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The Trip To Japan – Kyoto

After 3 days in Tokyo, on Wednesday I decided to go to Kyoto. As always, I made loose plans, the main idea being to get to Kyoto as fast as I can and then take it form there. I chose to ride the Shinkansen, because between Tokyo and Kyoto are more than 450 km (some maps are crediting this distance with around 500 km) and a trip with the bus would have taken 7-8 hours. By Shinkansen I was there in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Just for your information, the average delay of trains in Japan was last year within 6 seconds. That’s right, 6 seconds.

The Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs 12.700 yen, or around 125 USD. That’s one way, by the way, and there’s no discount for round trip. So, the transportation to Kyoto and back to Tokyo costed around 250 USD. I left my hotel before 9 AM, took the JR Yamanote line from Shinjuku, and changed for Shinkansen at Shibuya. At 11:30 I was in Kyoto.

The Nozomi Shinkansen is impressive.

Nozomi Shinkansen entering Kyoto Train Station

Nozomi Shinkansen entering Kyoto Train Station

Not only from the outside, with a very snaky appearance but also from the inside, where it looks more like a plane than a train. You won’t feel more vibrations than in an usual train and the only clue that you’re going with 300 km/h (a apart from the mind blowing scenery running before your eyes) is that your ears are clogging a little when you enter tunnels. A little bit like the feeling of starting to go down for landing when you’re flying.

Kyoto – The City

The first impression was much more digestible than Tokyo. Kyoto seemed like a livable city. Although the train station was still a futuristic building, the rest of the city seemed much more relaxed.

Kyoto Train Station

Kyoto Train Station

After stretching my legs a little around the train station I stopped for a few minutes at the Tourism Center. Tried to look up some interesting places to go but didn’t really catch anything and that was of course because of my total lack of Japanese. Almost all the leaflets were in Japanese. But exactly when I decided to go, a simple, rough paper leaflet, with a readable English text on it, caught my attention.

It was a leaflet advertising Tea Ceremony (Cha – No – Yu). The tea house was in Gion, an historical area of Kyoto, up North-East. Tea ceremonies were held each day starting at 13:00. Well, that seemed like a place to go. I decided to find that place – there was a sort of a map in the leaflet – and attend a tea ceremony.

I also decided that I won’t take any other transportation and only walk in Kyoto. I was already sick of subways and trains since Tokyo. From what I remembered from the Kyoto map I already looked up on the Internet, I had around 45 minutes of walk until that tea house.

The Magical Tea House

And I was pretty right, except that it took more than one hour to actually find the address. I got lost in Gion’s streets and had to ask around several times. Luckily, the post office workers had acceptable English skills and were very helpful. Later on, I learned that Kyoto is a much more touristic city than Tokyo and better English skills are something more common.

Anyway, after walking one and a half hour I finally find the house. It was a very small door between a noodle restaurant and a private residential area. The entrance alley was no wider than one meter. On the door there was a sign of the tea house name: “En”, a tea ceremony schedule, and, extremely surprising, a bigger sign with the word “Closed”. I was a little puzzled about that sign. It was closed? How come? It was only 5 minutes to 13:00.

Anyway, I decided to take another short walk and eat some of the onegiri’s I bought with me in my backpack. At 13:05 here I was, standing on the little alley, waiting for my first tea ceremony. Still nobody. No bell. Nothing. Took off the leaflet from my pocket and looked again: yeap, it was exactly the same schedule: the first tea ceremony starting at 13:00 every day of the week, except Wednesday. What? Wednesday closed, said there. Ops! It was Wednesday.

Kyoto Gion

After being illuminated I decided that I should really stay over in Kyoto and wait for the tomorrow’s tea ceremony. Didn’t know any hotel in town, but I knew I would somehow solve this. I also didn’t wanted to check in immediately, Gion, the old geisha’s neighborhood was silently attracting me for more walking.

So, I postponed the hotel choice and started to walk without any goal on the streets on Gion. Fascinated by the small buildings, which, I would have to find a little later, sheltered some of the Gion’s oldest Okyia’s (Geisha houses).

Kyoto Gion Old House

Kyoto Gion Old House

Kyoto Gion Old House

Kyoto Gion Old House

Kyoto Gion Old House On Shimbashidori

Kyoto Gion Old House On Shimbashidori

As I walked on Shimbashidori I saw a poster advertising a unique Geisha show at the Myiaki-Odori theater. It was only on April and it was a about a spring celebration. The first show was at 16:00. Seemed like a good opportunity and I started to look for that theater. Now that I literally measured the entire Gion by foot it wasn’t very difficult.

The entrance was packed with tourists, Japanese women dressed in kimonos and men dressed in black suits. I asked at the reception what was the cost of a ticket.  For which show? a woman replied. For the 16:00 representation I answered while searching for my wallet. Well, sir, that was sold out. Hmm, and when is the next one? At 19:00 hours, the woman answered. I would like a ticket at that representation, I said, waiting eagerly for the response. Well, sir, that is sold out also., the woman politely replied.

Now I knew that it was a question of the wrong question, no the wrong answer. So, thinking at the refusal of entering the tea ceremony earlier, and already guessing that fate was constantly keeping me away from traditional Japanese representations that Wednesday, I gathered all my courage and asked the woman: Do you still have tickets for this show, ma’m? Nope, the answer came crystal clear, everything is sold out till the end of the month.

It was clear. Now my only chance was to capture as much as I could from the streets of Gion before it was getting too dark. Luckily for me – well, a certain type of luck did stroke me that Wednesday – I stumbled upon a photo shooting session on the old streets of Gion. Apparently, several Japanese models were trying different kimonos and some guys took their photos on the street. I glued to them silently and they didn’t seemed bothered. Here are some pictures.

kyoto-gion-kimono-photo-shooting

kyoto-gion-kimono-photoshooting-1

Kyoto Temples

At one of the borders of Gion, near the tea house there was a huge temple, called Chionin Temple. Since the shows were refused to me I thought the spiritual path will reveal, and I decided to take a walk on the Chionin Temple’s alleys. My assumption was correct, the temple received me gladly.

kyoto-chionin-temple

kyoto-chionin-temple-2

After finishing the visit to Chionin, I remembered another temple, near Myiaki-Odori and I decided to test my hunch one more. If I was correct, the temple should have been open, waiting for me. Of course, I was right. No time for entertainment during that Wednesday, but only spiritual activities.

The second temple proved to be the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto (if not in Japan) and was a tremendous experience.

kyoto-zen-temple

kyoto-zen-temple-garden

A woman offered me a cup of tea. I sat down near the garden and enjoyed the silence and the taste of the tea. It was so good that I decided to buy a bag for home. The woman said something about that tea being unique to that temple. Well, probably.

Gion Geishas

I got back on the streets of Gion, waiting for geisha’s evening walk. It was around 17:00 – it gets dark at 18:30 this time of the year in Japan – and from what I knew – and some local teenager confirmed me – it was time for the evening walk of geishas. During daytime it was extremely difficult to see a real geisha walking on the streets but in the twilight and evening they were out for various errands or other activities.

Back on the street with the photo shooting, I discovered a pair of young Japanese with costumes a little bit different than the kimonos of the models. They had something in their hair too and some umbrellas. I genuinely thought they are geishas and kindly asked for their photos. They agreed instantly.

kyoto-gyon-geisha-cosplay

But there was a serious doubt inside myself that there were real geishas. One of the photographers confirmed me that they were just regular girls who rented geishas costumes. Ops!

At that moment, a strange air current stroke the flow of the tourists on Shimbashidori. Or so I thought. Because I saw how one of the tourists, a middle age woman, starting to run on a lateral street. Instinctively, I followed her. At the end of the street, in the twilight, I saw a shadow. This time, a real geisha. Couldn’t take her picture because she entered in her Okyia. She seemed to float over earth.

When I looked behind I saw an army of tourists with cameras ready and I suddenly felt ashamed. That air current was just the rumor that a geisha appeared on the streets. And the tourists were like hunters. I split leaving the tourists behind and started to walk on other, less busiest streets. Didn’t felt nice about that geisha hunting. Didn’t felt nice at all.

When, all of sudden, I saw another geisha popping right into my face and making eye contact. There was nobody on the street, except me and her and a guy busy to check his phone somewhere in the back. I asked her with gestures if it’s ok to take her photo. She agreed with a blink.

kyoto-gion-real-geisha

And then she left. I was happy that the army didn’t see her. Hoped she made it ok to her okyia without too much trouble.

It was already dark on the streets of Gion and I decided it’s time to check in. The next day I had to attend to a tea ceremony.

And I actually did, but more on that on the next post.



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This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. 125 USD for 450 km? Is that the real price, or did you buy the tickets from the black market? I know Japan is expensive, but this is more in the obscene range. 🙂

    Did you walk through some districts other than Gion? I’m wondering, since I like the traditional houses from your pictures. Are there many of them still left, or is Gion more like an exception? Did you see something like that in Tokyo, or at least do you know if they exist?

    And if we come to housing, did you happen to find out how expensive is to rent / buy such a place? Just curious… considering the train ticket prices, I’m sure I can’t afford one. 🙂

    Ah, and the girl on the right in the picture with the umbrellas, doesn’t really look like Japanese to me. More like European maybe. 🙂

  2. Ok, I understand about the whole geisha thing. So beautiful – ahh, My gramma has an antique set of porcelain china hand painted geisha girl figures(dolls) in her yoga garden- they are on one side of her water fountain – I am not sure what to call them since their bodies are hand painted china but they have silk kimonos on.

    I cant wait to hear about the tea ceremony.

    Bunnygotblog’s last blog post..Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

  3. @ibz that’s the real price. It’s not expensive, it’s extremely expensive, from our standpoint, but from a Japanese standpoint it’s ok. Even at this price the train was almost full. And keep in mind it took only 2:15 hours to get me form Shinagawa to Kyoto, including 2 intermediary stops at Yokohama and Nagoya.

    A part from Gion I haven’t been in other districts but from what I saw on the road from trains station to Gion – about 4-5 blocks – there are plenty of old style Japanese houses in Kyoto. Tokyo was completely bombed during World War II and had to be rebuilt form the ground up. Kyoto was spared and it’s almost unchanged on some areas. About renting an old house I don’t have the info but I know from other sources that renting a room on a ryokan – traditional Japanese hotel – is about 4000 yen / night, meaning around 40 USD. Keep in mind that the space in those ryokans is extremely tight. I spent the night at a backpackers hostel near Gion for 2200 yen (around 20 USD) but it was like 7 beds in a dormitory, shower outside the room and a single toilet for 3 floors. But it felt good, I only slept there. The place was pretty full, and not only by young people, I met a guy well in his fifties spending the night there because it was much cheaper than in other hotels, including ryokans.

    About that girl, well she might look European but she spoke a very fluent Japanese, that I can tell you. 🙂

  4. @BunnygotBlog thanks for the comment, yes Geishas are fascinating, and I think you do have geishas on the Chinese porcelain, they were quite popular.

  5. These pictures are beautiful and your storytelling is as wonderful as usual. I’m jealous of your travels. I need to take the time to travel more. Thanks for letting me travel with your virtually!

    Stephen – Rat Race Trap’s last blog post..Random Thoughts on Success

  6. Hope you liked your visit to Japan . I was there for 3 weeks in August last year and I found the place and people to be utterly charming and polite. There was not enough time to get beneath the surface , but I would like to revist some sunny day.
    ( nice photos) — op

  7. Dragos, listening to you share your trip I almost feel like I was there. I think it’s because the feeling of discovery is somehow conveyed in your story. I am looking forward to hearing more. The Japanese culture has many fascinating aspects that are refreshingly different from those of western culture. Thanks for sharing.

    Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills’s last blog post..Listen to The Voice of Wisdom

  8. Hey Dragos! Wow, your trip in Japan is really quite an adventure! I haven’t been to Japan yet and it’s great to experience at it vicariously through your trip 😀 The Shinkansen definitely looks magnificent. The kimonos (of the fake geishas) look really gorgeous! Thanks so much for sharing!

    PS: Thanks a lot for the listing on your blogroll Dragos! It’s really very much appreciated 😀

    Celes | EmbraceLiving.Net’s last blog post..How To Deal With Dishonest People

  9. @joshi daniel: yes, I had a good vibe when “capturing” geishas, but the tourist hunting didn’t feel well…

  10. @Stephen why don’t you start traveling? I mean, like this, in a real form. All it takes is really your decision, anything else (money, time) will follow 🙂

  11. @off-planet thanks for the comment, and yes, at least 3 weeks is a more manageable period in which to visit Japan. Sometimes I feel I only adjusted to the time zone during my 7 days and there was so much more to be done and seen.

  12. @Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills: thanks for the comment and I’m glad I can take somebody else with me there, at least virtually 🙂

  13. @Celes: thanks for the nice words. You should be travel to Japan too, as it is much closer to Singapore than it is to Romania. Speaking o Singapore, I guess it would be my next destination in Asia, sometimes this year.

  14. Oh, I love hostels too! I always prefer hostels over hotels exactly because of the atmosphere and people you meet there! As you mentioned, they’re full of nice fellow travelers that you can talk to. And quite often they have double rooms too. So you don’t have to stay in a dorm if you’re traveling with your wife.
    But I was more wondering how expensive would be to live there (long term), not so much for just visiting. But I can imagine you didn’t have time / interest to look for these prices.
    As for the train, I heard from other sources that it’s extremely expensive for them as well, and as a matter of fact they very rarely travel outside their city. The fact that the train was full doesn’t necessary mean that they travel a lot in general, it just means that out of the huge number of people, of course there are quite a few that are traveling too. Percentage is low, but numbers are high.

  15. It is soooo cool to be right there where everything is authentically Japanese. If perhaps Japanese-themed home decor appeals to you, you can start with a tatami mat, rice paper screens, a couple of traditional Japanese art pieces, ikebana floral arrangement. And don’t forget Japanese stone lanterns, too.

  16. @ibz as a rule of thumb, Japan is extremely expensive to live in, regardless of the city you chose. Maybe in very smaller cities life could be a little less expensive but I highly doubt that. I felt that Japan is a big “money suction engine” and it does that for a reason: it does get back a lot from the money you give in. In other words, it’s a tremendous lifestyle, but you must be able to afford it 😉

  17. @Ianny thanks for the contribution, the Japanese art looked quite interesting. But being there I was able to put my hand on some of those already 😉

  18. Dragos, it is wonderful to follow your travels and all the thoughtful things that come to your mind as you go. Thanks for all the great work and photos!

    Angela’s last blog post..Links Added 4/22/09

  19. Hate to break it to you, but your last picture is not of a geisha. It’s a maiko, a geisha in training. Geisha do not wear makeup.

    1. Well,

      Almost every one referred to geishas as “Maiko” while I was there. All the locals told me that I can find “Maiko” making their evening walk. So I think you’re right on this one. As for the geishas not wearing makeup, I will keep a little bit of reserve on that one 😉

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