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Kyoto the ‘alluring courtesan’*, the ultimate stress buster offering an intricately woven fantasy world of timeless entertainment, the city of temples and shrines, of ryokans and onsens or the city of “Kyo-yaki” or “Kiyomizu-yaki”pottery, home to emperors, samurai, haiku-writing priests and courtesans.
The suffixes are endless as nearly 1000 years of royal patronage, from 794 to 1868, transformed the city patterned on the Chinese capital Chang’an or present Xi’an into a cultural hub associated with the best in Japanese lifestyle from esoteric to artistic.
The city’s pride in its institutions insulated it against fires, wars and natural disasters as it inched towards preserving its historical and cultural values.
Kyoto is situated 370 kilometers from Tokyo, in the center of Honsho Island, and was on the Allies list of cities to be ‘hiroshima-ed’.
Its rich past and timely intervention of Henry L. Simpson, the then Secretary of War in the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies, saved the city.
Eager footsteps resonate in the deserted and dimly lit narrow cobbled lanes as I wait to encounter the ‘Iconic Lady’ in the legendary Gion, the geisha district in the center of the city.
Gion stretches from Shijo Avenue adjacent to Yashika Shrine and the Kamogawa River crisscrossed by lanes with dainty stairs and doors flaunting half curtains and name plates of resident ‘maikos’.
Tea shops and love cafes
Some of these houses are tea shops and love cafes and I follow the crowd along the Hanami-Koji Street with traditional Machiya or wooden houses converted into high end restaurants, exclusive Ochaya teahouses or membership clubs.
The diaphanous partitions and latticed windows made of thin wooden beams overlook the streets or inner lanes that are surprisingly silent, a deviation from the street scenes in the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha’, the 2005 film adaption of the novel of the same name.
The backdrop is there but not the mobility or the tip-toeing geishas and maikos (trainee geishas) in their wooden clogs waiting for their benefactors.
The reason for the silence is that geishas of Gion refer to themselves as ‘Geikos’ or ‘child of arts’ to entertain, sing and dance at private engagements at traditional tea houses during late evenings.
It was in one of the side lanes that I came face to face with a Geisha and the ‘white lady’ in a white and red kimono was taken aback at being serenaded by flashing camera.
Being the effervescent entertainer she put forward her best pose, the bland one.
The visit to Gion or for that matter Kyoto is incomplete without meeting with a geisha but the anticipation turned out to be more exciting than the life size personification.
Maybe if I had spent Yens in one of the exclusive Ochayas the flavor would have been different.
In comparison to the crowded Hanami-Koji Street the Shirakawa area parallel to the Shirakawa canal lined with willow trees, appears relatively quieter.
The stillness is punctuated by cyclists on the pavements, silhouettes of youngsters along the river bank and wafting music and chatter.
The quaint Shinmonzen Dori is the street of miniscule antique shops filled with incense, lacquer ware, samurai gear, antique dolls, screens, kimonos and massive dressers or tansus.
Temples and Shinto Shrines
The esoteric masquerade gives way to the eclectic and with nearly 2000 temples and Shinto Shrines the city of Kyoto manages to temple out a visitor.
The Temple is situated on top of a hill and the steep climb is rewarded by a fantastic view of the encompassing hillsides covered with maples in autumn and cherry blossoms in spring from the protruding wooden stage in the main hall of the temple.
Love is the premise of the nearby Kodaiji temple, constructed by Kita-no Mandokoro in memory of her husband Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the Otowa Waterfall channeled into three streams and source of luck in love, studies and long life.
Another fixture, the Jishu Shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi the god of love and symbolized by two “love stones”.
The busloads of believers and non believers testify to the popularity of the Temple and the steep and busy lanes of the Higashiyama district, near the temple, transforms into a bustling treasure trove of affordable to high-end enameled red and blue painted Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, Kyoto sweets, pickles, tea and the traditional and sumptuous vegetarian lunch, the Kyo-ryori or Kyoto cuisine.
With Buddhist monasteries and temples galore it is obvious that Kyoto’s food and food habits would incorporate seasonal local ingredients such as tofu, gluten or nama-fu and soy bean curd or yuba and vegetables distinct to Kyoto area.
Another luminous example of antiquity is the Golden Pavilion or Kinkauji from the period when there were no cameras to capture its golden glory reflected in the still waters of the Magic Pond or Kyoko-chi.
Burnt ambers, fiery reds and vivid yellows
The tourist pictures do little justice to the real structure and a visitor can just gawk at the play of colors, burnt ambers, fiery reds, vivid yellows, amidst the surrounding foliage of Kinugasa-yama Mountains in the background.
The eight different sized islands or famous rocks in the Pond personify the Buddhist scriptures ‘Land of Happiness’ and for the harried visitor a natural stress buster.
Hayashi Yoken, a recalcitrant monk, had burnt down the Pavilion in 1950 and the present Golden Pavilion is a replica of the original, with extra gold added to the two floors.
I walked around the Japanese Garden, retained in its original form, with natural springs, moss gardens, waterfalls and bridges, the Dadoniji Stones, try plunking coins in the stone bowls for luck, the Sekka-tei tea house and the Fudo Myo, a mini temple in honor of the god of fire and wisdom. The bushes around the temple, ornamented with tiny pieces of paper containing wish-fulfillment messages, are the links between past and present.
Seventeen World Heritage sites
Kyoto boasts of 17 World Heritage sites and this includes Nijo Castle, the center of power of the Shogunate and the closest one gets to hearing a nightingale. The wooden floors of the castle resonate with warbling sound with every human step, a signal against arriving footsteps of enemies or friends.
The Castle, spread out in 275,000 square meters, is an architectural symbol of minimalist décor, paintings and excellent woodwork. Photography is not allowed inside and missed out capturing few treasures.
The changing face of Kyoto manifests itself in the unending human mass at the station and on the streets making it difficult to connect present Kyoto to the 16th century insulated capital that allowed only a handful of foreigners and forbade anyone to leave the land.
It was with the transfer of power to the Meiji Dynasty and replacing Kyoto with Tokyo or Edo as capital city that helped open up Japan to western trade and technology.
Kyoto too benefited and its traditional crafts, the Nishijin brocade, Yuzen silk dyeing, Urushi lacquer ware and Kizomi pottery share center stage with the seven storey futuristic cubic Kyoto station, the 427 feet high Kyoto Tower, numerous malls, museums, universities and world class industries such as Nintendo, Kyocera and NEC among others.
As I board the Shinkasen for Hakone I bid goodbye to a quintessentially kimono-clad city or as in the words of travel writer Pico Iyer, in his book In Kyoto, Feeling Forever Foreign who wriote ‘truly sophisticated courtesan that keeps changing in order to remain ahead of the times.*