones or pillows, but instead a takamakura (wooden block) to ensure that their hairstyles, done once a week, do not get messed up. Once a Geiko they are allowed to wear a wig, and therefore use a pillow, and a phone. The names of each Maiko are placed on the outside of the dormitories (In the picture at the top right of the door.)
Once a Maiko has completed her training and is promoted to a Geiko (and what most consider a Geisha) and often live independently, earning their living by attending parties, and gatherings, often business functions and charging by the hour. In Gion there are presently around 300 Maikos and Geikos. You can differentiate the two easily by their attire, specifically their hairstyles, kimonos and their belts and the way they are tied.
We were also told about the Oiran, who was a Japanese Courtesan. Often mis-thought of as solely prostitutes they were of a higher ranking and traditionally skilled and educated, with the prestige to be able to refuse clients. Their popularity declined with the increase of that of the Geikos and ended completely with the anti prostitution law in 1958.
We then headed on to Gion Corner where you can watch Maiko’s perform each night at 6pm & 7pm. Next door is the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art which was exhibiting Yayoi Kusma’s works. (More on that later.)
Leaving the world of the Geisha’s behind we headed to the Kenninji Temple and the Yasaka Pagoda area. We learnt about the difference between Shrines (Shintō) and Temples (Buddhist) and that despite seeming so from the outside, Japan was not a particularly religious society. Though many customs were followed, and celebrations happening at each during one’s lifetime (including Christmas celebrations) these are now usually as cultural and traditional practices rather than religious rituals. As Shintō was (and technically still is) the main religion in Japan any Buddhist temples built also had to have a shrine inside, which is why you will see tori’s in temple complexes as well. (Picture on the right.) I absolutely loved the towering pine trees and their cones standing gravity defiant, upright on the branches. Shinto, we were told is a religion that has infinite gods, and that god is in everything and everywhere. Mayu joked that the toilets are also divine, which is why Japan has the best toilets in the world. True. So very true.
Next up was the Hokan-ji Temple, originally built in 589 as a memorial to Shotoku Taishi, who brought Buddhism to Japan. The latest reincarnation was built in 1440. Beside was a small, cute temple adorned with little cloth monkeys. Legs & arms tied together with resolutions and prayers written on them, to help overcome the ‘monkey mind’ of humans.
We turned down Ninenzaka street, incredibly crowded but definitely worth a visit. Tonnes of cute stores and really tasty looking street food, I think some I could have eaten? (as a vegan.)
We walked through Maruyama park, where many gather during the Cherry Blossom season, young males of companies forced to camp out the night before festivities to reserve a picnic spot! I also learnt that Japan generally only has male cherry trees, that do not produce fruit, hence the beautiful blossoms, but lack of the actual edible goodies.
The tour ended at Yasaka-jinja shrine, near my Guesthouse. I ended up walking around here a few times over the days, lit up beautifully at night, generally feeling peaceful and serene…
I headed back down Hanami-Koji taking a right at the top to eat at Musoshin where I was told I could get some vegan ramen. I paid Ұ700 to a little machine and 5 minutes later a man brought me an insanely tasty bowl of ramen. Vegan ramen in my experience is usually pretty bland, especially to a chilli fiend like myself. This was so delicious. SO, SO delicious.
By this point, on my fractured 4.5 hours sleep, I was utterly exhausted, so I headed to Kamo river, and after people watching and a bit of journalling, set a phone alarm, stuck my headphones in and napped in the sunshine. It was heaven.
After my snooze I decided to head over to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. I started my walk down Pontocho Alley, famous for it’s restaurants, with terraces overlooking the river (see picture above), often frequented by Geikos. I then weaved in and out of the smaller side streets, admiring the architecture and small temples ice-lolly in hand. Turning up past city hall, and smiling at this little skater girl, I ended up at the Museum.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was surprised that I’d just paid to go into what seemed like a library. I walked around for a bit, and eventually found an exhibition on the history of Manga. It was small, but REALLY interesting, and for me that alone was worth the visit. For everyone else there, I think the thousands of manga books was the bigger pull! I then visited an exhibition of manga prints showcasing work by Nishitani Yoshiko, Ohya Chiky, and Hatsu Akiko, alongside those of Keiko Takemiya. I had, and still have no idea who these people are, but the work was incredible. I used to watch anime at Uni, but I never really noticed how intense and bright the expressions and emotions always are. I thought of them more as superficial, but here I saw them as incredibly deep and emotionally invoking. What a surprise, another art exhibit I absolutely loved.
Feeling too tired to walk the 40 minutes back I jumped on the subway to Higashama, checked in properly and then headed 5 minutes down the road to Mimikou which I’d seen on HappyCow had tonnes of Vegan options.
After a huge, super tasty bowl of Kitsune (tofu) curry udon noodles, peppered with all the different spices, I headed home to sleep, detouring at the Yasaka Shrine, admiring it’s bright night lights and just breathing in the beautiful day I’d had. Japan was soothing my soul once again.