Kyoto, part 2: Chasing Geishas

It was looking like another sunny day in Kyoto. Cool – I could put on another cute outfit and bother to do some makeup, because thus far this holiday, I’d looked like a rubbish bin on its annual trip to the dump. Okay, maybe not that bad, but I certainly wasn’t getting many potential profile pics – which any social-media savvy millennial will tell you is the main point of travelling.

After spending a couple of leisurely hours getting ready, I got in the lift with a couple of Japanese women, who said something about being “kawaii” and gestured at my outfit – a blue-and-white patterned playsuit that made me look a bit like a piece of Ming Dynasty pottery. “Arigato”, I said, thanking them for the compliment. The two kindly ladies looked at me, surprised. Now believing I could speak Japanese, they said something else. Perplexed, I smiled politely and said nothing. I do hope it wasn’t an insult, because I don’t know what the Japanese for “sick burn bruv” is.

We had a free day in Kyoto to do whatever the hell we wanted, and first on the schedule was Toji Temple, in the south of the city. It’s got two main buildings, with giant statues of the Buddha inside, plus a lovely zen garden and a whopping five-storey pagoda. It was founded in 796, and it’s a ‘National Treasure’ of Japan, which I think is the local equivalent of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also houses some documents and artefacts from medieval China, which shows just how deep and longlasting the bond between Japan and China is.

Getting there would prove a bit of a pain, though. While Kyoto does have a metro system of sorts, it’s only got two lines. One runs south to north, the other east to west, which leaves a lot of the city out of its reach. Thankfully, though, the bus network is really extensive, so you can go pretty much everywhere using that. In the age before Google Maps, though, I imagine navigating it would have been a terrifying task – there’s a seemingly endless list of routes and stops to get to grips with.

Using the combined knowledge of about 4 people, we reached Toji Temple unscathed, and met up with my Tokyo pal William. After grumbling a bit about paying an entrance fee for a religious site – though it’s no worse than paying for the Duomo or Notre Dame – we started to explore the temple grounds as the morning sun blared into our sunglasses.


Note the verdant Japanese maple artistically framing the pagoda. I’m quite proud of this one.

The pagoda looks ridiculously dark in this light, because it’s made from a dark-coloured wood… which must get really hot in the summer. Not that I found out, because you can’t go inside it, as a sign at the main entrance states in big letters. We merely walked around and admired its greatness from its base, using the handy shade it provided to take a break from the sun.

Swimming about in the zen garden pond were some very orange koi carp. The fish are much friendlier in Japan, and seem to have worked out that humans mean food. To get a closer look at them, it’s just a hop and a skip onto the stepping stones that traverse the narrowest part of the pond. I’d always imagined a traditional Japanese garden would have them, and now, I could experience them for myself:


Trying so hard to blend in, I’ve dressed like the crockery.

After stopping inside the main temple to have a rest (and marvel at a huge, seated golden Buddha while we were at it), William and I decided to head back on into town to get some lunch. It may have only just passed midday by the time we got there, but hey, it’s 1pm somewhere right? There was only one place we had in mind… a second round of Engine Ramen.


Creamy mushroomy sesame goodness, all washed down with a cold cup of oolong.

I’ve actually forgotten to explain how ramen places work, so please allow me to enlighten you on this wondrous procedure. Most of the time, you’ll go in, and there’ll be a sort-of vending machine just inside the door. You stand by it and admire the pictures of noodle soup on the buttons, or if you’re lucky, they’ll be written in English as well as Japanese. When you’ve chosen what you want, you put your cash in, press the buttons for food, drinks etc, and the machine pumps out some tokens. Take the tokens and sit down – there’ll be a waiter along in 0.5 seconds to take them away from you. Then, I assume he goes into the kitchen and they make your order. Your food usually comes in less than 5 minutes. Bish, bash, bosh, you’re in and out of the place in quarter of an hour, and you’ve not said a word to the staff. It’s perfect for busy Japanese salarymen. And antisocial tourists.

Noted, we spent more than 15 minutes in there, because William and I were having a fairly lengthy chat about Japanese fashion. It transpired we both wanted to go yukata shopping, and we were in the perfect place. Nishiki food market is surrounded by this ginormous outdoor shopping centre, and there were at least 3 or 4 secondhand kimono shops around. We had a peek in each and every one, getting far too excited whenever we saw something within our price range. For the women, the patterns were beautiful and bright – and nearly always floral. Sadly, men had to make do with dull navy, grey and dark brown colours. But when we saw some of the more elaborate wedding stuff, both our jaws dropped to the floor – heavy red robes, adorned with beautiful embroidery and pastel motifs from Japanese painting, seemed to be the norm.

I didn’t want to spend more than 2500-2750 yen on a yukata (that’s £18-20), because I was basically just going to use it as a cool summer dressing gown. Most of the time, though, prices were hitting 3500 yen and above – a price I couldn’t justify. Damn, I wish I’d stolen the one in Takayama. I decided to give up on it, in the hope I’d be able to get something in Tokyo on my last night, when I (hopefully) would be able to splash my remaining cash.

Something I did desperately need, though, was an manga comic book. My oldest friend is really into it, and I wanted to find something for her that was A) in Japanese, B) simple enough for English people to understand, and C) not too weird. William keenly volunteered to go into an anime shop with me, because he’s really passionate about it and could show me what to look for.


Clearly very excited to be here!

But, a tip – don’t go to the back of the store. It’s like the back of Ann Summers – the level of kinky weirdness escalates very quickly. Zero to a hundred. More graphic than the sex museum in Amsterdam, and certainly more uncomfortable, some of the drawings I saw in there raised an eyebrow or ten. I’m not a prude, I can handle a lot, but some things (e.g. schoolgirl fantasy manga) would have been illegal back home. Interestingly, upon my return, my friend informed me that the age of consent in Japan is 14 – which, again, does not sit well.

Both of us relieved to exit the store, I felt like I needed a shower, but there was no time. For I had to rush on over to the Imperial Palace to have another crack at seeing it, and there was a daily English tour at 2pm. We walked and talked along the way, and I asked William about fetish culture in Japan. He told me he’d been to a maid cafe in Tokyo (where cute young women dress up as French maids and call clients ‘master’, etc), and he could see how they become addictive to certain types of lonely Japanese men. The feeling of someone worshipping you – even if you’re paying them to do so – could get you as high as a drug, he suggested.

Fascinating though it was to hear his insight, I had to dash off, because as usual I was running late. Japan, however, was not. By the time I got to the Imperial Palace at 2:02, the English tour had not only started, but was already halfway through the first talking point. A couple of people from my tour were there, so I caught up with them and got the lowdown.

The palace, as it looks now, was built in the early Edo period. Kyoto had long been the cultural capital of Japan by that point, so the palace that stands today is merely the latest incarnation of imperial residences on the site. Though this particular version was built in the 1850s (having been burned down and rebuilt exactly the same way a few times), it was designed to closely resemble a royal residence of the Heian period – the final, golden era of Japanese classical history (running from the 800s to the late 1100s).

Unlike Western stately homes, the palace is broken up into smaller buildings, each serving a unique purpose. You’ll find a lot of elaborate wood and metal gatehouses that are worth snapping a shot of, as well as courtyards and guard-houses aplenty.


Here’s the Kenreimon gate (background) and Jomeimon (foreground), which would once have welcomed important foreign dignitaries. And now, me.

The first ‘big’ building you’ll come across is the Shishinden, the grandest ceremonial room in the land.


On each side of the hall, you’ll find a sacred tree. On the left is an orange tree, and on the right a sakura (Japanese cherry blossom), both looking very green at present.

The Shishinden has been used for enthronement ceremonies, and deep within it sits the main throne room of the palace. Just after the Shishinden is the Imperial Throne itself, though we couldn’t see it today. I think the guide explained that it had been temporarily moved to the Tokyo Imperial Palace, so it could be present at Akihito’s son’s enthronement in October this year. We did see some cool scaffolding with pictures of it, though, which is better than nothing. After that, you can see the Seiryoden, which is where the Emperor once conducted his personal meetings and business.


The doorway to the Seiryoden also had this very traditional artwork, which I had to really zoom in on to get a good look at.

It’s disappointing you can’t actually go inside any of these buildings, but it makes sense. Since they’re made from wood, paper and tatami mats, these historic halls are highly susceptible to being damaged by the pounding of tourists’ feet, just as the Acropolis in Athens has.

Thankfully, it’s the gardens in Japan that you absolutely cannot miss. You do have to keep off the grass, but you can still take in the scent of the flowers and the atmosphere the landscaper was trying to convey. The Imperial Palace Gardens in Kyoto were easily the best gardens I saw in all Japan – but that’s not surprising, considering that they belonged to the Emperor himself.


How does it look so picture perfect?

The Emperor had it all. As well as this idyllic bridge and stream, he also had his own lake he could swim in, a tea house, and even an earthquake shelter he’d use when the fault lines that run close by decided to get a little shaky. Oh, and his very own kitchen garden. If that isn’t the middle class dream, I don’t know what is.

After about an hour and a half’s worth of riveting historical stories (and a tour guide who seemed very nervous about telling a few jokes), I hopped on the metro and headed to Gion. Gion is the ‘old quarter’ of Kyoto, known worldwide for its food, entertainment, wooden teahouses, and of course its geishas. Probably best known in the West from that weird movie Memoirs of a Geisha, geishas are Japanese women who entertain clients in a highly traditional way – performing the ancient rituals of tea ceremonies, classical dance, art, and singing. Kyoto, being the cultural capital of Japan, is where geishas first began to thrive.

If you’re sat reading this, thinking “but aren’t geishas just fancy prostitutes”, stop right there. You’re wrong. Well, sort of. Okay, the predecessor of a geisha was someone who did acting (a form of outrageous dance known as kabuki) as well as sell sex. But in the 18th century, these high-class prostitutes began to specialise, exclusively performing dance, music, and theatre – no more sexy times for them. They became more like companions to men, having intelligent conversation with them, dancing for them, and whiling away the time with a board game or two. From this the first ‘geishas’ were born.

Nowadays, in Gion, you’ll find a geisha show/kabuki theatre on every corner. The geishas train from aged 15 to their early 20s, during which time they live in secluded houses in Gion’s back alleys. But that doesn’t mean you’ll see a geisha everywhere you look – they’re actually extremely elusive. After all, these are highly trained women, whose daily shows cost about £30 per ticket – these aren’t performers you can just take selfies with as and when you want. If you’re a committed tightwad, like me, it’s recommended that you walk around Gion just when the sun is setting if you want to catch a glimpse of a geisha as she walks to and from her venue, going about her daily business. Look out for a beautiful kimono, white face makeup with red lips, and an updo with lots of accessories.


I was walking around about 6pm, and just by chance happened to catch this amusing image – a cool and collected geisha, being chased frantically by a hat-wearing tourist.

Not seeing a geisha/kabuki theatre show is probably one of my main regrets about Japan, so if you find yourself in Kyoto then please, please fork out the money and see one. Then tell me all about it when you get back.

Satisfied that I’d come to Kyoto, and by a stroke of luck not only seen a geisha, but also the former Emperor of Japan (I’m never going to stop bragging about that one), I met up with William for the last time. It had been crazy that the two of us even met, let alone had a very similar itinerary, and similar worldview. To drown our sadness, we grabbed a drink in a fancy Gion bar – though you wouldn’t have known it, because 70% of the people in there were white. I did NOT come to Japan to see yet more white faces, but that’s life sometimes.

In search of somewhere a bit more local, we went into a very hipster bar close to the river, which had a very cute doggy in the window.


Unfortunately for me, there was a big sign saying ‘Don’t touch!’ in front of him. He most definitely was not for sale.

As we shared a nice cup of sake (a nice cup? Unheard of!), I looked around at my fellow patrons. There were a surprising number of people drinking alone. In the UK, we’d say they were alcoholic, but it seems perfectly normal in Japan. I wonder if it’s that the culture is a bit more compartmentalised, and just like eating alone, drinking alone is also fine. Or maybe I’m just overthinking about things I don’t need to be thinking about.

I hugged William goodbye, and we agreed to keep in touch. I was sad to see my new friend go so quickly, but glad that I’d met him at the same time. He’d vastly improved my knowledge of Japan, and had made my experience all the richer for it. I hope I didn’t talk his ear off too much about politics, because that was fast becoming a theme on this trip.

Once I’d got over those feelings, another wave hit me. It was also time to say goodbye to Kyoto, which had been a truly magical place. I knew I’d love it, because I’m a historian and we like any and all old things. But I hadn’t expected to be as fortunate as I was, or for the city to be as spiritual as it was imperial. Temples and shrines lay just across the street from old stately homes or palaces – but, proving that Shintoism is a truly inclusive religion, temples also lay directly opposite former brothels. If that isn’t Kyoto in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

The next morning would precipitate a massive change in pace and tone, as we boarded the bullet train to a town that needs no introduction – Hiroshima.

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