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 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.
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
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
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.
Kyoto Handicraft Center
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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.