Japan day 11: Kyoto and Gion

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May 16th 2019
Published: May 23rd 2019
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We were up early and after breakfast went down to meet our guide for the day, Hiroko Inaba. 'Hiro' had spent two years in Finchley, north London and Lesley and she swapped stories. Hiro said that she misses London. However, the friendship could have become rivalry when she said that her sons support Arsenal Football Club - great rivals to Lesley’s team Tottenham Hotspur. However, that was not the reason Hiro immediately told us that she changed our guided tour schedule. Rather it was that the Imperial Palace was closed because of the Aoi festival (see yesterday’s blog). But as we had at least seen part of the palace grounds already, we were happy to adopt Hiro's amended tour plan.

We caught the local train to our first stop Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. This is the head shrine of the kami Inari located in Fushimi-ku. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain, Inari named by the word ina = rice and ri = bay of. So the shrine is where merchants and traders have traditionally worshipped Inari as the patron of business. On the forecourt of the shrine is a large empty space where people can bring their new cars for a priestly blessing for safe driving.

Guarding the entrance to the shrine are two foxes, as foxes keep the mice away from the granaries. The one on the right has his mouth open and the one on the left has his mouth closed. Again, this represents everything from the Japanese equivalent of A to Z.

The shrine is painted in a vermilion colour and undergoes refurbishment every twenty years. It was built in 711 and was one of the film sites for "Memoirs of a Geisha" which I had read but we had not seen.

Hiro told us how people purify themselves before going up to the shrine and how they then pray and ring the bell. There are 1000 tori gates leading up to the shrine and each one has the name of the donors. Whilst we were there we saw two women who were dedicated to the shrine processing requests. This involved some form of dance which was incredibly well choreographed and the women were in complete sync the one with the other. We did not climb all the way to the top but went through enough gates to get an idea of the magnitude of the gates.

We then got into a taxi to go to the Buddhist temple of Tofukuji. This is also a monastery. It takes its name from two temples in Nara, these being Todaji and Kofukuji, a five storey pagoda. It was built by an aristocrat in the 13th century who had seen the temples in Nara and wanted something similar. Its name means east happiness temple. It is the headquarters of the Zen sects, and comprises a massive complex of buildings. We stood at the side of the temple to see the emperor’s gate. There are three spaces between each gate, each space representing a freedom - freedom of thought, anger and desire.

We walked over to the old living areas of the monks to view the bathrooms. The excrement from the monks was collected every day to use as fertilizer.

We were not able to visit the inside of the temple but through the fencing we could see the Buddha who is protected by two dragons. The Hojo which was founded in 1235 is the main building of the temple. Surrounding the Hojo are the gardens . These were very unusual. They were dry gardens designed by Mr Mirei Shigemori in 1939. There were four types of gardens. The first, the eastern garden represented the constellation, the Big Dipper. The gravel was raked into circles with pillar stubs in their centers and you could envision the stars and the clouds. The second garden is the southern garden and is a meditation garden. People could sit and meditate looking at representations of mountains, and the five continents. Stones were representative of islands and the gravel whorls were the sea. The third garden, the western garden, has a gentle style composed of moss and azalea shrubs in a pattern of squares imitating “Seiden” the Chinese way of dividing the land. Finally the northern garden was of the ichimatsu design. This is a checkered design and a variation is being used for the 2020 Olympic logo. The checkers were dense at the beginning, dwindling to very few at the end. This represents life being full and active when we are young and slowing down as we age until finally there is nothing. As we walked through we could see the roof tiles had a raindrop pattern, which asks for protection against fire. The gardens are looked after by the novice monks.

After we left that shrine complex, Hiro hailed a taxi to take us to the Heian shrine. This is a Shinto shrine. The name Heian-jinju means tranquility shrine. It is located in Okazaki Park. It was built in 1895 to commemorate the first emperor who decided to place the capital of Japan in Kyoto. Heian is the former name of Kyoto and that was the 1100th anniversary of when it became the capital. In 1865 the emperor left Kyoto and established the capital in Tokyo. This shrine was built in the hope that the emperor would return. In fact many people in Kyoto still believe that the emperor’s Tokyo capital is not permanent and that he will return.

As you face the shrine on the left is a citrus tree and on the right a cherry tree. We then walked around a completely different type of garden. It was so peaceful even though there were tourists in it. It was a regular garden with plants and trees and in the center was a small pond. There are man-made canals which are full of water which comes from Lake Biwa. There were stepping stones across the pond and Don decided to cross the pond on them. He ducked under the first two branches of a tree but bumped straight into a third. Fortunately he didn’t fall in the water. Let's say Don was less graceful than Scarlett Johansson when she stepped across the stones in "Lost in Translation" (another film we haven't seen) as Hiro noted.

As we left the garden we passed by Lake Biwa. There is a beautiful summer house on a small island which is now owned by Kyoto city council. Hiro explained that the canals are part of an irrigation system. The city government thought that the people needed encouragement to stay and so made the irrigation system. On our way out we were asked by a group of school children to pose in a school photo with them. Of course we gladly consented.

We then found a taxi which took us to the Gion center where we had a sushi lunch. After lunch Hiro introduced us to a statue of Yaji and Kita in Gion by the river. These two are travelers who went from Tokyo to Kyoto, a distance of 500 km, and are popular comic book characters. A few films have been made about their adventures. From the bridge near which they were standing we could see mountains in the distance. Hiro explained that Kyoto is surrounded by mountains to the north, west and east.

We walked to the authentic Kyoto that I remembered from my last visit, the Ponto-cho district. This area is known for where geiko and maiko make their homes. The geiko are geishas and the maikos are apprentices. We walked past the theatre where there was a show later that afternoon. The girls practice their music, acting, singing and dancing skills every day and a few times a week they perform. We asked if there were tickets available and as there were we bought a pair.

As we walked up and down the streets, Hiro pointed out the houses where the maiko live. They are looked after by the mama san who buys their food, their kimonos, make up and all their needs. Any money they earn they give to the mama san to cover these expenses. If they do not make the grade they leave the profession without a penny to their names. If after a number of years they progress to become a geiko then they can leave the house and live on their own. We went into an office selling insurance for the girls and saw photos of the girls. Hiro explained and showed the differences between geiko and meiko.

Every house or restaurant or shop had a lantern outside the premises. On each lantern was a seagull, the symbol of the area. Don and I were looking for a table runner but instead we saw three short center pieces for the table which can be put on the table either individually or together. And they are machine washable. So we bought them.

Hiro wanted to walk around a bit more to see if we could spot any of the girls out and about. By that point I had walked my 8.5 km and wanted a rest. So I sat in a tea shop and ordered an ice coffee and was the topic of discussion by the few elderly customers having their coffee. Don and Hiro went for a short walk and came back for me. They had seen a couple of girls and a mama san, and even a dog - the latter in spite of my remark earlier that day that we had hardly seen any dogs in Japan. We then walked back to the theatre to see the show and to say goodbye to Hiro.

The Ponti-Cho noh theatre featured the annual Kamogawa Odori dance festival of May, so we were in for a special treat. The noh dance show was like the kabuki except that all the musicians, actors and performers were female. In fact as our first guide Kazui Yabe had explained (see day 3 blog from Tokyo) the kabuki dance originated in Kyoto, so in a sense we were seeing a modern version of that theatrical beginning. Within the audience were geikos who had obviously come to cheer their colleagues and a meiko who was with her family. We had a program with an explanation in English but regardless of language we were enthralled by the whole performance. We really enjoyed it.

Then a walk back to the nearest station and a train ride back to the hotel. We decided that we had eaten enough rice and noodles so we found a pizza place and bought a pizza for supper. Then back to the hotel and collapsed into bed. I was asleep by 9.30 pm and didn’t even hear Don take one suitcase downstairs to send it ahead of us to Hiroshima.

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