Even weeks after leaving Kyoto, it’s hard to believe that this place even exists. It is the ancient, cultural heart of this Land of the Rising Sun, and to paraphrase a Japanese gentleman I met in Tokyo, who was speaking about the Japanese bombings of World War II, “if they had have bombed central Kyoto, there would have been no coming back from that”. And after taking a wander through the age-old streets of Gion, it’s hard not to agree.
To arrive in this city and embark on a sunset stroll along the Kamo-gawa (which translates as Wild Duck River), and over the Shijo-Ohashi (Shijo Bridge), where Japanese women dressed in summer kimonos called yakata are pausing along the railing to have their photos taken in front of the distant misty mountains, you feel that you have stepped, if not into the Middle Ages when Kyoto was established, certainly into another time and place.
After continuing at dusk over the bridge into Shijo-dori, the main tourist street in town, I slowed to peer at art cards painted with Geishas and Japanese script, boxes of matcha flavoured sweets, and wall hanging displays of colourful fans. Yet to break off into the artery of ancient laneways that disect the street, I walked directly on, drawn by the red arches of a shrine at the far intersection.
VISIT: Yasaka-jinja – this shrine, dating back to over 1,300 years ago, is considered the guardian shrine of nearby Gion. The view looking back through the front arch onto Shijo-dori, at least at this twilight hour, is one of my favourite views in Japan.
I only visited the shrine once, but I’m guessing that early evening in summer is the best time to visit, when people are shuffling along at leisure, without crowds, offering up private prayers and gazing at the inscribed lanterns, recently turned on.
GION is the most famous geisha district in Japan, and despite having numerous tourists floating about (though June when I visited is not the busiest month for international tourists in Japan, I’m sure it gets much worse in cherry blossom season around March/April), it still retains an air of mystery. Small eateries, tea houses and bars lay hidden behind sliding wooden doors and noren, the traditional fabric dividers often seen masking the entrances of Japanese establishments. Red lanterns on. But which door to choose? Which one has the famed white-faced and red-lipped entertainers in their vicinity? Everybody wants a glimpse…
But I was just content to wander the streets, take in the lights and the alleyways and the night. There were canals and bicycles, windows lined with sake bottles, lit up signs in hiragana and katakana and girls giggling in their summer dresses, eating late-night ice-cream.
There are few better cities for a sundown stroll that Kyoto. And as I wandered back to my hostel (the very excellent LEN) quite late, I stopped on the footpath to let someone go by – a geisha – who slid into a waiting taxi, her serene painted face pointing forward, and off they drove into the Kyoto night…
Want more? Check out my Wanderlust on Bondi Beach Radio Japan Special featuring interviews from this trip as well as loads of great Japanese tunes!