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.
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.
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.
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).
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.Â 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.