Of course, we didn’t uncover the mysteries of a geisha, nor could we even be entirely sure we saw a real one, but we certainly visited Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan which is considered the birthplace of the geisha culture. The peace of Kyoto, famed for its ancient temples, traditional Roykan Inns and centuries-old craftmanship, offered a welcome reprieve from the futuristic and hedonistic world of Tokyo.
Although our Airbnb accommodation in Kyoto did not pretend to be a ‘traditional Roykan Inn complete with own “onsen” facilities’, we stayed in an old-style Japanese house just outside the centre of town. Built at least a couple of centuries ago in an era when people were much shorter, even M and I had to fold ourselves double to make it through the front door. Our room was located through a set of sliding doors, just off the main corridor. As in many Asian countries, shoes were not allowed in in-door areas and slippers were provided at the entrance of our sparsely furnished room: a low table with cushions for sitting, a rack for hanging some garments, a chest of drawers and Japanese style bedding… There was no need for a bed as the tatami matted floor was both pleasing to the eye and pliable to the touch which made sleeping on the soft ‘futon’ quite comfortable. I am not sure whether we felt we missed out on the ‘onsen’ experience… somehow, shared bathing in the buff is best enjoyed with the right company, so we happily made do with a normal, shared bathroom at the other end of the house.
With only two full days in Kyoto, we had to prioritise and choose which tourist attractions to visit. Taxis in Japan are on the expensive side, so we opted to make ample use of public transport and Google Maps to navigate the town. Suffice it to say that even with the help of Google Maps, it was a time consuming exercise and maybe with hindsight we could have covered more if we had been less stingy. On the other hand…. with so many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the vicinity, almost three months on from my Japanese trip, it has all become a blur of red painted posts festooned with red lanterns and guarded by an army of dogs, foxes and lions..
Japan has two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Whereas Shinto is regarded as the indigenous religion of the Japanese people and is as old as Japan itself, Buddhism reached the island much later. It was imported in the sixth century as a gift from the friendly nation of the Korean kingdom of Kudara. After some initial difficulties and conflicts, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted fairly harmoniously in Japan and most Japanese consider themselves either Buddhist or Shinto or even both. In any case, religion is not that important in Japanese daily life and most people only visit temples or shrines to mark special occasions and festivals.
Shinto was, and still remains, a mystery to me. I was made aware of its very existence and initiated in its vague rules and customs by the Swedish bartender of an Irish Pub, ‘The Man in the Moon’, in Kyoto. Escaping from the stifling heat, I needed a drink and when ‘Witte Hoegaarden’ was promoted by an Irish Pub, I could not resist. As I was the one and only customer that afternoon, the ex-sailor who made Kyoto his home, was only too pleased to fill me in on the details of his adopted new religion.
Without a founding figure, nor any dogmatic guidelines, Shinto is an ‘optimistic faith’ believing that people are intrinsically good and evil is the work of ‘evil spirits’. Most traditions and rituals therefore focus on warding off the evil spirits through purification, prayers and offerings to the ‘kami’, or Shinto gods. Kami are sacred spirits embodied by elements important to life: wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility and when people die, they are revered by their relatives as ‘ancestral kami’. Shinto Kami are mostly shifty beings, flitting from one place to another, and devotees who need their attention are often seen pulling the bells hanging in front of the shrines to alert the Kami and request their presence so prayers can be heard. Not all shrines need bells, though. Some shrines have been built in the midst of a forest, or on a mountain top where kami have taken up permanent residence and are always at hand… However, one thing all shrines have in common are huge torii, vermillion painted entrance gates that mark the transition from the profane into the sacred.
Of all the shrines in Kyoto, the most famous and interesting one is the Fushimi Inari Pilgrimage Circuit, the backdrop for some scenes in the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Thousands of torii, donated by wealthy individuals and companies, straddle hiking trails leading into the wooded forest of Mount Inari, which at just 233m above sea level is not exactly a challenge… although it involves a fair amount of steps. The leafy tree canopies provide plenty of welcome shade and halfway up the mountain, at the Yotsutsuji Intersection, any hiking effort is rewarded with views across the city. Not many visitors venture past this point, so the last stretch to the top is less crowded with more opportunities for photographs of the many dog or fox statues guarding a multitude of smaller shrines.
Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are mysterious places, especially to the uninitiated, and whereas some of the rituals and traditions can be easily understood, others are definitely baffling. At the main entrance of most Shinto shrines, a stone washbasin is available for purification, and devotees rinse their hands and mouth before approaching the deity. Sometimes people gather around large incense burners and waft the purifying smoke over the heads. Inside the grounds, small stalls attract visitors who buy a talisman to bring good luck or keep evil away. Lucky charms, protective amulets and wooden plaques magically help students pass exams or sick people recover from illness. And if fortune telling pieces of paper suggest a stretch of bad luck, the paper is tied to special racks where the flutter of the wind and time can disperse its spell. But the ritual that perplexed us the most was watching devotees crawling through a hole in one such rack… Had fate dealt them a particularly bad hand and was this best way to dispel the inevitable??? We did not ask…
Not only does Kyoto boast a lot of shrines and temples, it is also one of the best places to get a glimpse of the mysterious geisha. And ‘geishas’ we did see. Plenty of them, only they probably were not real ones, but just tourists who dressed the part for their brief stay in town and wanted to have the pictures to prove it. At every shrine and on every street corner, we bumped into ‘geishas’, dressed in colourful kimonos fastened with an obi (a large waistband), cameras or phones poised for selfies. But rather than teetering around in okobos, the impossibly high platform footwear normally worn by maiko or apprentice geisha, they strutted around in normal flip-flops and certainly did not have the usual geisha make-up on.
‘Your best bet for seeing the real thing,’ another tourist advised us, ‘is to go to the Gion district, around six or eight in the evening. That’s when the geishas leave their okiyo (houses) to go to work.’ It sounded like good advice, so we checked our map and set off. The place was crowded. Not with geishas, but with tourists all eager to spot one. And everyone was ready to observe the strict ‘don’t-touch-the geisha’ rule. After all geishas have their jobs to do and are not a tourist attraction. At the front of one of the houses, an older woman – most likely the kami-san or mother of the geisha house – stood quietly surveying what was happening outside.
Eventually, our patience paid off and a single geisha, dressed for work and lips pursed almost disapprovingly, strode across the street, meekly followed by her assistant maiko. It is possible we encountered other ‘real’ geishas around that time, but without the tell-tale make-up it was impossible to be sure.
And these ones, taking photographs of each other mid-day?? They may have been real geishas, fully made up and just indulging in a bit of me-time… They certainly looked too much the part to be tourists in the act of dressing up. We did not stop to ask, but were grateful to be able to take our own shots of what may have been two real geishas…
Nightfall cast a mysterious spell over the geisha districts, both Gion and Pontocho. Hushed lights warmed the brown hues of the wooden panelling along the traditional geisha houses, often punctuated by white and red lanterns. Restaurants and bars were busy inside, where the A.C. kept everyone cool. Outside the tourists melted away, leaving the area peaceful and quiet. Geishas had reached their destinations and entertained their paying guests in the obliqueness of dimly lit rooms, barely noticeable through obscured windows.
Our closest encounter with a geisha was in a restaurant, Issen Yoshoku (Kyoto), the one with just a single dish on the menu executed to perfection and its notoriety as the restaurant featuring the boy with his trousers down… And if that was not enough to entice customers in, there were plenty of geisha mannequins to keep us company, and a plethora of interesting plaques on the wall to keep us amused…