Seeing as it was my birthday this week I thought why not live dangerously and do what every tourist who comes to Japan does – visit Kyoto and make a beeline for its famous pretty bits.
Crazy right? If you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know this project is all about the ‘unfamous’ and having to search for beauty (well, okay, the Marais in Paris wasn’t exactly a challenge, nor Trastevere in Rome, but otherwise…).
It started well with a fun trip on the shinkansen, AKA bullet train, but I had a minor wobble as soon as we arrived when I spied the crowds of tourists and, yes, queues. I am not good at queues.
But it turned out that 99% of the tourists were Japanese. And call me something or other but I don’t mind hanging out with other tourists if they’re from their own country. Then it’s more like observing locals at play.
Oh, whatever. It was weird doing the ‘famous’ but it felt even more odd not to see it and not to show you.
The only real hiccup was that having decided to play tourist, I didn’t actually act like one – I was hopelessly under-researched and had no Top Ten list in my back pocket. Instead, we did what we normally do – chose one area to explore and no more. As a result, this is very much, here’s one part of Kyoto with a few shots of Japan’s most famous temple from another part thrown in.
I hope you enjoy our two-and-a-half-days-in-Kyoto-but-it-looks-like-one tour…
Part 1: Day two – the morning
First there was the train. Well, more like a plane really. Travelling at 300km an hour, the Nozomi shinkansen 700 series delivered us from edgy Tokyo to ancient Kyoto in just under 2.5 hours.
2. Day one – the afternoon
All year we’ve rented apartments. Most fine, a couple great, one woeful (when the cockroaches started walking across my computer it was time to go).
But we were only going to be staying in Kyoto for two nights and, you know, it was my birthday. So I managed to wrangle a swish hotel room for the two nights at ‘media rates’.
The hotel, the Hyatt Regency, was beautiful and really, who doesn’t love having their bed and breakfast made for them. But what made it extra special was that they organised for us to hang out with Tsubo-san. Job description – driver. But as I said, we didn’t do much dashing around. Instead Tsubo-san walked around with us for the afternoon, playing games with Coco at the same time as enlightening me about all things Japanese.
We spent most of the afternoon visiting Kiyomizudera Temple in Higashiyama, the old part of Kyoto. Just us and a zillion Japanese, keen to see the autumn leaves before they took to the ground.
After Kiyomizudera Temple we headed north to Kinkaku, the Golden Pavillion, also known as Rokuon-ji Temple. But with night falling as well as rain – and Coco tired and cold – we only stayed for a second. Just long enough to wonder how much the pure gold foil that covers the top two stories must be worth.
Part 3: Day two – Gion
Aside from being peak Momiji-gari (autumn leaf viewing time), it also seemed to be peak wedding shots time in Gion, the famous geiko (geisha) district that’s part of Higashiyama.
Tsubo-san had told us about the white wedding hat women traditionally wear the day before. So when we pitched up in Gion and spied 26 year old Asami in her wataboshi, we knew why she was wearing a large white envelope-type covering over her head. Because she had horns – all women do – and she needed to hide them.
Being kimono mad, I loved the wedding version. But I really love the head gear. When the photographer’s assistant helped Asami take it off, I spied the mechanics – the white material is held up by a simple wire structure that fits around the head like a halo.
Thanking the couple and the photographer – who was patient enough to have me shoot around him for a few minutes – we wandered off. Then around half an hour later, to their horror I’m sure, we ran into them again – there’d been a ‘costume change’…
After leaving them for the final time we met several other wedding couples, all dressed in their finery. Kyoto was clearly the city of lurve.
Part 4: Day two – Geisha dress-up
There’s one street in Higashiyama where people hang around in the hope of seeing a real geisha (called geiko in Kyoto, or maiko if they’ve got their L plates on) fly into a taxi or nip into a restaurant.
But knowing it was hit and miss and with so little time, I didn’t even try. And really, I was almost just as happy snapping the ‘geisha tourists’ – Japanese women who generally were spending just a day in Kyoto, paying up to 10,000 yen (around AUD$120) to be made up and dressed in geisha style.
Like the woman below, whose name I couldn’t get because I had precisely two seconds to shoot her before she was dragged off by her small team – I assume they get a lot of people mistaking them for the real thing and they’re over being bothered.
With Yuika and her friend, Hitomi, I had a few minutes more before their two assistants ushered them off.
On our last morning we met the sweetest geisha tourists, Emi and Kazumi, who’d left their home town in the early hours of the morning and had travelled five hours in a bus to get to Kyoto just for the day. Why? “It feels very good to wear traditional Japanese dress.”
Unlike the others, they didn’t have any assertive assistants hanging around them. They were quite happy wandering around by themselves, taking their own snaps.
Short and sweet though it was, I loved our few days in the ancient capital. I know there are those who criticise the Japanese government for not keeping more of old Kyoto – aside from a few other famous bits, Higashiyama is really it – but at least they kept what they did. It was enough to provide a break from full-tilt Tokyo.
Many thanks to the Hyatt Regency too, not only for providing a lovely room in a very stylish hotel, but for introducing us to Tsubo-san, a lovely man with a great sense of mischief and a mind full of fascinating facts.
But it was quick. So much so that when we got back, Coco told me she thought Kyoto seemed like a dream.
I’m not so sure though – even if we’d stayed much longer, it might still seem like a dream. Especially during Momiji-gari.
On the home front
Dream or not, it was a lovely way to celebrate a birthday – although my actual birthday was spent back in Tokyo, wandering around Shimokitazawa again and eating cheap but excellent Indian at Spicia.
Now, the next post is going to be an even shorter one and it’s going to be very soon! Like tomorrow or so. Just that I have nine more neighbourhoods/suburbs to do and not that many weeks before I’ve got to get Coco back home and into school.
And yes, there’s that small thing called a budget too. It’s getting smaller by the minute.
This suburb has been brought to you by Anna Capron
See you very soon.