Kyoto was our first stop in Japan, and we spent a week based there. By this point, we’d been on the road for over 4 months and wanted to slow things down a bit. Kyoto seemed like a great place to do that, with plenty to see and do around the city itself, or a short train ride away for day trips.
Japan in general has been a big change from other places we’ve explored in Asia. The food is different, the customs are different, the language is different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. Well, some things are better. Public transit is clean and efficient. We don’t have to haggle for everything or constantly be wary of scams. And we can brush our teeth with tap water! Like, straight out of the tap! This may not be a big deal to our readers in North America and Europe, but this is a big deal for us. After a few months of “roughing it”, it is a nice change of pace to be back in a more developed country and a great way to finish off our trip in Asia.
Kyoto – The City
Kyoto, despite being a city of 1.5 million people, never felt like a big city. The skyline isn’t dominated by skyscrapers. Crowds are manageable. And we found the city to be eminently walkable. Granted, maybe we were just excited to see sidewalks again. The city itself is also very diverse, with different neighbourhoods that make you forget you haven’t left the city.
Here are a few of our highlights from our week in Kyoto.
She’s wearing a Kimono!
Kyoto is probably best known as the home of geishas. Gion is the traditional entertainment district for geishas, and the backdrop for the famous book and movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”. The district is still home to the few remaining “tea houses” (actually private clubs where geishas entertain members, and almost entirely off limits to tourists). An evening at a tea house is strictly by membership or invitation only, and can cost upwards of $1000 for dinner, sake and conversation.
What is a Geisha?
Contrary to popular belief, geishas aren’t prostitutes. The word itself means “entertainer”, and many of the more unsavory aspects of geisha life have been banned. Girls who want to become geishas can join a geisha dormitory (called an Okiya) around the age of 15. The okiya then then pays for room, board and schooling in arts, music and other aspects of being a geisha.
Once they pass an audition and become an official apprentice geisha, called a maiko, they can work for the tea house (usually associated with the dormitory) to entertain clients. While an apprentice, the maiko does not get paid since all her expenses are being covered. At the age of 21, the maiko has to decide whether she will become a full geisha, called a geiko, or leave the profession. If she becomes a geiko, she has to move out of the dormitory and pay her own expenses, and therefore must have some regular clients so she can generate an income. Most choose to leave the profession.
For several weeks in the Spring, and then again in the Fall, geisha put on traditional performances in the theatres of the Gion district. We were lucky enough to be in town during the spring performances, so jumped on the chance to go.
Unfortunately, it was underwhelming. And by underwhelming, we mean terrible. We were expecting dancing, but instead had to sit through a really really bad play. The acting was horrible, the weird voices the geisha used were grating, and of course we couldn’t understand a word. At least we got to see one, I guess. A better option would have been the Gion Corner, which is a nightly performance at one of the geisha schools. Maybe next time.
The Entertainment District
Walking around Gion, and the nearby Higashiyama district, is a lot of fun. Streets are lined with traditional wooden buildings making the area very picturesque. Chances of seeing an actual geisha are slim though. They tend to work at night, and are not typically open to tourist photographs. Remember that this is a career for them, so when they’re out walking to an appointment, they’re “on the clock”.
It is easy to find people dressed in kimonos, some even with the white painted faces and made up to look like geishas. Probably 9 times out of 10, these are other tourists, who have paid to dress up like a geisha for a day or locals just having fun. On the plus side, they seem very happy to have their pictures taken. Then when the other tourists get home, they just don’t tell their friends that all the geisha in their pictures are fake. Oh wait…oops. We shouldn’t have told you…well, forget all that and check out these cool pictures of real geishas we saw!
Temples, Temples, and more Temples. And a few Shrines.
Kyoto is home to more than 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. Way more than anyone can see in a few days, or quite honestly, want to see. We hate to admit it, but we’re still a bit “templed-out” after so many weeks backpacking around SE Asia.
The biggest tourist attraction and most famous shrine is Fushimi-Inari. A longish walk or short train ride from the city centre, this site is known for bright orange Torii gates lining the paths up and down the hill. If you look at any tourism photos or the website or Instagram account of any travel blogger who has visited Kyoto, you will see pictures from Fushimi-Inari. It was pretty cool, and we also got our obligatory photos. Unfortunately, being such a popular place, the crowds were also immense.
Daytrip to Nara
As some of you may know, when we first bought our last house in Toronto, our favourite sushi restaurant was a place around the corner called Nara Sushi. We couldn’t be so close to its namesake, and not check it out. Actually, we went because Nara was the capital of Japan during our favourite parts of the 8th century, 710 – 794.
The town is now best known for two things, deer and the Todai-ji Temple. They were not kidding about the deer. At first it was pretty cool that we could get up close to the deer, but after awhile you realize how dependent they have become on tourists feeding them, to the point that they can aggressively follow you around looking for food.
The Todai-ji was impressive. The building housing a huge Buddha is the largest wooden building in the world.
Besides Fushimi-Inari, one of the other big draws for tourists is the cute village of Arashiyama. Only a 15 minute train ride from the centre of Kyoto, it feels a world away. A short walk from the train station is the bamboo forest, and the Oi river valley.
Kyoto – A Great First Stop in Japan
Kyoto was really the perfect place to settle down for a few days. Great food, plenty to see and do, and easy to get around. Next stop: Hiroshima!
And here it is, your moment of Zen