Saturday 27 May 2016 Kyoto

We woke to a blue cloudless sky and enjoyed our breakfast overlooking the mountains.
On our way to our first activity, our local guide Mariko, told us that Kyoto has mountains on three sides but not on the fourth side, which is the south and as the streets run east-west, north-south it is very easy to work out what direction you are going in simply by looking to see where the mountains are. We crossed the Kamo River, which starts in the north from the mountains and travels to the south in Osaka to the Bay.
Our first activity this morning was a visit to an old traditional Machiya Style House in Kyoto – Washin Kan, where we were split into two groups. Our group had a calligraphy lesson first and our teacher was Yoshie, who was dressed in a traditional kimono. We learnt the art of Japanese calligraphy, called Shodo. We were shown the correct way to use the brushes and liquid ink to write Kanji. Yoshie explained to us that kanji is made up of symbols put together to make a word eg “wa” means Japanese and “yo” means outside Japan, so “wa fuku” means Kimono (Japanese dress) and “yo fuku” means western clothes. She told us that there are three styles of calligraphy – Block, cursive and semi-cursive. Today we learnt block style. We sat at long tables on short stools and put on aprons and in front of us, were mats with a thin sheet of practice paper as well as an ink tray with a calligraphy brush. Yoshie showed us how to form parts of a symbol that we were going to make. We had one sheet each for the four parts of the symbol and then we did a practice of the whole symbol parts together, with several ladies also dressed in kimonos, helping us and encouraging us. Then we were given a lovely piece of white card and we formed the symbol – Tomo – which means friend. We both thought that our symbol on the practice sheet looks better than the one on the card.
We had a lot of fun doing it and learning about this ancient form of writing.
Our next activity was a Japanese Tea Ceremony in a different room. There were little stools for us to sit on but we should have been sitting on the floor. Seiko, a mature lady dressed in a beautiful kimono, told us about the origins of this ancient practice, as well as the basic terms, utensils and customs that are associated with the art of a Japanese Tea Ceremony, which is also called The Way of Tea. It is a cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, (powdered green tea). She told us that scientists have recently discovered that it stops dementia. Prior to the Tea Ceremony starting we were given a special sweet to eat.
Another lady dressed in a beautiful kimono shuffled in to perform the Tea Ceremony for us. She knelt on the tatami to meticulously position all the utensils that she would be using and then wiped the bowls with a special cloth that she took from her kimono and folded in a specific way. Then with a wooden ladle, she scooped some hot water out of a container, poured some of it into a special bowl, which had the ground matcha powder in it. She then used a special little whisk in an interesting pattern to mix the tea. Each of her movements was slow and graceful. We were then served the tea one at a time in a ceremonial fashion, with us bowing, turning the bowl and saying specific things (with prompting) during the ceremony. After we had finished the tea, with a slurp, our cups were taken away to be cleaned.
We thoroughly enjoyed our morning at Washin Kan, learning the ancient art of Calligraphy and partaking in a Japanese Tea Ceremony.
On our way back to the hotel we were taken to the Heian Shinto Shrine Torii Gate and we were able to see the Heian Shrine. We were delighted to find a bride and groom, dressed in traditional wedding attire, posing for photos with the Torii Gate in the background. Sandy asked Mariko if we could take photos of them and she asked on our behalf and they said yes, with lots of bowing from the groom and us.
In the afternoon, we were able to choose from three different activities, so we chose to visit the Gion Area, a famous entertainment and Geisha quarter on the eastern side of the city. We went on a walking tour with local guide, Meg, to see some of the homes of the Geisha and traditional wooden machiya merchant houses in the area The area is filled with shops, restaurants and ochava (teahouses), where Geiko (Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and Maiko (Geiko apprentices) entertain.
Meg told us that the Gion District in Kyoto was originally developed in the Middle Ages in front of the Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine) to accommodate the needs of travellers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually became one of the most exclusive and well-known Geisha districts in Japan. While the term Geisha means “artist” or “person of the arts”, the more direct term “Geiko” means “a woman of art”.
We were interested to learn that when young girls are learning to become a Geiko or Maiko, they are forbidden to see their parents or socialise with other teenagers or use the internet, as part of their highly cloistered existence and that they are unpaid for the five years they are in training. As a Maiko-san they give up everything that normal teenage girls would do. Each day begins at 8am when they take an hour to fix their hair and dress before lessons of calligraphy, dancing, singing and drumming, then they work until midnight, seven days a week. They usually sleep on a wooden block to preserve their hair, and they receive no free time or financial allowance.
The reality behind the glamourised image of the Geiko is possibly why the traditional entertainment is a dying art form in Japan. Just after World War II, there were more than 1,000 Geiko and Maiko in this area of Kyoto, but now there are just 180 Geiko and 70 Maiko in the whole of Japan.
On our way from where the bus dropped us off, we passed the Chionin Temple, which houses the largest temple bells weighing 74 tonnes – it takes 16 monks to pull the bell ropes. Part of The Last Samurai was filmed here.
It was interesting to see the traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Because property taxes were formerly based on the size of street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street. We saw lots of girls dressed in traditional kimonos that they had hired to wander around the streets and they happily posed for us so that we could take photos of them.
We wandered slowly down a heritage street and across a little bridge and were told that this area is where parts of Memoirs of a Geisha were shot. We were lucky enough to come across another bride and groom, this time dressed in a colourful wedding kimono. From there we were taken through some narrow little streets where there were lots of boarding houses for the Geiko. We were also shown the School for the Maiko and then were taken to the Yasaka Shrine where we were lucky enough to see a Bride procession to the Main Sanctuary for the wedding ceremony.
We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon wandering around the Gion area, learning about the Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko.
We had a couple of hours of free time before heading out on the bus to a restaurant for dinner. Mimui is known for its Udon-Suki, which is a hot-pot dish cooked in a pot at the table on a convection hot-plate with noodles and various ingredients, including chicken, shrimp, cabbage, carrot, potato and mushroom in “dashi” soup. Interestingly, when we arrived at the restaurant we were told to go into the room prepared for us unless we had a food allergy, in which case to go with the waitress. Four of us ended up in a separate room on our own – very strange, but we had a lovely night chatting to the other couple who had just arrived today.
So, all in all, another lovely day in Kyoto.


One Response to “Saturday 27 May 2016 Kyoto”

  1. Maria Highes says:

    Wow Sandy and Richard – how very interesting – another wonderful day, and the photos are again fantastic :), love us xoxo

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