Kyoto (Southeast & Southern Higashiyama)

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November 12th 2019
Published: February 23rd 2020
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You can't arrive at Fushimi-Inari Temple too early; head out before sunrise so you can watch the sun break though the vermilion torii gates either near the temple entrance or through the trees higher up the mountain of Inari-san. The higher you go the thinner the crowds, and you'll still encounter seemingly endless arcades of gates, mostly large but also small ones, and tiny ones, all bright red against the dark green foliage and gray stone foxes, scattered by the hundreds throughout the shrine and sub-shrines. It's a beautifully surreal experience.

Fushimi Inari Shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital's move to Kyoto in 794. Fushimi Inari was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals, and the stone foxes, too, are often referred to as Inari; the key often seen in the fox’s mouth is for the rice granary. As the role of agriculture diminished, these deities were enrolled to ensure prosperity in business. The torii gates along the entire trail are donations by individuals and companies, and you will find the donator's name and the date of the donation inscribed on the back of each gate.

Enjoy Fushimi-Inari as a half-day hiking trip up and back down the mountain, stopping for lunch, tea or sake along the way. No trip to Kyoto would be complete without it.

Famous for its spectacular autumn colors, Tōfuku-ji, founded in 1236, is one of the principle Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto. The huge Sanmon Gate (1425) is the oldest Zen main gate in Japan. From a viewing platform at the back of the gardens you can observe the Tsutenkyo Bridge (Bridge to Heaven), which spans a valley filled with maples. The view from the bridge is equally spectacular, and the 100 meter long covered walkway becomes extremely crowded when the colors reach their peak in mid to late November.

We took a break from sightseeing to gain some insight into the Japanese tea ceremony at Camilla tea ceremony in Gion, where we had a lovely and informative experience with an insightful and interesting tea instructor. Recommended.

In the early evening we battled the tourists to visit Kiyomizu-deru, currently undergoing renovations through March 2020 but still accessible. This is one of Kyoto's most popular temples, so you'd have to arrive early to enjoy it in peace. Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, high above the hillside below. The stage affords visitors a lovely view of the cherry and maple trees trees that erupt in a sea of color in spring and autumn. The main hall, which together with the stage was built without the use of a single nail, houses the temple's primary object of worship, a small statue of the eleven faced, thousand armed Kannon.

Around the entrance of Kiyomizudera stand various other temple buildings, including the Zuigudo Hall, dedicated to Buddha's mother and where you can wander the dark basement that symbolizes a mother's womb.

A good part of the fun of visiting Kiyomizudera is the approach to the temple the steep and busy lanes of the atmospheric Higashiyama District with many shops and restaurants that have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries.

We wandered back towards the guesthouse through different areas of Gion than we'd visited before. Each evening in Gion was an adventure, with enough traditional restaurants, lantern-lit teahouses and antique and artisan shops to fill a lifetime of exploration. If you haven’t been to Gion you really haven’t experienced Kyoto.

Gion is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa. The geisha in Kyoto refer to themselves as geiko. While geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts", geiko means "a woman of art"; geiko apprentices are known as maiko. While Gion’s true origins were in teahouses catering to weary visitors to the nearby shrine Yasaka-jinja, but by the mid-18th century the area was Kyoto’s largest pleasure district. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.

Gion attracts visitors with its high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses, many centuries old, which now function largely as restaurants, serving Kyoto style kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) and other types of local fare. You can find these particularly in Hanami-koji Street. We didn’t experience any kaiseki ryori on this trip but I’m looking forward to it for next time. Interspersed among the restaurants are a number of ochaya (formal teahouses), the most exclusive and expensive of Kyoto’s dining establishments, where guests are entertained by maiko and geiko. Inside the ochaya is a private world where the evening's entertainment may include cocktails, conversation, and games as well as traditional Japanese music, singing and dancing. Another scenic part of Gion is the Shirakawa Area which runs along the Shirakawa Canal, lined by willow trees, high class restaurants and ochaya, many of which have rooms overlooking the canal.

Upon our initial arrival to the city we saw many couples or groups of women dressed in traditional kimonos and it took us a bit to realize that these are largely tourists who have decided to dress up to enhance their visit to Kyoto (and their photos) rather than authentic geiko. The hair and makeup for the geiko are distinctive and once you catch a glimpse of a real geiko you won’t be confused again. It’s quite exciting as well but it’s important to be discreet and not bother these women who are working and usually much too busy to pose for photos. It’s better to watch (or snap photos) from afar, savoring this most local of sightings.

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