Classic Kyoto

Making memories of a geisha

By: Devin Galaudet

All I could do was stare as I watched her glide across the cobblestone path in the Gion District of Kyoto. Her steps were small and elegant and her bright patterned kimono (to symbolically reflect the coming spring) was perfectly fastened by a cherry blossomed obi. She seemed simultaneously wise and innocent and the crowded street parted for her as she made her way into an evening lamp-lit teahouse. I had seen photos before on postcards or in the movies but somehow I considered her my first. She was only part of what makes historic Kyoto unique.

The birthplace of Kabuki Theater, Kyoto reigned as Japan’s cultural and artistic center and its nation’s capital for over 1,000 years. Today, Kyoto is the seventh largest city in Japan with 1.5 million residents and remains one of Japan’s favorite tourist destinations offering the finest in attractions, history and dining.

Although Kyoto garners 43 million tourists annually, only half a million visitors are from outside Japan. Here are a few must-sees and must-dos to help clients appreciate Kyoto’s culture.

Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion)
Although it is a replica of the original 14th-century temple, which was rebuilt in 1955 after a fire destroyed the original, visitors still come in droves to view the site that third Shogun of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu made into a Zen temple. Busloads of uniform-clad schoolchildren, worshippers and tourists come to this peaceful setting and sacred location to quietly stroll through the pine trees, and gaze across Kyoko-chi (mirror pond) in amazement at the three-story temple featuring its top two floors finished in impressive gold leaf.

Before I left, I took a moment to write down my wish for a brighter tomorrow on a simple white cloth, as did many of the young and old at the Golden Pavilion, and, following custom, tied my prayer to the boards by the exit.

Heian Shrine
Heian Shrine is a spacious building and grounds built to celebrate the 1,100th year of the Heian capital (Kyoto). The shrine was meant to deify Emperor Kanmu (737-806) as ancestral god of Kyoto, for bringing prosperity to the city for 1,000 years.

I’m glad I took a few more minutes to explore the horseshoe-shaped park that surrounds the shrine. It is a maze of calm streams, trails and cherry trees leading to a catfish-filled lagoon that has appeared in many films most recently, “Lost in Translation.”

For travelers looking to collect some of Kyoto’s legendary crafts, the Kyoto Handicraft Center is the best in the city.

The Center hosts seven floors chock-full of tax-free handmade crafts featuring dolls, Japanese scrolls, jewelry, clothing, Noh-masks and everything Hello Kitty. The Center also offers demonstrations in the art of Damascene, woodblock carving and doll-making, and hands-on classes in Cloisonne, woodblock printing, doll-making and Dorei doll painting. (Dorei dolls are ornate Japanese dolls with a bell inside.)

The Kyoto Handicraft Center also accepts and exchanges U.S. currency, offers overseas shipping, free shuttle service from major hotels and is conveniently located a block from Heian Shrine.

Gion District
Yes, the geisha. Known as geiko and maiko (apprentice geisha) in Kyoto, they can be seen alone or in pairs, walking to many of the old teahouses along Hanamikoji Street at dusk.

While history includes prostitution as one of a geisha’s duties, in fact, geishas are highly trained singers, musicians, conversationalists and confidants and are seldom associated with dubious activities.

At the end of Hanamikoji Street, Gion Corner, a sort of cultural center, hosts a number of time-honored performances nightly: Kyomai (Kyoto-style dance performed by maiko), Gagaku (Court Music) and Kyogen (comic stage plays).

Personally, I chose to participate in Chado, the graceful tea ceremony. I sipped foamy green tea, sat quietly on a straw mat and embraced the complex series of calming movements and purposeful thought that honors the art of giving and receiving during this old-world ritual.

Those with little time should stop in Gion Corner anyway to view the 160 or so photographs of geiko and maiko that line the walls. Or for clients with a more adventurous spirit, a stroll down Hanamikoji Street or Tatsumi-bashi Bridge may just lead to their own memory of a geisha.


Golden Temple

Heian Shrine

Honke Owariya

Kyoto Handicraft Center


For a Bite

An excellent lunch option is Honke Owariya, which has prepared traditional soba noodles for the last 530 years in the same location. A reputed favorite of local officials and the royal family, noodles are served bunk-bed-style in stackable bowls with a variety of fresh traditional toppings with lunches for $17. I also discovered that awkwardly held chopsticks and noodle-slurping by foreigners is acceptable.