Best place to see spot one is in the Gion area between about about 5.45 and 6pm. The nearest experience I can compare it to is a safari! They pop out of buildings without you knowing which ones they will come out of and the you hear them first clip clopping with their sandals as they walk at a very rapid pace and then they dive into another building – where they entertain their clients. Again, similar to safari, you have no idea if you will see any and when you do you have to move very fast to get a photo while not blocking their way. Somehow I saw three and managed to photograph two of them as you can see below – but only just they move very fast!
Geishas on the move in Gion, Kyoto
Such a secretive and preserved tradition in Kyoto with young girls at age 16 still training over five years in a range of skills from make up to flower arranging to tea ceremonies and performing arts. Those in training and the one I met below are called Maiko (she was 17 and spoke some English) and they move to becoming Geiko (another word for geisha) once fully trained. Some ways to tell the difference (aside from age but everyone looks ageless over here) are that Maiko have a dropped sash bow at the back whereas the Geiko have a tight sash bow and also no ornaments in their hair. View the video below if you want to see a 30 second example of the Maiko below dancing – so graceful.
Maiko and me – the similarities end at “pimk”!!
Dainty young Maiko dances for a small audience
Click here to play video https://youtu.be/ZRENz3e904k
My friend Margot recommended a visit to the bamboo groves on the west side of Kyoto – it was well worth finding my way there on the train. The first set of pictures shows an artistic interpretation of the grove using kimono patterns in cones all over the station. Apparently they are lit up at night so very pretty. As you can see, even the train matches in nicely. And would you believe on the train platform there is also a sulphur foot bath you can use for a small payment to soothe your feet after a hard day’s walking and everyone waiting for a train can watch you. Didn’t seem to put people off. I thought this was really neat.
Kimono columns at Arashiyama Station
And then I walked on to the real thing. 15 minutes through this amazing environment – quite extraordinary and not like anything I’ve seen before.
OBSERVATION OF THE DAY – Train Travel – Gotta love it. Here’s how it goes. Get a JR rail pass before you leave home as unless you only plan one train journey it will likely be cheaper than paying as you go. Japan, as my friends in the UK will appreciate, has a train system that is owned by multiple suppliers so JR rail is only valid for the train lines they own (quite a few of the expensive ones eg. Kyoto to Tokyo) but you have to pay for other trips. But that is where any similarity to the UK train systems ends.
Trains are spotless and cleaned by staff in white gloves in many station stops and always immediately at the end of the line before turning round for the return journey. They are always on time. They always have a cart that comes through to sell you coffee and food – and it’s not half bad. They have a conductor who walks through the carriages to review tickets and greets and bows to the customers in each carriage (how come I never managed to get my work colleagues to do that to me I wonder?!?) and they are wearing smarter suits than I’ve seen in many office environments. At the end of the line when they are due to go in the opposite direction the seats make a balletic twirl and turn around meaning that everyone can face forward on every train but equally should they want to sit in a square they can do that too if they prefer.Everyone queues in an orderly fashion on the platform and remain orderly when the train arrives – no-one ever pushes in or shoves you. And most amazing is that every employee at the stations even the large and busy ones can speak “train English” – give them a destination and departure time and they immediately know which platform to direct you too – they seemed to have learned the whole timetable off by heart. Big tick as an excellent way to travel in Japan
Trains in Kyoto Station. Coffee and food is provided with a little bag to put your rubbish in once you are done
Saved my visit to Gion – the hub of Kyoto to my last evening. The main streets are heaving with people but as soon as you dive down the side streets and then the side streets off the side streets you shake them off and it is also a good spot to find geishas appearing out of nowhere as dusk falls. I remember reading and loving Memoirs of a Geisha many years ago and always had an image pretty much like these of the alleyways that people walked through back then – doubt it has changed much. Full of charm and intrigue all at once.
Side Alleyways of Gion – magical as day turns to dusk
I remain mesmerized by all the amazing food I see everywhere – whether it is on a street stall or, as below, examples from the massive food halls in department stores such as Takashimaya or Isetan. There is so much of it and everything – and I mean every single item – is both fresh and beautifully displayed wherever you go.What I can’t understand is where it all goes as no-one here looks like they overeat and there’s so much of it and it is always fresh? I have come to the conclusion that the visitors from the West must be scarfing a lot of it down.
Food glorious food in Kyoto department stores.
OBSERVATION OF THE DAY – Japan proves that tradition and modernity can sit side by side in harmony. From fan making to beautifully preserved buildings to extreme courtesy you can then jump to extreme fashion statements, cutesy gimmicks vending machines that sell hot and cold drinks and food in peel back opening cans and the latest hi-tech gimmick. Prepare to be constantly surprised – in a nice way. A few examples below including Hermes designed skateboards – Japan only.
Hermes skateboards, traditional fans and a restaurant giving a clear symbol of what it will serve.
Highlight of the day for me was walking the Philosopher’s Path. If you could imagine the bare trees, which actually have tiny buds, were all bright pink cherry blossoms you will get the idea of how even more fantastic this walk can be – but despite lack of cherry blossoms I still found the stroll along the narrow waterway with views over the city was a charming way to spend 45 minutes – well longer actually because I kept getting distracted by the tiny shops and a few more temples along the way. Each tree is numbered and photographed each day to help inform the website that let’s people know when the peak blossom period is likely to be. I also did a lot of thinking along the way – it is the kind of place you can let your mind wander – not sure I had many deep philosophical thoughts but maybe there was a flash of insight – but I’ve already forgotten what it was…
The Philosopher’s Path – a perfect walk.
Still eating and seeing gardens – as well. Quite a few of the gardens also have zen themes using carefully arranged sand to help you ponder but by then I had done enough thinking for one day…..
Meditation in sand design and more prosaic local food
TODAY’S OBSERVATION: A garden in Japan is not like a park. You will always be given a path to follow to ensure you see each element of design and get the perfect Fuji moment along the way. I think it is a bit like a play – you really do need to see one in the right order or it loses its purpose. A few more examples from the gardens at Tenryu-ji which uses the concept of “borrowed scenery” using the natural backdrop to enhance the gardens are shown below and just imagine how much more fantastic next week when those bare tress are in full blossom!
I have realized why the word “selfish” and “selfies” are so similar – there are so many people walking around here – and it’s very crowded – with appendages permanently attached to them. I am feeling very grumpy about it – they are fine I suppose (and as I travel on my own quite often I have taken my fair share – but without the intrusive stick in other people’s eyes) – but I can’t see them going away. Another thing young girls like to do around here is get made up as a geisha and then spend the day hobbling around the city and -you guessed it – taking lots of pics with their selfies – evidence below. Even the monks and 3 year olds get in on the act!
Selfies and “fake” geishas
There are a lot of temples and shrines in Kyoto – have enjoyed both so far – especially the lovely “Hermes orange shr”ines ( the one with the long orange poles is Fushimi Inari) and all the gardens are so beautifully laid out so that every corner you turn you see a picture perfect and balanced scene. Especially liked Gardens at Heian Jingu. And yes I do know that their orange came before Hermes.
A variety of gardens in Kyoto
Buddhist shrines in Kyoto
I’m starting this trip in Kyoto – a place I have never been to before. I was particularly keen to enjoy the cherry blossoms and see a geisha. So far it has been a bit of a “sliding doors” scenario on the blossoms as I am about 4 days late for early light pink blossoms that we tend to get in the UK too but about 4 days too early for the famous bright pink colour blossoms. As a result all tourists (including me) who are here at the moment take a picture of any single tree they see left with blossoms on it or early blooms from the next phase we will be missing. Ah well – a reason to return I guess. I’ve had better luck with geishas – more to come. Hopefully I will catch some blossoms in Tokyo if not here.
A few cherry blossom trees in Kyoto