Everyone who read Memories of a Geisha will probably be disappointed by today’s Kyoto. Ok, it was pretty optimistic to expect the city to be like in the book, but I really didn´t know it´s so modern and busy.
Luckily we stayed a little bit outside of the centre in Kyoto Utano Hostel – a new, modern and bright house with a real highlight – the bathroom. Its typical Japanese style with small plastic chairs lined in front of mirrors and showers and a big bathtub with hot water. What´s so special? The front window is huge and overlooking the garden and if you’re there in the time of sakura, you can admire cherry blossoms while rubbing your soles.
We made our stay short and productive. Here´s what we visited:
Temple of the golden pavilion
Officially named Rokuon-ji is a Buddhist zen temple famous for the shining golden pavilion in the middle of a pond which is surrounded by Japanese gardens. Interesting is that the pavilion burned down twice in its history, last time in 1950, but was rebuilt and restored, putting even more gold leaves onto it. Today it´s one of the most popular buildings in Japan, but luckily the temple is on an island and although thousands of people visit it daily you´ll still get a decent view and picture of it.
The geisha district as some call it is in the heart of the city and in my opinion pretty hectic. There is no real sidewalk, the streets are full of cars and people waiting like hunters to capture a picture of a real geiko or maiko – if you didn’t know, these are the real names. We walked through but soon escaped the geisha maddness. Fine teahouses offer evenings with geikos or maikos, prices start at around 300€. Although I was dying to see a geiko perform (read the book and you´ll understand), this is way over our budget. Not seeing one real maiko or geiko (be aware, at daytime only tourist walk around Gion dressed like geishas) we made our way out of Gion not knowing that geikos are waiting for us elsewhere. 🙂
Arashiyama (bamboo forest)
From Kyoto Utano hostel you can easily ride a bicycle to the bamboo forest (20 minutes), but we had a hard time finding it. Anyway, it´s easy to find Arashiyama temple, next to the temple is a road into the forest, then it clears up and there are some houses on the left, walk pass them and you´re finally at the bamboo forest. We were there pretty early – 7:30 and we were not the first. Early mornings are popular with newlywed-photoshoots and after 8:00 it gets busier every minute.
This is by far our favourite place in Kyoto. We went there in the evening, when the backyard pond shines in hundreds blue lights and silent music plays in the wind. In the teahouse we spoiled ourselves with a short tea ceremony (500 yen), before entering the beautiful gardens. We got a lantern to follow the path more easily, but actually it´s given to you for a more romantic feeling. Walking through the garden will lead you to an illuminated bamboo forest, before descending to the pond and the blue lights. And the best thing: it wasn´t crowded at all!
Fushimi Inari Shrine
This is probably the most famous shrine in Japan (at least among foreigners), because we all saw pictures of thousands of tori gates lined up a hill (and not to forget, this sight is also in the movie Memories of a Geisha). This is another Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari – god of rice, and the hill behind the temple has the same name. The tori covered trail goes up the hill and further you go, less people you´ll encounter. Just in case you want pictures without ten people in it. 😉
Nishiki Food market
This market is located in the centre of the city and spans through a few blocks. It has a roof all the way, so a good solution if it´s raining. You´ll find loads of different food – from fresh to already prepared, sweets, fish, vegetable and fruit. The Japanese here are especially good at pickling food and almost everywhere it´s possible to try the snacks you want to buy. Souvenir shops are mixed among the food shops selling all kinds of Japanese must haves.
This park is very popular in the time of Sakura (cherry blossom), inviting hundreds of people with beautiful cherry trees. Come not only because of the trees, but also for people watching – the Japanese are lovely when sakura is around. 😉 If you walk up, till you hit the road, you might be lucky and see a geiko or two, as there is a hidden teahouse (but only in the evening).
Despite the fact that Kyoto was not what I expected it to be the city well worth a visit. Maybe it is better to visit Kyoto outside of sakura, because it gets insanely crowded.