Did you ever see the 2005 movie “Memoirs of a geisha”? Or have you ever been fascinated about the ancient traditions of a country that is so different to ours? If you want to experience the mixture between tradition and modern life, I will give you a little insight into a city shrouded in mysticism – Kyoto.
For much of its history Kyoto has been the capital of Japan. Many people connect Kyoto with the Gion district, known mostly for the secret geisha culture. It’s sited east of the kamogawa river and is characteristic for its traditional, plain wooden buildings. Almost impossible to get to meet a geisha, many tourists walk around this district to catch a glimpse at these white-faced and kimono-clad women, who look like perfect porcelain dolls. Against some western beliefs geishas are not nor have they ever been prostitutes. They are entertainers, who during the evening play traditional japanese instruments like the shamisen, perform the complex tea ceremony with all its strict rules, dance and sing and they play little games with the guests to keep them from being bored. It is a bit sad to see that when the clock hits 6 pm, tourists flood the Gion district to spot some geishas and force their cameras in the poor womens faces. So please, please, if you are interested in the culture and seeing a real geisha, please don’t stand in their way and keep proper distance. Mostly they are on their way to work and don’t want to be bothered… keep in mind they are not animals in a zoo!
This shinto shrine is the head of kami inari, which is the godess of fertility, rice and foxes and famous for the red-orange torii-gates, that are lined up all the way to the top of the hill. The torii are donations from families to either wish for something or to thank kami inari for making a wish come true. The trail up the mountain is 4 kilometres, takes about two hours and is really worth it. To take some good photos go there early in the morning or do the hike all the way up, because the higher you go the less crowded it’s going to be. I was amazed to see the huge amount of people walking around dressed up in kimonos and wearing traditional wooden flip flops (or geta), that I find really uncomfortable. They’ve earned my deepest respect, because I know how hard it is to walk around in a tight kimono (though the ones from the kimono rentals aren’t “real”, however its still uncomfortable) with these shoes. Kimono rentals are everywhere. Sometimes two to three different shops in one building.
To end the beautiful day, we went to the Yasaka shrine, also known as Gion shrine, between Gion and Higashiyama district. The shrine is located behind a sweet park-like path, has a main hall and in the middle of the court is a dance stage with hundreds of lanterns around looking even more beautiful in the evening when they’re being lit. I decided to pray in front of the main hall. For those who aren’t familiar with praying at a shrine, I’ll give you a little instruction (that’s how I’ve been tought to do it): There’s always a torii gate marking the entrance to a shinto shrine. Before walking through it you stop and bow. While through make sure you stick to the pillars and do not walk in the center. This rule also applies when walking up the sando (the path to the shrine), because the center is reserved for the gods. In order to pray at the shrine you must be clean. To cleanse yourself, there are vessels called temizuya with wooden ladles on them. You take one into your right hand, fill it with water, clean your left hand, switch the ladle to your left hand to clean the right hand, then back to the right, fill water into the ladle again, put the water into your left hand and cleanse your mouth with it (don’t have to drink it!). When you’re done, you clean the ladle by letting the remaining water run down the handle. To pray in front of the shrine I’ve learned to donate money first, then you ring the big bell that is hanging from the ceil, you bow deep twice, then clap your hands two times with your palms meeting and your right hand being a little lower than the left (you ring the bell and clap attract the spirits attention), you then pray, bow deep again and that’s it. After praying you can pull a fortune or write a wish on a wooden block and hang it in specific areas. Surrounding the shrine there is a beautiful big garden with wonderful ponds and old stone bridges passing over them. It was very peaceful given the fact, it’s neither Sakura nor autumn and tourism right now is very low.
After visiting Yasaka I walked around the Gion district to see the traditional wooden houses and little shops with handcrafted ceramics, tea and snacks. Most of the teahouses are very private and have a sign saying “only for club members” on the front door. It is very hard to get access to a teahouse, mostly you have to get invited by a member, which will introduce you. Still then, most club members wouldn’t bring their friends, because it takes family generations to set foot into these societies. To me, it was very fascinating to see this district, even though from outside most of the tea houses and restaurants seemed to be shut due to its privacy.
Day 2: shrines, shrines and food…
The second day of Kyoto started with Ginkaku-ji (silver pavilion), a beautiful zen temple with a big, wonderfully arranged japanese garden. It is also a perfect location to start walking the famous philosopher’s path (Tetsugaku no michi), a picturesque path with cherry trees next to a little canal, that led me to Reikanji Temple, where many years ago members of the imperial family have lived.
Ending the philosopher’s path, you will walk straight towards Eikan-do or also known as Zenrin-ji temple complex. It’s very famous for its autumn colors with the illuminations in the evening. Though it was very cold to walk around without shoes and february being a very blossomless time of the year, it was very calm and gave me lots of time to walk around and see everything properly. This made sightseeing so much easier and more enjoyable.
After Eikan-do I took the bus to Kiyomizu-dera, the pure water temple. It was founded in the wooden hills East of Kyoto and is best known for its huge wooden stage, that was built without usage of nails. Behind it stands Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love. In front of this shrine are two big stones placed at a distance of around 18 meters. If you find you way from one stone to the other with closed eyes and no help from others it will bring you luck in finding your true love. If somebody helps and guides you towards the other stone it means that you’ll need an intermediary to find the love of your life. Well I’ve been in Kyoto with my brother and it’s needless to say that as a good big brother he didn’t tell me that he could’ve helped me and so I ended up failing, which led to my brother mocking me during my whole Japan visit, saying that my love life will forever be ruined. But thankfully I pulled so many good fortune notes in other shrines that I think it will reverse its curse, so I’m good! But hey, thanks for the help, Bro! Unfortunately the wooden stage, known for its wonderful view was under renovation, it looked horrible! But I get that they have to renovate things from time to time and again, February is very low in tourism. Still I had a blast and took some nice pictures of it.
In the afternoon I went to see the Heian shrine, built for the city’s 1100th anniversary 1895 honoring the spirits of the first and the last emperor who reigned the city, Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei. Heian is also one of the former names of Kyoto. Due to the variety of cherry trees, plants and lots of ponds the garden behind the shrine is one of the best spots in Kyoto for the Sakura, the cherry blossom.
Although it was raining a lot as you can see from the Heian photo, I decided to go to the imperial palace and walked around the huge park surrounding it. Unfortunately the palace was closed, so I went to the Toji Buddhist temple instead. Toji temple literally means “East temple” and was one of the capital’s guardian towers. It has two halls, Kondo Hall and Kodo Hall. Kondo, the main of both halls, was reconstructed after a big fire in 1486. It’s main object of worship is a large wooden Yakushi Buddha and his two attendants Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas. Standing right next to it, Kodo Hall was built as lecture hall and inside you’ll find 19 statues from China. On the other side of the temple court you’ll find the tallest wooden pagoda in japan, housing a little Buddha. It’s 57m tall and has five stories.
Of course exploring Kyoto in two days is an impossible mission, but unfortunately I was in a little hurry and couldn’t spend more days there. I will however come back very soon, maybe during a more vivid and colorful time of the year.
More on my Japan trip on my next blog post. For now, stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling. Life is good, god is good.
ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking