Japan specialist Lesley Downer on falling for the cultural enclave of Kyoto with its sashaying geishas and hidden temples
I arrive at the inn where I always stay in Miyagawa-cho, one of Kyoto’s five geisha districts, around midday. My hosts, Mr and Mrs Sawai, both in their nineties, are here to greet me. I take my luggage upstairs to the small room with its balcony and tatami mats and view over the street, then set out to see what’s changed.
Every time I arrive I’m enchanted all over again, by the narrow streets lined with dark wooden houses, their bamboo blinds hanging outside the upper floors and red lanterns glowing in front. It’s been a year since I was here last and new houses have sprung up. There’s a scent of fresh wood and bamboo. Business is good.
Kyoto is utterly magical, full of hidden places and chance discoveries. When I was first in Japan, more than 30 years ago, I lived not far from Kyoto and used to stay with friends here most weekends. They had a small house in the lee of the hills, close to Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, immortalised in Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name. We’d take bicycles and go to the fragile pavilion with its golden phoenix perched on the crest of the roof, its reflection shimmering in the waters of the lake it’s perched upon.
Daitokuji is another temple I love. Of its many sub-temples, Daisen-in is my favourite. I’d sit on the veranda, swinging my legs, absorbed in the Zen garden with its rocks and raked sand, encapsulating an entire world.
I was out on a walk during one trip, and climbed a deserted path up a steep hill through a graveyard. Around a corner was a spectacular temple on a massive scaffold of wooden stilts built over a cliff. It turned out to be one of Kyoto’s most famous sights, Kiyomizu Temple. Tourists, pilgrims and worshippers take the crowded main road lined with pottery shops. I’d accidentally stumbled across it and it still feels like my personal discovery.
For all Kyoto’s fame, there are many places tourists still seldom find. Kawai Kanjiro’s beautiful former home, showcasing his spectacular pottery, is one. Another is Nishi Honganji Temple. Its rooms are walled with gold-leaf screens painted with lavish images and it has a grand gate and a famous Noh stage. It’s every bit as splendid as the far more famous Nijo Castle, but closed to the public unless you apply in advance. Few people think of doing so.
There are other places which take a bit of effort to see — the imperial villas, Katsura and Shugakuin, the imperial palace, and the splendid moss garden, all of which you must receive permission to visit beforehand. Katsura, to the west of the city, is a magnificent villa set in gardens — often considered the most perfect in Japan, with tea houses, moon-viewing pavilions and lakes scattered with tiny islands. Shugakuin, to the north, has gardens offering views of the distant landscape. And the imperial palace is where the emperors lived for a thousand years until 1868, when they moved to Tokyo.
Founded in 794, Kyoto was sited according to the principles of feng shui, with hills on three sides and rivers bordering it to the east and west. Poets dubbed it ‘the city of purple hills and crystal streams’. In the 12th century — the golden age described in The Tale of Genji — ox carts trundled up and down its broad avenues, laid out in a perfect grid, where aristocrats enjoyed lives of exquisite leisure, mixing perfumes, writing poems and conducting love affairs.
There are treasures wherever you turn in Kyoto: secret gardens to be discovered, little-visited temples and shrines to explore. But for me the most magical part is still the geisha area. Tourists congregate in the most famous of the five ‘flower towns’ or geisha districts, Gion, but I prefer Miyagawa-cho. It’s only a few streets away, but another world all together.
I lived here 12 years ago, researching a book on geishas. Maikos (trainee geishas) would patter by outside my balcony in their clogs, laughing and chatting, with oiled hair and washed-clean faces, hurrying to dance and music classes by day; and again in the evening with faces painted chalky white and scarlet lips, wearing glittering kimonos whose long sleeves swished as they walked. More soberly-clad geikos (the Kyoto word for geishas) would pass by too. Little by little I became part of the scenery and they’d recognise me and bow and coo a greeting, inviting me to their houses to drink tea and chat.
Some of the maikos I know have left to be married — you can’t be both a geisha and a wife — while new maiko faces have arrived to start their training. One geiko I knew is now a famous dancer, another has her own geisha house and a bevy of maikos under her wing.
And although time goes by, you can still hear the plucking of shamisens (Japanese lutes) and pearls of laughter — it’s easy to imagine yourself back in old Japan.
Lesley Downer has spent decades living between Japan and England and has written many books, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World. Her most recent novel is Across a Bridge of Dreams.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)