Southern Hirashiyama and Gion
Our second day in Kyoto was absolutely jam packed with sightseeing. We began the day at the extremely famous and popular Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple).
It is one of those must-see attractions and we were far from the only ones to visit it. In fact we were already grumpy and strung out from the massive crowds and the intolerable heat long before we reached the top of the street leading towards the temple.
Parts of the temple were undergoing construction and it was hard to see the rest due to the crowds. But still I am happy that we visited and I can imagine how beautiful it must be in autumn surrounded by trees full of red coloured autumn leaves.
Kiyomizudera (dera means temple) dates back to 778 AD and was associated with the Buddhist Hosso Sect, which is one of the six sects of Nara Buddhism and as such one of the eldest in Japan.
In 1965, the abbot of the temple broke with the Hosso sect and established the Kisa-Hosso Sect, meaning Northern Hosso sect in order to assure a new form of Buddhism in a socially changing society.
Most of the temple’s present structures date back to the third shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who ordered it build in 1633. By all accounts its most astonishing feature and what makes Kiyomizu stand out among the numerous Kyoto temples is the Hinoki wooden stage which hangs out in front of the main hall with 13 meter long pillars down to the slope of the hill. It is an impressive piece of engineering and from the wooden stage there is a beautiful view over Kyoto cityscape.
The equivalent Japanese expression to the phrase ‘to take the plunge’ is ‘to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu’. It stems from the Edo period when it was believed that if you were to survive the 13 meter jump from the Hinoki wooden stage, your wish would be granted.
234 jumps were recorded in the Edo period and, of those, 85.4% survived. The practice is understandably prohibited now. (Sacred Destinations)
However, I must admit that I was contemplating taking the plunge as we were stuck between large masses of tourist groups on the stage in the middle of the terrifying humidity. It might have been the easiest way down.
Behind Kiyomizu lies the Shinto shrine Jishu Shrine which is dedicates to the Japanese god in charge of love and good matches. For 1300 years he has been the Japanese equivalent to Cupid.
The extent of young Japanese visitors to this shrine might indicate his continued popularity.
Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka
Leaving behind the majestic views of Kiyomizu, we slowly walked north through Southern Hirashiyama. We began by walking down the pedestrian streets Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka which slope around the hill leading to Kiyomizu.
They are some of the most ancient and atmospheric streets in Kyoto and full of old wooden houses with arts and craft shops that are showing off the best of Kyoto as well as cosy little tea-houses. But they are also dangerous if you are superstitious.
Ninen-zaka means slope of two years, while Sannen-zaka means slope of three years. This originally refers to the imperial years in which they were created, but nowadays it is stated that you will die within two years if you fall down on Ninen-zaka and three if you fall down on Sannen-zaka.
Though I pride myself not to be superstitious, I was more than usually careful as we walked down the narrow twin streets.
We passed the Ryozen Cannon temple with its massive 24 meter white Goddess of Mercy (Buddha) statue. The temple stands in honour of the fallen on both sides in the Pacific Wars during World War II and was built in 1955 only ten years after the war.
With limited time we unfortunately also passed the nearby Kodai-ji temple. Yet another beautiful Kyoto temple, it was build in 1606 in commemoration of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his wife Nene.
Both are enshrined in the temple, which moreover features a garden made by the master himself Kobori Enshu as well as a tea house designed by Sen no Rikyu, the founder of the tea ceremony. Talk about cultural heritage.
Winding through the narrow and beautiful paths of Southern Higashiyama we made our way to Yasaka Shrine, which is one of the most famous Kyoto Shrines and stand at the border of Gion and Higashiyama.
According to legend the shrine dates back to the second year of the reign of Emperor Seimei in 656 AD and today there are around 3000 satellite shrines under Yasaka Shrine all around Japan.
However, the shrine is best known for it role in the Gion Matsuri, a festival reaching back to 869 when the mikoshi from the shrine was carried through Kyoto to ward off an epidemic.
The shrine stands at the end of the famous Shijō-dōri, which is the central nerve of Gion, Kyoto’s infamous geisha district.
Instead of walking down Shijo-dori, we followed smaller streets in our search of a bit of lunch and my afternoon appointment. We had made separate appointments for the afternoon. My boyfriend was having a shimatsu massage, while I was being dressed up as a geisha somewhere in a Gion side street.
Japan is probably the only country in the world where I don’t mind to dress up tourist style to be on display for all the other tourists. The Japanese culture supports dressing up and role playing, be it as animé characters or geisha. Even in Western Europe today you find a subculture of teenagers dressing up in Japanese outfits.
My transformation to maiko took place at one of several studios in Gion and alongside a host of other girls from both Japan and abroad. A maiko is a geisha in training. She is far more colourful in her kimonos than the geisha and as such a much more popular option for dressing up.
After an hour of make-up and dress-up, I had become unrecognisable, and when my boyfriend arrived, it took him quite some time to realise that the girl standing in front of him with white face paint and a bulging kimono was me.
I had opted for a chance to not only have my pictures taken in the studio garden but also on a small walk through Gion. So a long with my boyfriend and a photographer and in wooden high geta (wooden sandals) I strolled through the streets of Gion posting for pictures. And oh my was it hot.
During the hottest and most humid time of year in the hottest and most humid part of Japan, I was covered in layers upon layers of heavy brocade. I am more than surprised that I didn’t faint.
But I am so very happy that I got to do it. To feel so completely like someone else for just a short period of time. My boyfriend might be completely relaxed after his massage while I have gone through torture for three hours, but I get to keep pictures.
As the undressing and picture waiting was almost as long as getting ready for the shoot, we decided to split up and meet later.
I found a bit to eat while waiting before I turned towards Miyagawachō Hanamachi a neighbouring geisha district to Gion which stretches on the river edge south of Shijō-dōri.
Miyagawachō means Shrine River while Hanamachi means flower town and is the name for geisha districts. The district was granted a license for its first teahouse in 1751 and, in 2007, had 40 geiko (Kyoto name for geisha), 27 maiko and 37 teahouses, making it a very active Hanamachi.
But suddenly something happened which I would not come to experience at any other time during our trip. It began to rain. Walking through Miyagawachō it suddenly began to drizzle breaking the immense humidity and for a little while the temperature reminded one of a summer in Japan. Thank you!
Making a loop and returning to Shijō-dōri, I crossed the river and followed the beautiful river front north enjoying the overhanging restaurants and the many Japanese hanging out at the rivers edge.
I reached Sanjo-dori where I ventured into the only of Kyoto’s geisha districts on the west side of the river Kamo-gawa, Ponto-chō.
Ponto-chō is an alley that stretches between the Sanjo and the Shijo bridges. The name is thought to be a mix between the Portuguese name for bridge and the Japanese chō, meaning district or area. The Portuguese influence came with Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century.
Apart from being a Hanamachi, Ponto-chō is also known for its many restaurants and atmospheric settings. Many of these restaurants were the ones I’d seen with wooden structures similar to Kiyomizu’s Hinoki.
Back on the busy streets of Kyoto and reunited with my boyfriend, we found our way to Kyo no Ohesa where we had oden, a traditional Japanese winter dish.
After dinner we wanted to take the subway home. But with the many different subway companies in Kyoto we managed to get to the wrong station, where we waited half an hour for the train to leave the platform.
When the train finally left it turned out that the stop we thought was ours was far from it. Thus, we had to get off a few stops later to figure out a way back, deciding to walk most of the way.
I don’t think I’ll ever learn to use the Kyoto subway.
Day 2 – Temple count: 2, Shrine count: 1