Kyoto, Gion, Geisha anecdotes

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I’m including Kyoto, Gion, Geisha and other “forgotten” bits and pieces in this blog post.  It is going to be a jumble of all the ad hoc things I haven’t included in my previous posts; the.  I could have incorporated some/all of these the topics into my previous posts, but that would have made them even longer!  In between all of this, I had to move hotels again.  Luckily, Kyoto Inn Gion has a sister hotel only a few hundred meters way, aptly named Kyoto Inn Gion the Second.  I underestimated how popular Kyoto is, with Kyoto Inn Gion fully booked hence the forced moved.  My new location was even better than the first (second in Kyoto), and there was nothing wrong with the first.  I combined my last two full days in Kyoto into one post, Kyoto – Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi Inari Taisha, take a look if you like.

I must give a shout out to the hotel staff at both Kyoto Inn Goins.  Moving can be a chore, as I was moving to their sister hotel, I didn’t need to do any paperwork at all.  Seems trivial, but it’s the little things that count.  Adding to their efficiency they were always super friendly, and helpful especially when I asked for help or clarification with my enunciation.  To top it off the sister hotel’s room was much bigger, the biggest I had had in Japan.  A big room is never high on my list of priorities still, a little more space is always welcomed.

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My morning coffee in an artisan cup and saucer – Kyoto Inn Gion the Second.

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My room at Kyoto Inn Gion the Second – the biggest room I had in Japan, great service too – Gion, Kyoto

My favourite parts of the city

Kyoto is a cool city with something, or maybe that’s just me…I doubt it though.  The outer areas are packed full of shrines and temples, especially at the bases of the mountains, no matter which direction.   Thinking about it, no matter where you are in Kyoto you are never far from a temple, shrine or historical site.  I cannot tell you how many places I walked past that in the very least I would have loved to poke my head into.  In the city centre Gion, Shinkyogoku-dori Street and Pontocho-dori were by far my favourite areas.

Gion – Crossing the Kamo River you could be mistaken for thinking you’re in a different city. Filled with traditional shops, the heart of Gion still glimmers with the distant past.  Gion offers up its best when you get of the main roads and into the narrow backstreets.  If you took away the paved roads, Gion is like taking a step back in time.  Wooden houses with bamboo fronts, I’m so glad I moved hotels, and lucky to have stayed in Gion for most of my time in Kyoto.

Shinkyogoku-dori – Not that shopping is my thing, but it’s a nice alternative to walking through the many malls in Kyoto. I’d say it’s a mix of market stalls with a few high street shops too, worth a visit or just a walk through.

Pontocho-dori – Running parallel to Kamo River on the West side only a block from the river, this is the second-best place to spot Geisha/Geiko/Maiko. It’s a narrow road, more like an alleyway, packed with quaintness and authenticity.  From curio shops to high-end traditional restaurants, it’s a great place to amble about at night.

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The main road that runs through the heart of historical Gion – Kyoto

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Pontocho-dori, the second-best place to spot Geisha/Geiko/Maiko (Yes I have used this picture before) – Kyoto

Geisha, actually Geiko

First things first, the differences between Geisha, Geiko and Maiko:

Geisha and Geiko:

  • They are the same thing. A Geiko is a Geisha from Kyoto, and a Geisha comes from Tokyo
  • Their hair is elaborately made up, with little and very understated accessories
  • Kimonos have less patterns, if there are patterns, they will be on the bottom half of the kimono
  • Their leggings are often pink or a light colour with no patterns
  • They were flatter sandals
  • The above are the easiest to remember and spot quickly. There are quite a few other visual differences, but I won’t get into all of them

Maiko:

  • They are apprentice Geiko/Geisha
  • Their hair isn’t as elaborately made up compared to a Geisha/Geiko, however they do have more (and larger) decorative and colourful hair accessories. Many of them have what looks like a small wind chime on their right-side of their head
  • Kimonos have more colours and patterns throughout (top to bottom)
  • Their leggings are red and often have a white floral pattern
  • Junior Maiko’s top lip does not have lipstick and is instead white
  • Their sandals are thicker like platforms

Most of the time people, including myself, mistake Maikos for Geisha/Geiko.  There I was snapping away at Maikos thinking they were Geikos.  Whether it is true or not I don’t know, but Geishas are not often seen walking to work so naturally they are spotted less.  During my search to capture them I only saw seven of them.  One two occasions, a Geisha (not Maiko) was getting into a taxi.  She was too far away, with it happening so suddenly I didn’t get the chance to take a picture.  Another two occasions I say Maikos at a distance, then disappearing into buildings, again I was too slow.

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Finally saw a Maiko coming from a distance, but couldn’t get my camera settings sorted before she whizzed past! – Gion, Kyoto

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…like I said, this Maiko whizzed past! – Gion, Kyoto

Two things I observed when out looking for Geishas.  Firstly, they walk silently.  You would think with all that clothing and those shoes they would make a noise, not at all, they are as stealthy!  Secondly, they walk bloody fast!  Living in London I learnt to walk fast, but the Maikos and Geikos walk very fast.  Considering how restrictive their clothing looks, and none that I saw were particularly tall, wow they move like the wind!  Even as they speed through the street you cannot escape how elegantly they do so.

There is a decorum to taking Geisha’s/Maiko’s pictures.  Yes, you can do so when they are out in public.  Don’t block their path in order to get a frontal picture.  Never try to stop them to ask for a picture nor talk to them i.e. try to distract them.  It may be a novelty to tourists, nonetheless they are on their way to work so stopping them would be rude and inconsiderate.  In the end I managed to capture two Maikos (ok pictures) and one Geiko one the move.  I call the latter an action shot a.k.a. not a very good photo that is out of focus 😊

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Me acting like the paparazzi, snapping a passing Maiko – Gion, Kyoto

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My “action hot” of a Geiko/Geisha. The only Geiko/Geisha I was able to capture – Gion, Kyoto

Gion Corner Yasaka Hall

It’s the Kyoto Traditional Musical Foundation with the show broken into seven segments.  Each different, with a separate unrelated topic.  Cost is ¥3150 per adult, but they do have group discounts.  I tried getting in twice, on the first occasion the queue was so long I decided not to go.  A tip from the hotel staff was to get there at least 1 hour before the show starts; they have a limited number of seats meaning it’s first come first served.  The whole show only takes 50-60 minutes, something I would recommend going to see if it fits your budget.

Chado / Tea Ceremony – Watching any skilful craftsperson is interesting, and that’s exactly what the tea ceremony is all about.  Tea tasting was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhist priests during the Heian Period (12th Century).  A sombre ceremony yet intriguing, and embodiment of Japanese culture; striving for perfection, purpose and beauty even in the most mundane tasks of life.

Koto / Japanese Harp – A unique sound that reverberates the soundtrack of ancient Japan and China.  An eerie soulful resonance that penetrates the heart and mind.  It echoes and yearns for the past and found the sound to be solitudinous.

Kado / Flower Arrangement – Interesting, with the use of different and beautiful flowers.  However, this was my least favourite part of the show

Gagaku / Court Music – More of a theatrical performance with traditional music, Gagaku means “elegant music”, but includes dancing and singing.  Originating in China circa. 7th century it made its way to Japan in the 8th Century, slowly fading out of popularity in China.  Today it can be classified as authentically Japanese.

Kyogen / Ancient Comic Play – It’s amazing how comedy transcends language and culture.  Kyogen is akin to slapstick, so not knowing the language really makes no difference at all.  Alcohol often works well in these situations, and here sake plays a key role.  These sorts of plays have been popular since the 16th century

Kyomai / Kyoto Style Dance – Performed by a junior Maiko and Maiko, I enjoyed this part of the show the most.  Maybe not for the reason would think…finally get close to a Maiko without them zooming past me with their quick little steps 😊.  They perform a traditional dance using slow, graceful and elegant movements done with precision and purpose.  The performance was moving and emotional, to me it had a tinge of melancholy.  I’d like to see more Japanese traditional dances, very interesting.  I’ll leave it at that.

Bunraku (Puppet Play) – Watching it made me reminisce of the puppet shows I saw in Vietnam (Hanoi and Hoi An), without the water.  I suppose it is the equivalent of watching a short Shakespeare play.  With an underlying story parallel to true accounts hundreds of years ago.  Like Romeo and Juliet, two star crossed lovers have a wedge forced between them by a protagonist.  In the end they are reunited to kindle a love which is shunned by society.

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An art instillation by Yayoi Kusama outside Yasaka Hall Gion Corner (by the theatre) – Gion, Kyoto

Restaurants and food displays

If you like steak then Japan is the place for you, especially Kobe and Kyoto.  It’s not just the top-end restaurants that get booked up, they all do!  There is a restaurant to match everyone’s purse strings, I opted for the middle ground.  With a plethora of restaurants to choose from, I sought the advice from the hotel staff at reception.  Always happy to help, they suggested a restaurant called 1596, called and book a table for me.  I’m pretty sure 1596 is not the Japanese name for the restaurant.  For some or other reason I struggled to find the address when writing this, however this link will take you to it (address for 1596).  It goes without saying, the menu for steak is quite extensive and the results was a meaty meal I had been craving!  Easily in the top 10 best steaks I have ever had, the glass of red wine (two) went down just as well too.

At first, I thought the waiters were not very good.  I kept looking up to grab their attention, except they seemed to be ignoring me.  Only after watching the people next to me did I have my eureka moment, silly me!  Waiters here leave customers alone; my guess is they see it as intrusive.  If you want help/service, you call them.  I doubt whistling or clicking your fingers would be accepted, but a respectful call out is all they need.  Once I adapted the service couldn’t have been any better – though at first, I was a little embarrassed.  Personally, I much prefer the Japanese style.  You get to eat in peace, without someone constantly coming over to ask you how the meal is…invariably when your mouth is full of food.

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1596 steak restaurant in Gion – Kyoto

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Part of the steak menu at the restaurant 1596 in Gion – Kyoto

Again, another recommendation of my hotel, a soup and noodle restaurant called Musoshin; around the corner from Kenninji Temple.  Considerably cheaper than the steak restaurant, yet just as tasty and a different experience too.  As a rookie to Japan I didn’t know what to do when I arrived.  It’s a very small restaurant, more like a café in size; with only two employees, including the chef.  In order to make a convoluted story succinct I’ll summarise.  Before taking a seat there is a ticket vending machine at the entrance; you select what you want, including drinks, pay and it prints out your order and receipt.  You give this to one of the employees when you sit down, and they get one with preparing your food.  If you want something else, you go back to the ticket machine and repeat the process; you cannot order &/or pay to anyone.

To make things more interesting, the ticket machine is entirely in Japanese, except for rice.  The confused look on my face caught the attention of the non-chef, thankfully he helped me order.  There were a few pictures of dishes that looked interesting, I pointed to which one and he in turn showed me which buttons to press.  For the price, and I honestly cannot remember how much it cost, it was a full heart delicious meal (and beer) and cheap!

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My dinner at the restaurant Musoshin in Gion, ordered from the vendor waiter machine 🙂 – Gion, Kyoto

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The “vendor waiter” at Musoshin – Gion, Kyoto

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Might not seem like much, but Musoshin is a great little restaurant with excellent prices – Gion, Kyoto

I ate at a few other places, a suchi restaurant which was fantastic, just cannot remember the name.  Another restaurant was just like eating at a family member’s house, not far from the hotel too – heap as chips!  Although Kyoto (Japan as a whole) is expensive there are many cheap ways to eat out without breaking the bank.  Looking back, I can’t recall every having a bad experience with the restaurants or food.  Ah yes, almost forgot!  Many restaurants have window displays of their food.  Only thing is, the displays are plastic moulds!  Most of them look extremely realistic, they can really help know what food is sold without needing to read Japanese.

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Plastic food displays in the windows of some of the restaurants in Kyoto

Kyoto

I think this was a green tea matcha latte (may have been a keto). I had mine with no sugar, tasted excellent – Kyoto

Black Kites

Kyoto surprised me in many ways. For a city of such size and population you are never far from nature.  Whether it’s the beautiful gardens at shrines and temple to the surrounding mountains.  Even inside the city there are canals full of fish and ducks (click on the link and scroll down to the second last picture).  The Kamo River cuts through Kyoto from North to South, with many bridges frequented by tourists and locals just taking in the sites.  One thing you are almost guaranteed to see every time are Black Kites.  I tried my best to get some clear pictures, a rather challenging task with a moving target in the sky…if only they would keep still for a second or two! 😊

Kyoto

One of the many Black Kites flying over the Kamo River right in the city centre. They seem to hang around near the bridges – Kyoto

Vending Machines

Kyoto and Tokyo are full of vending machines one the pavements/sidewalks.  Tokyo surprised me by the sheer number of them, I reconciled this with the fact of it being such vast and populated city.  Seems vending machines are the norm, with Kyoto no different.  In Gion they seem to stick out like a sore thumb.  Gion for most part is very traditional, from restaurants to architecture. It even has a different vibe to the West side of Kamo River.  Anyway, I just found it interesting at the number of vending machines, most of which sell drinks…of any and every kind you can think of.  Why so many vending machines, I don’t know?  It’s not like there aren’t any shops around, and with so many machines it’s unlikely you’ll die of dehydration from one road to the next.

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Random I know! There are so many vending machines throughout Tokyo and Kyoto, these were in Gion – Japan

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Yup, another vending machine in a random place, they are everywhere. This was over the road from the Kyoto Inn Gion the Second – Kyoto

Haircut

Another quick shout out and thanks to Koichi Ikemoto, the owner of Yoshida Barber shop Kewpie.  Around 100m from my hotel at 434 Minamisaikaishichō, Higashiyama-ku, 東山区 Kyōto-fu.  A real Japanese barber with a Rock ’n Roll/Rockabilly styling.  Koichi was super cool, his English considerably better than my Japanese, which is near nonexistent.  Even so, he cracked up a conversation and the haircut results were excellent, even if I say so myself.  No, I didn’t take a photo, pity.  You may have guessed I’m not one for selfies, a shame not to have shown off Koishi’s stylish work.  Thanks Koishi!

Toilets

I imagine it’s not to often to have a section in a blog about toilets. Come to think of it if I include all my experiences, I could easily write a whole blog post on toilets.  Don’t worry, this will not be a crass paragraph.  I’ve included the photo below, which was the simplest toilet device.  From heated toilet seats, different types of sprays and strengths, they do almost everything.  I even had one that blows air (various cool to warm settings) to dry you off instead of using toilet paper.  At my first hotel in Tokyo, the toilet must have had close to 10 buttons!  That, along with Wi-Fi and power to plug your phone into…why leave the bathroom at all! 😊 Ps. at all my hotels in Japan the bathrooms mirrors were heated so they don’t steam up, love that!

Kyoto Inn Gion

My on-suite at Kyoto Inn Gion the Second. Small, compact but with everything and more than you need. Spotless too! – Gion, Kyoto

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Love the toilet controls in Japan, this one was the least sophisticated – Kyoto, Japan

Transport

Arriving in a new country or city can have its challenges, especially if the local language is different to your own.  What can exacerbate the anxiety, is if the written language has no resemblance to your own.  Getting around Japan was a doddle, I’d go so far as to say pleasurable.  Google Maps is a godsend, but if your mobile/cell phone doesn’t work overseas it doesn’t matter – mine was.  My hotel was always willing to help &/or give guidance and suggestions.  The JR Pass was definitely cost effective for me.  Had I not bought one my travel would have been close to double what I paid!

The customer service and help from staff at the Metro’s were always very helpful, the language was never much of a problem.  And, within the major/large towns/cities the signage is in Japanese and English.  I think I many have mentioned (a few times 😊), that the busses, trains and Metro’s are spotless – the cleanest public transport I have ever used.  On one occasion I got onto a bus on the wrong side of the road, really no harm done, losing 30 minutes of my day…hardly the stuff to write about.

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Public transport is super efficient and spotless! – Kyoto

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The Shinkansen (bullet train), with plenty of leg space even with my lying at an angle. Grrrrr don’t know where the rest of my photos of the Shinkansen are – Japan

Manga Museum and Samurai Museum

For me there were only two disappointments in Kyoto, firstly the Manga Museum and secondly the Samurai Museum.

  • Manga Museum – This is in all probability because of my expectations instilled by Western “Manga”. Manga is huge in Japan, but “my style” of Manga is more the warrior type.  At the museum it covers all the spectrums of Manga, which I’m not as au fait with.  If Manga is your cup of tea, don’t let my opinion deter you
  • Samurai Museum – It’s not a museum per se. I’d say it’s more like a tourist attraction, where you can dress up in samurai clothing and get your photo taken.  I was very keen to find out more about the samurai, finding it odd there was little to nothing to accommodate it – except for the “museum”.

That’s the end of my mix-match Kyoto blog post.  I know the photos are not cool or unique, but they hold fond memories for me.  Sure, seeing the popular sites is great fun, yet it’s all the little moments that are special and leave a lasting memory. Kyoto was awesome, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute, just wished I had seen more.  I learnt loads about Japan, the Japanese people, their history and religion, but only scratched the surface and would love to learn more.

Additional random pictures from Kyoto

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Shijo-dori (street) – Kyoto

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Back streets of Gion a little deserted during the rain (I was out looking for Geisha/Geiko – Kyoto

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The narrow back streets of Gion – Kyoto

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One of the narrow alleyways in Gion. These are one of the best places to experience Gion – Kyoto

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Entrance to a house in the historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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One of the narrow streets off the main road in the historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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Historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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In the historical quarter of Gion, this type of shopfront is common – Gion, Kyoto

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Rickshaw rides are common in Gion and any of the main tourist attractions – Kyoto

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A typical side street in Kyoto

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Walking back from 1596, stomach full after a great meal! Don’t know why I like this photo, just do – Gion, Kyoto

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Some random photo of a shop in Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Temples, Geisha – Day2

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On the agenda for the day was Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Nishi Hongwanji, Higashi Honganji and some of Gion to try spot a Geisha or two.  I had planned to see Sento palace and Omiya palace, but was unable to, I’ll explain why later.  Yesterday had been my first full day of exploring in Kyoto (Day 1), it did not disappoint.  Day two would be spent within the centre of Kyoto.

I’ve tried wracking my brains about what I did the night before, including dinner, but I have no recollection what so ever.  The only thing I do remember, was that I didn’t venture far from the hotel and had yet to fully explore the local cuisine.  My agenda for the second day came about the previous evening, that I do know.  With so much to see within central Kyoto, you really don’t need to venture far.  In addition, I would have to be checking out of my hotel UNIZO Inn Kyoto Kawaramachi Shijo the following morning.  Staying close to base would make things easier to get back and find alternative accommodation (&/or speak to my hotel to extend my stay).  Yes, I have already decided to extend my time in Kyoto…that was the easiest decision ever made.

First things, where to find a good cup of coffee to kickstart the day.  Less than 50m from the hotel (as you exit the hotel turning right) I found the coffee shop recommended by the hotel.  If they hadn’t told me about it, I doubt I would have gone in.  I’ve tried finding the place’s name on Google, even running through Streetview with no luck.  Nothing wrong with the place, it just looked more like a small bar/restaurant.  Their coffee, great taste and bloody strong, just how I like it.  With the contraption they make it with, it looks more like a science experiment than coffee maker!

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My morning coffee – Interesting contraption – Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial Palace

The palace is in a park about 1km North of the main shopping district in central Kyoto.  This park used to be part of the palace grounds measuring 1.3km long and 800m wide.  By far the largest park within central Kyoto, and within it there are two separate enclosures.  Firstly, is the enclosure of Sento and Omiya Palace (I’ll explain more later).  Secondly, is that of Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was my first stop for the day.

As expected, the park is well maintained, but what struct me was how wide the internal walkways are.  Some are at least 10 cars wide if not more, made of coarse gravel that kicks up into your shoes when you walk.  I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what to expect from an old Japanese Palace.  Having been to many European palaces, I guess I was expecting something similar, with a Japanese flavour of course.  Elegant, yes, but so far from the ostentatious of European counterparts that it may be from a different planet.  It is ornate, but like so many things in Japan it has an understated presence too

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Kenreimon – one of the main entrances to Kyoto Imperial Palace

Background

Wood and fire have never been friends, which is aptly demonstrated throughout Kyoto’s historical monuments.  Many monuments, Shrines and temples have been burnt down and rebuilt, some many times over.  Kyoto Imperial Palace is a perfect example, having been rebuilt eight times, six of which was during the Edo period – during a time of peace.  This is one of the reasons that its current location isn’t the original which was South West for where it stands today.  It has been in its current location since the 12th century, having been in its original location since 794.

Kyoto Imperial Palace officially superseded Heian Palace (Heian Shrine) as the official residence of the Emperor after it burnt down in 1177 (may have been 1227).  For over 1000 years Kyoto Imperial Palace remained the primary home for the Emperor, only to be moved to Tokyo Imperial Palace during the Meiji Restoration in 1869.  Saying that, Kyoto Imperial Palace as it stands today is a reincarnation built in 1855 (with a few additions afterwards).  This rebuild included changes to included more architectural resemblance to the Heian Palace.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Palanquin porch (carriage porch). Used exclusively by envoys of the Shogun and high ranking courtiers when visiting the palace – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Known in Japan as Kyoto Gosho, Kyoto Imperial Palace is like visiting Buckingham Palace but with more access, but not everywhere (no photos inside either).  Other than being an Emperor/King/Queen’s residence that’s about the only similarity to Westerns Palaces.  Of course, this would have been the epitome of elegance, money whilst adhering to traditions and decorum, but not ostentatious.  I can’t go through every little detail of every room, so I’ll try mix it up with highlights, thoughts and pictures…in the hope of doing it justice.

Whilst Europe was at the beginning off its Gothic and Renaissance era, Japanese architecture seems to be on the opposite site of the scale.  Naturally each Japanese era had its own style, but there seems a distinct similarity.  More like a gradual change with only a few tweaks here and there.  To me their inspiration and motivate in their buildings is near the opposite of European buildings.  Whereas Europe seemed to be driven by being more grandiose, here being part of nature and the earth is the inspiration.  I’m struggling to find the words, without diminishing the artistry, ingenuity and craftsmanship these building exude.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Smaller jomeimon (inner gate) leading to the inner courtyard which leads to the Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Main jomeimon (inner gate) leading to the inner courtyard which leads to the Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den, with massive Zen gravel garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

From a distant, many of the buildings look alike, quite long, as they get longer the squatter in appearance.  The devil is in the detail, which can only be fully appreciated and admired when you get close-up.  With the most complicated rafter system I have ever see, allowing the building to move, making them earthquake resistant.  Their roof tops either thatched or tiled, both fraying out like wide hips to the gutters.  I’ve tried to describe historical Japanese style and architecture, but I’m yet to find the words that match my thoughts.

The pitched roofs seem disproportionately high in relation to the living/worshipping spaces below.  From the front and back, the roof splays out elegantly like a starched apron curling up ever so slightly at the tips.  The sides of the roof almost always vertical and exposed, but understated ornately decorated.  These decorations in muted colours of different woods, copper, bronze and gold.  Granted gold isn’t a muted colour, yet somehow it is used with the right proportions.  A contrast against the dark wood, reflecting the sunlight so that these rooftops can be seen dotted throughout Kyoto.

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Ingenious network of roof timbers – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Seiryoden (Hall for Rites and Rituals). Prior to 1590 it used to be the Emperors living quarters. The Emperor sites between the two lions – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Shishinden (Hall of State Ceremonies) from the side – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Having waffled on I haven’t said much about the palace.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, taking my time strolling the corridors, courtyards and of course the gardens – they are beautiful as I had become expectantly accustomed to.  Much of inside the palace is/was closed to the public, but that didn’t dilute the experience at all.  From the waiting chambers painted in accordance with ranking in society:

  1. Room of the Cherry Trees – everyday visitors
  2. Room of the Cranes – for intermediate visitors of good social standing
  3. Room of the Tigers – for the most senior in society, royalty, envoys, ambassadors
Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Cherry Trees – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Cranes – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Tigers – Kyoto Imperial Palace

NB. An interesting fact I learnt. If you look are early Japanese depictions of tigers, they seem embellished and anatomically incorrect. This oddity seems to contradict the precision of Japanese art, calligraphy and everything else they did.  The reason for this inaccurate portrayal is simple.  Tigers are not indigenous to Japan, the first time they saw them was from tiger hides/skin brought to Japan for Asian.  It is from these skins that they tried to piece these creates together in their paintings/drawings – like a reverse taxidermist.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Oikeniwa garden with Keyakibashi bridge – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

I hope the pictures and the descriptions do the Kyoto Imperial Palace justice.  If I had to opportunity to visit Kyoto again, obviously I would like to see the hundreds of other things I missed first-time around.  Though, if I got the opportunity to visit the palace again, I wouldn’t hesitate in doing so. Concluding, I’ll stop blabbering on without saying much.  The weather had started to turn with a murky grey sky.  It wasn’t the coldest of days, though not shorts and t-shirt as the day before.  From palace to castle, my next stop of the day was Nijo Castle.

Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

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Beautifully decorated balustrade ends – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Ah yes, I almost forgot!  Next on my list was to be Omiya and Sento Imperial Palace, within the same park grounds as Kyoto Imperial Palace.  I tried to entre, however you need to book in advance and they only take a few visitors per day.  Plus, it is only open (with a booking) during specific times of the year.  Like I said, it was open though fully booked.  Although nothing except foundations remains of Sento Palace (finally burnt down in 1854), Omiya Palace was rebuilt in 1867.   Omiya Imperial Palace is the official residence for the current prince and princess when they visit Kyoto.

Nijo Castle

I’ve said so before, but I like castles, and Nijo Castle even looks interesting from the outside.   Of the many castles I’ve visited (primarily in Europe), I categories them into two criteria. Firstly, those situated on a vantage point, using the lay of the land as a natural defence.  Secondly, building fortifications as protection – normally on flat land.  Nijo Castle falls into the second category (in my thinking of categorisation 😊).

Located between Kyoto Imperial Palace and downtown Kyoto (where the shopping area and Nikishi Market it), except it’s a few blocks West.  The lay of the land surrounding the castle is as flat as a pancake.   The first thing that struck me was the light grey stone walls of the inner circumference of the moat.  The long walls built at a gentle inward slope of smooth large stones that seems to grow out of the water.

These long spans of walls broken by three gated entrances on the North (Great North Gate – Kita-Ote-mon), East (Great Eastern Gate – Higashi-Ote-mon) and West (West Gate – Nishi-mon); the latter what looks like a disused small drawbridge or service entrance.  The only other break in these sleek moat walls is a tower on the South-eastern corner called a yagura – one of the more regular photos taken of Nijo Castle.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle, exterior moat with fortification (South East corner) – Kyoto

Layout of Nijo Castle

In order to make things a little easier to understand (for me that is), I’ll explain the general layout of Nijo Castle.  In fact, there isn’t a “castle building”, instead it houses two palaces.  Crossing the first outer moat gives you access to Ninomaru Palace.  Once inside the complex you cross an inner moat to access Honmaru Palace.  This second moat too is surrounded by high fortification walls.  Both moats have square corners adding to its austere uniformity, almost like concentric squares.

Honmaru Palace

Inner moat with fortification walls of Honmaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Background

Nijo Castle was the brainchild of Tokugawa Ieyasa (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616), with construction completed in 1603.  Tokugawa was a unifier of Japan, after a prolonged period of civil wars.  This unification brought about peace and prosperity for nearly 260 years.  Starting with bringing together all the feudal lords and building Nijo Castle.  The Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan until 1867 when the Meiji Restoration brought back Imperial Rule.

1601 – Tokugawa instructs in feudal lords (diamyo) of Western Japan to build Nijo Caste

1603 – Completion of the castle

1614 – Tokugawa conquers the Toyotomi family (the previous rulers of Japan) during the Siege of Osaka.

1624 – large scale renovations done to the castle as preparation for an Imperial Visit by Emperor Go-Mizunoo

1750 – Lightning strikes the keep tower and it burns down

1867 – In October, Tokugawa Yoshinobu calls a meeting with all the heads of the clans at the Great Hall (Ohiroma) of Ninomaru Palace.  Yoshinobu announces at the meeting that he will be restoring Imperial Rule to Japan

1884 – Nijo Castle becomes Nijo Rikyu (Nijo Imperial Villa

1915 – Nijo Castle is used for the coronation of Emperor Taishō.  In a purpose build banquet hall, now the location of the Seiryu-un Garden – on the North side between the two moats.

1939 – Imperial Household Ministry gives Nijo Castle to the City of Kyoto

1994 – Nijo Castle becomes listed on UNESCO World Heritage

2011 – Full restoration of Nijo Castle

Ninomaru Palace / Ninomaru-Goten Palace

Access to Nimomaru and Honmaru Palace was mostly restricted to walking around its exterior, where you could go inside no photography was allowed ☹.  I’m not going to pretend I remember the details of the inside, it was understatedly impressive, a composed ambience.  Suffice to say I enjoyed my time there, spending a few hours – I hope that says enough.

Both a highlight and frustrating moment was walking through the “nightingale corridor”.  As you walk on the wooden floor the creaking creates the distinct sound of singing nightingales.  These floorboards were intentionally made to creak, and calculatedly the creaks made to sound like nightingales.  How on earth this was deliberately achieved I have no idea, remarkable and ingenious craftsmanship.  This sound was created as a security feature; in order to hear anyone walking in the corridor; so that no one could sneak up on anyone in the rooms.

 

At first, it’s as if there must be an aviary filled with nightingales behind one of the walls.  Singing nightingales fills the corridor as more people walk through.  My frustration came with people talking loudly as they walked through.  Instead of enjoying and just listening to this unique experience, some people just don’t think or consider other people – well that’s my theory.  I’ve attached a recording, unfortunately it is dominated by people speaking, but if you listen carefully you can hear the creak of nightingales (near the beginning and the end).

Nijo Castle

The karamon (main gate) to Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru Palace

Entrance to Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru Palace

Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

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The intricate and detailed roof tiles – Ninomaru Palace, Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Ninomaru Garden

It was altered as part of the 1626 Imperial Visit.  Of course, it’s in immaculate condition, that goes without saying.  A pond with three islands linked by low stone bridges is the focal point.  The beams of each bridge a singular piece of stone stretching from one side to the next, no handrails.  They look like monoliths, cast into place by nature, lying there for thousands of years.

Nothing in these gardens are down without purpose.  The largest island is a Horai-jima Island which represents “paradise”, then there is a crane island and turtle island, both metaphors for longevity. All the trees look like they’ve been pruned like large bonsai’s, accentuating their colours and forms.

Nijo Castle

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru Palace / Honmaru-Goten Palace

Crossing over the moat on the Honmaru East Bridge you entre through the Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate.  The fortification walls ever so slightly smaller that the exterior walls, making you feel like you’ve walked into a safe inside a safe.  None of Honmaru Palace was open to the public, with the best views from the elevated base of the burnt down keep tower (1750).

This vantage point gives a great lay of the surrounding land with Honmaru Palace and Honmaru Gardens below.  Now that I had become a Japanese garden snob, I didn’t spend much time Honmaru Gardens.  Had it been anywhere else in the world, I would have likely admired it deservingly, but from what I had already seen in Kyoto this garden was below par.  Added to my low grading of the garden (I’m just being facetious), Honmaru Palace was closed, so I exited on Honmaru West Gate crossing the moat.

Nijo Castle

Honmaru Bridge and Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate. Crossing the second moat to Honmaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru Palace

Taken from the base of the keep (South West corner) with Honmaru Palace and Honmaru Garden ahead and below – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Almost the entire Western half of the whole complex is made up of various gardens – between the inner moat and the outer exterior fortifications.  From cherry trees in their last bloom, small grassland meadows with wild flowers, to manicured shrubs with rich red and pink flowers.  These gardens are distinctly more natural to the others, like walking through fields or parks.  From meadows to the Seiryu-en Garden (moving clockwise around the garden), a more traditional garden with the symbolic islanded (I hope that’s a word) ponds.

Honmaru Palace

Honmaru Palace carriage porch – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru

Taken from the base of the keep, the moat surrounding Honmaru Castle and gardens beyond – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

Nijo Castle Gardens

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

A small pottery exhibition and a separate one on kimonos was taking place.  The palace grounds are big, I found both exhibitions quite by chance whilst on my way to the exit.  Small exhibitions, then again big isn’t always better.  I’m always on the lookout for pottery as you may have gathered by now, because my mother is a potter.  As for the kimonos it reminded me the Yohji Yamamoto exhibition I saw at the V&A Museum in London in 2011.  Styles, shapes and colours so different to what I’ve grown up with.  Not much else to say about either topic, it was just cherry on top of a lovely visit to Nijo Castle.

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Kimono exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Kimono exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Pottery exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Pottery exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Nishi Hongan-ji

I may have already mentioned but the weather wasn’t great.  As the day passed the already grey clouds where thickening and turning deep grey.  Not that it deterred me, I lived in London for 20yrs.  It was late in the day, but to early to call it quits.  Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji were only a short distance away.

Nishi Hongan-ji

The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

 Both Nishi Hongan-ji and Hongan-ji are Jōdo Shinshū temples, a school of Pure Land Buddhism, with Nishi Hongan-ji the “head office” temple for Jodo Shinshu.  Making the complex a combination of temple and much newer administrative buildings.  The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, dating back to 1321, but only at its current location since 1591.  When I got there, as with so many other places, I had no idea of its significance.  With time against me before they closed for the day, I only skirted about the complex without giving it much attention.   Most of my time and attention was given to the 400yr+ old gingko tree outside the Goeido (Founders Hall).

Nishi Hongan-ji

400yr+ old gingko tree at Nishi Hongan-ji

Nishi Hongan-ji

The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Going inside the Goeido lost its relevance without understanding the significance nor context of the temple.  Like seeing the Giza pyramids without knowing they are circa. 4500 years old.  Even so, I enjoyed taking a look around, but at the back of my mind I knew I had to leave to get to Higashi Hongan-ji before it closed too.

PS. I only got to see at most 30% of the complex, realistically missing the best bits…to my regret

Nishi Hongan-ji

Inside the Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Nishi Hongan-ji

The pitched rooves are always interestingly decorated. The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Higashi Hongan-ji

Just like Nishi Hongan-ji my stop over at Higashi Hongan-ji was fleeting, even more so.  Higashi Hongan-ji dates to 1602, like so many other buildings in Kyoto it burnt down only to be rebuilt in 1895.  Here I was rushing around aimlessly because of closing time.  In all honesty the visit was a waste of time because I gained nothing other than ticking it off my list – not the way I like to do things at all.

Higashi Hongan-ji

The Founder’s Hall Gate at Higashi Hongan-ji

Higashi Hongan-ji

The Founder’s Hall of Higashi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Gion

My day had been great, I really enjoyed everything I had done and seen.  Still feeling I could squeeze more into the day I thought I’d walk to Gion to try spot a Geisha.  Now before I get into this, I’m going to leave Gion and Geishas to a later blog post.  My next hotel was in Gion, and I explored the area and tried to catch a glimpse of Geishas many times.

Whilst heading to Gion, the heavens opened, and I was caught for the first time without my raincoat in my day pack.  Why exactly I had taken my raincoat out of my back I don’t know, its never happened since!  Anyway, I got to Gion soak to the bone.  The sun was almost set, and the street lights cast a hazy glow shimmering against the wet surface of the road.

Yes, I got to see a Geisha, more to do with luck than anything else.  I’ll leave things here, so much more to say about Gion and Geisha spotting and this post is already much longer than I had wanted.  Picking up from what I have just said, I would move hotels the next morning.  This ended up being a great decision, moving into the heart of Gion.

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My first excursion of many into Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto

Typical side street in Gion (lots more about Gion to come) – Kyoto

Kyoto

Little side street in Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto

Traditional entrance to an old residence in Gion – Kyoto