I left my dear readers hanging with a promise of geisha pictures yesterday in my first post about our Thanksgiving trip to Kyoto. I promise we’ll meet her soon, but first, let’s take a walk.
Higashiyama is on Kyoto’s eastern side, tucked into the hills and separated from the main city by the Kamo River. It is the most charming shopping district we’ve discovered so far in Japan. It has narrow, sloping streets lined with shops hawking everything from fine art to tourist baubles to sushi-shaped candy. The buildings are vintage Japan — the wooden buildings are so perfect as to feel almost like a movie set — but they’re the genuine article.
In the morning, our taxi nosed gently up one of the streets before dropping us off so we could finish the ascent up to Kiyamizu-dera Temple on foot.
After visiting the temple and enjoying a filling lunch of cold soba noodles (better than it sounds!), we continued our leisurely wandering through the historic district’s lanes.
It’s the perfect kind of neighborhood to have a wander in. We stopped for ice cream and sat on a stoop watching the groups of uniformed school kids, the kimono-clad ladies and the Japanese tourists stream by. We poked our head through a gate and discovered a small park inside, with a stony path leading to the edges of a green pond framed by verdant foliage. We slipped into shops and admired tea boxes, exquisite pottery, hand-crafted knives and plastic toys.
Inside a small sake store, we fell into conversation with an employee who was offering samples. She was talking to us about the rice fermentation process when a commotion at the store entrance caused her to lower her voice and say: “I’m sorry. I have to stop talking right now. There’s a geisha in the store.”
And there she was. Surrounded by a cluster of men with large cameras in the front of the store, she looked serene. Her black hair was mounded artfully on her head, held up with a red headband and yellow flowers. Her face was a ghostly white but her smiling lips were bright. She almost didn’t seem real: A living doll in a perfect purple and red kimono.
We watched as she was given a sample of sake and turned to observe a video playing. She said a few words and her voice was high and tinkling. The photographers were busy taking pictures of her so I joined in, grateful that I was able to stand just a few feet away with no one in front of me. Just a few minutes and she and her entourage exited the store, leaving a heavy silence behind.
“That was a real geisha,” our store employee told us. She said it was very rare to see an actual geisha out and about. (Apparently, some women will dress up as geishas and walk around Kyoto.) One of this geisha’s clients is a regular at the store and he brought her in for an introduction. “This is very good for our shop,” the employee told us.
In Kyoto, geishas are more commonly called geiko, meaning child of the arts. Apprentice geishas are called maiko and must undergo at least five years of training in traditional arts. The clerk told us this was a geisha, but I wonder if she might have been a maiko geisha. A few websites I’ve looked up mentioned that the flowers in her hair and the long floor-length belt on the back of her kimono indicate youth. Either way, she was beautiful and clearly not a tourist playing dress-up. We feel very fortunate that we had the chance to see her.
What do you do after seeing a geisha? You go visit a giant Buddha.
Ryozen Kannon Temple is a war memorial commemorating the fallen soldiers of World War II of all nationalities. The Buddha — my brochure calls him the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitsevara (Kwannon) — is 80 feet tall and was erected in 1955. The grounds also include a monument to the memory of the unknown soldiers of World War II. It was a quiet, peaceful place with very few tourists. We stumbled onto it by accident — isn’t that the best when travelling? — and I’m glad we did.
In another post, I’ll walk you through a few more temples, shrines and scenic Kyoto streets. (We may even go hunting for a shrine honoring a mythical badger…) I’ll leave you for now with this picture of my two favorite travelling companions. We weren’t sure how our 4-year-old would do on a longer trip but he proved to be quite the trooper. (Ice cream and snacks are key to his happiness. Add beer to that list and his father and I are similarly content.)