Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years (794 to 1868 AD). It’s a no-brainer that we wouldn’t see it all, but we really crammed a lot in.
As the saying goes, go big or go home, and we did just that by starting our tour with one of Kyoto’s Big three: Nijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1603 by the founder of the Tokugawa military dynasty which ruled Japan from 1603 until 1868, it’s known for its beautiful garden and interior handcrafted out of Japanese cypress. Gold leaf and ornately carved transoms were prominent in the public rooms designed to impress enemies as well as friends. The huge complex consists of six connected buildings and is the only fortified palace complex left in Japan. Hiro explained the symbolism of what was painted on the gold-leafed walls. Tigers, peacocks, cherry blossoms, and evergreen trees. Everything was chosen for a reason. The halls leading from one public area to the next were built so that they squeaked with the slightest footfall. No sneaking up on the shogun when he was in town.
Next up: a brief Zen tutorial lead by a Buddhist monk. Once we had the basics down, we were invited to make ourselves comfortable on a cushion on the floor and then we proceeded to meditate for 10 minutes.
Our meditation session was followed by a Japanese tea ceremony. Tea was introduced to Japan in the 8th century by China and was used by priests and the upper class for medicinal purposes mainly. It started catching on with all social classes in the early 1300s and later tea drinking parties became popular. From the basic tea party a more refined version developed with Zen-inspired simplicity and a greater emphasis on spirituality. It is from these gatherings that the ritualized art of preparing and serving tea had its origins in the 1500s. The protocol of a tea ceremony is defined down to exact hand movements, is choreographed, and requires many years of study to master. A full, formal tea ceremony is an hours-long event that starts with a multi-course meal followed by a bowl of thick green tea made from powdered matcha and ends with a bowl of thin green tea. Today the ritualized tea ceremony is practiced as a hobby, is much abbreviated, and is limited to the enjoyment of a bowl of thin tea. All of this was explained to us before we were served a small bowl of matcha, whisked to a frothy brew. It was mildly bitter, so we were offered a sweet cracker to prepare our pallets for the tea.
We topped off our day with two fun walkabouts. The first was in the 400-year old Nishiki Market, also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, where we browsed the shops, restaurants, and food stalls known for their specialty items and seasonal goodies.
Geisha are one of the most iconic and exotic symbols of Japan with their elaborate makeup, hairstyles, and exquisite kimonos. Geisha districts, known as hanamachi, were established during the 17th century. Before calling it a day we strolled around Gion, Kyoto’s most famous hanamachi. We learned that a girl hoping to become a geisha in Kyoto must first serve a six-year apprenticeship focused on studying the many skills required for the role: singing, dancing, playing traditional musical instruments, the art of conversation, and the formal hosting skills expected of a geisha. Today’s apprenticeships begin at the age of 15. The very best of these female performance artists / entertainers / hostesses have always been highly paid, received lavish gifts, and entertained the top tier of the business community, generally at teahouses and social events. Unmarried, they are associated with and live in or near their okiya or geisha lodging house. A number of okiya remain today. Walking the narrow streets in the Gion district reminded me of reading Memoirs of a Geisha and watching The Makanai: Cooking for a Maiko House (Netflix). A maiko, by the way, is what apprentices are called.
We finished our day shopping at the upscale Isetan department store followed by dinner in the hotel bar.
Kyoto’s Arashiyama district was our focus today. Our first stop was at the Zen temple of Tenryu-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built in 1339, the temple’s buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries, so most of what we saw today dates from the relatively recent Meiji Period which you might recall (giggle) ran from 1868-1912. Unlike the temple buildings, Tenryu-ji’s sprawling Zen garden amazingly survived the centuries in its original form. It features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees, and the forested mountains. It is considered to be one of the finest gardens in Kyoto.
In total contrast to Tenryu-ji’s garden, but no less stunning, was our next stop: a bamboo forest. The famous grove of soaring stalks were beautiful in their simplicity. Some say plan your visit on a windy day because the rustle of the stalks and the sight of them swaying back and forth is mesmerizing. We strolled leisurely along the main path amazed by the appeal of something so simple. The grove is a pubic space that is free and open 24 hours a day.
The temple to beat all temples …if you are into gold… is hands down Kinkaku-ji Temple with its Golden Pavilion, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built as the retirement villa by a shogun who stipulated in his will that it become a Zen temple after his death (1408). Each of the three floors of the temple represents a different style of architecture. The first floor was built in a style used for palace buildings from 794 to 1185 and has natural wood pillars and white plaster walls. The second floor was built in the style used in samurai residences, and has its exterior completely covered in gold leaf. The top floor, built in the style of a Chinese Zen hall, is gilded inside as well as outside and is capped with a golden phoenix! This beautiful building has burned down numerous times over the centuries including in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure dates to 1955.
We did a dive into traditional culture today also. Strong handsome dudes took us all for a rickshaw ride; we dressed in kimono and posed for pictures; and two talented musicians gave us a concert highlighting the shamisen and the koto. The shamisen is a three-string plucked instrument that resembles a guitar or a banjo and the koto is a 74 inch (yep, longer than six feet) wooden instrument with 13 strings that sounded like a harp to me.
Our day was jam packed when you add a delicious lunch and a matcha and vanilla swirl ice cream cone to all the other fun activities and stops. We opted for a drink and snacks in the bar in lieu of a proper dinner and then headed to the room to get organized for tomorrow.
… Oh Really? …
Kyoto is the sixth most populous urban center in Japan.
For centuries, however, it was the largest city in the country and one of the most populous in the entire world.
Few cities in Europe exceeded or matched its 16th century population of half a million.
The first geisha …men, known as taikomochi… appeared in the 13th century.
Women entered the picture in the 18th century.
A number of non-Japanese women from China, Romania, Ukraine, and Peru have become successful geisha. Perhaps the most famous is Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist who moved to Japan in 1975.
Tokyo still has six hanamachi districts.
Starbucks and 7-Eleven have been everywhere we’ve been
plus a few Wendy’s (called Wendy’s First Kitchen), McDonald’s, and one Seattle’s Best.
One thought on “Kyoto, Japan (April 13-14, 2023)”
What an absolutely amazing trip, Schele! Thank you for the photos and blogs–fascinating! Safe travels home. ?? ________________________________