And so the Japan adventure continues…
Since we were based in Osaka for the whole duration of our stay (see my previous post about that first part of the trip here), we had to take a train ride to see Kyoto, a place quite popular among tourists. We knew it was essential for us to visit this place for its rich beauty, history and culture.
Kyoto is known for the abundance of its Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Palaces as well as its unique Japanese architecture, very Zen-like atmosphere and the prevalent Geisha culture.
Our first stop was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. This used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868 when the emperor and the capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo.
Besides being rich in tradition, the Imperial Palace has maintained the same look and ambience it had since the time of Japan’s ancient Imperial dynasties. It comprises of several structures and gardens that reflect the varying Japanese architecture of different periods.
The Imperial Palace is located in the spacious Kyoto Imperial Park. Actually, it is more than spacious…it is huge! They also have one of the cleanest and most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen.
The Japanese come here to relax, unwind, bike around or play with their children — all while taking in the beautiful view around them and just soaking in their rich history and traditions.
The next place we saw in Kyoto was the well-known Zen Buddhist temple Kinkakuji (or the Golden Pavilion).
The top two stories of this pavilion are entirely covered in pure gold leaf!
The pavilion functions as a shariden or what is known to be the place that houses the relics of Buddha’s ashes.
Kinkakuji is so impressive with its shiny gold exterior and the beautiful large pond around it.
Would you believe that this beautiful golden temple has been burned down several times throughout history? The most recent one happened only in 1950 when a fanatic monk set it on fire. So this structure that we see today was rebuilt in 1955, five years after that unfortunate incident.
The whole place speaks of Zen…wherever I looked, there was peace, tranquility and stillness all around.
The next place we visited in Kyoto was the Nijo Castle. This was built in 1603 and became the Kyoto residence of the first shogun or Japan’s highest military commander (a.k.a. dictator), Tokugawa Ieyasu.
The palace buildings within are the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture which led to this place being named as a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE in 1994.
Within the Nijo Castle grounds can be found the Ninomaru Palace which served as the actual residence and office of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto.
This palace has survived its original form and consists of multiple separate buildings that are connected with each other by wooden corridors and the so called “nightingale floors”, named as such because they squeak when stepped upon! These floors served as a security measure against their intruders.
It was good that we timed our holiday during this time (between March and April) as the Cherry Blossoms were just blooming everywhere.
Next stop for us was the Heian-jingu Shrine. This Shrine is made up of several orange colored temples that are considered to be important in Japan’s rich history and culture.
This Shrine was built on the occasion of the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto and is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors. Heian is actually the former name of Kyoto.
A giant torii gate marks the approach to the Shrine, around which there are a couple of museums. The actual grounds themselves are very spacious, with a wide open court at the center. Occasionally, they use this place for special public events.
Behind the main buildings is a beautiful garden filled with a variety of plants, ponds and flowers.
The garden’s most striking feature are the many Weeping Cherry Blossom trees, so called because they bloom a few days later than most trees.
This garden is now considered to be one of the best Cherry Blossom spots in the whole of Kyoto.
Every place we saw here was just picturesque and too beautiful for words.
This is what the Japanese culture of Zen is all about…
Beauty. Serenity. Stillness. Tranquility.
Moving on from a Zen-like atmosphere, we visited a very popular and quite a busy temple called the Kiyomizu-dera, an independent Buddhist temple and one of the most celebrated temples in Japan.
Kiyomizu-dera is part of the historic monuments of ancient Kyoto and is also named a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE for its cultural and historical significance.
Last but not the least, we came to see the place I was largely curious about especially after having seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha years back : Gion, the most exclusive and well-known Geisha district in Kyoto.
Gion is popular among tourists because the Geisha culture is still very much alive here and for its many traditional wooden machiya merchant houses.
This Kyoto district is filled with a lot of shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where the Geiko (which is the Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and the Maiko (or the Geiko apprentices) entertain.
And because we wanted to experience the Geisha culture while in Kyoto, we went to see a cultural show at their theater to have a good, basic introduction to several of their traditional Japanese arts. This included the tea ceremony, Ikebana (Japanese art of floral arrangement) and the dances performed by the real Maiko.
Photos were not allowed while the show went on, so I was only able to take photos of the inside of the theater.
The most popular area in Gion is the Hanami-koji Street. This street and its side alleys are lined with preserved machiya houses many of which now function as restaurants, serving Kyoto style kaiseki ryori (or the best Japanese haute cuisine).
This is the scenic part of Gion which is called the Shirakawa Area which runs along the Shirakawa Canal parallel to Shijo Avenue. The canal is lined by willow trees, high class restaurants and ochaya or tea houses, many of which have rooms overlooking the canal.
Many tourists visit Gion hoping to catch a glimpse of a real Geisha. (Note that there are many fake ones too walking around, some of them are tourists themselves who happen to be wearing the traditional costume!)
The Hubby and I were fortunate to have spotted a real Geisha!! She was actually on the opposite side of the street from where we were standing so I just zoomed my camera lens to see her up close.
(Notably, there have been numerous complaints about tourists behaving like ruthless paparazzi to the Geishas in the recent years.)
We were informed that if ever we do see a Geisha out on the streets, we must act respectfully – since they are considered to be an important part of Japanese culture and tradition.
But because this was such a rare opportunity for tourists like us to see a real one on the streets… I asked the Hubby to subtly snap a shot while I went near her and tried to strike a simple conversation with her. (All done with much respect of course :))
Well obviously…the Hubby was more nervous than I was and ultimately panicked!!
And so my quest for that rare photo opportunity with a Geisha ended up looking like this — a hazy catastrophe! 🙂 Nevertheless, the Hubby is still proud of his so-called photography skills because as he says, “at least both your feet made it into the shot!”
And so I finally let her go…and here she was entering an ochaya (the traditional Japanese wooden tea house) where she was bound to do her art of performing for her exclusive and select clientele.
This Japan trip was more than the usual sight-seeing holiday for the family; it was memorable and enriching. We saw several temples, shrines and palaces and learned so much about their rich history and culture. We cultivated a deeper respect and admiration for their age-old traditions. The very Zen-like atmosphere wherever we went and the abundance of the beautiful Cherry Blossoms all over — made every place we visited even more scenic and picture perfect. Of course, my rare Geisha encounter was a highlight, an experience I will never forget! 🙂
The Spoiled Mummy is already dreaming of going back to Japan soon. And perhaps I will explore a different side again next time around…