Kyoto Japan – the Iconic Lady (All Ways Traveller)

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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.

In this sacred assortment two awe-inspiring architectural wonders, the Kiyomizu-dera or Pure Water temple and the Kinkauji or the Golden Pavilion are  prominent crowd impressers.

The Kiyomizu-dera was constructed in 798 in the early Heian period and  what we see today is a reconstructed version by the Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu in  1633.

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.*

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