Gion & Higashiyama


May 25, 2017

Gazing between the drawn curtains, I knew something had changed outside. The morning light was dim. A light fog had settled in during the night and rain was pouring down. No one wanted to go outdoors in the current weather conditions. Knowing this was our final day in Kyoto, I was opposed to staying in the hotel, but I could tell the kids were worn out from our previous sightseeing schedules (a lot by foot), so I deferred to them.

It was close to noon before we left the hotel. The air was humid and heavy, but the rain had diminished. Familiar with the rail system near our hotel, we walked along a quiet residential street. Weeping willows, ferns, and grasses lined a mountain stream that cut through the neighborhood. We came across what looked like a photo shoot of a couple in Kimono by the stream before we found the subway entrance in a commercial district. We were heading to Gion and Higashiyama.

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Gion was what I had envisioned old Japan to be, low one- and two-story buildings, with Japanese lanterns hanging at entrances. Tiled roofs curved up to meet at a high point in the center. Drapes hung over doors. Densely packed against one another, the discreet teahouses, restaurants, and Geisha establishments were quiet this time of day. It was hard to believe that we were in a city of over 1.4 million. Meandering through the narrow, paved streets, we noticed that most businesses were closed. This was a place that came alive in the evening. Unfortunately, we would not see it.


My husband and the boys thought we were lost. Why are we walking down such a deserted street? They asked.  I explained that this was a place that produced many stories about Japanese women, called Geisha.   They ignited the imaginations of those who didn’t know much about their world.  I had to see this part of Kyoto that was the Geisha capital of Japan. My boys gave me the “huh?” look.

“Do you know the term, Geisha?” I asked. They had no idea what I was talking about. I might as well have popped out of a time tunnel and spoke an ancient language to them!

I asked, “have you ever seen a picture of a Japanese woman with white face makeup, red lips, hair styled in an up-do and in a Kimono?” A light twinkled in their eyes. Yes, they had. When Japanese women dress up like that, they are called Geisha, right? I was off to a rough start. I silently noted that they wouldn’t take the initiative and read about a woman’s story. It was up to me to enlighten them. Sharing my female perspective throughout their developmental years, being open about my point of view, never waned. I hoped the stories of women would be of value to them.  I believed that they would be better men because of it. But my sons will always gravitate towards their instincts and habits. “Wired male” would still pose differences.

As an outsider, all I could do was pass on what I had read over the years. “Geisha is a profession that Japanese women can choose if they so desire,” I told them. “They are schooled in the arts and use these arts as a form of entertainment in places like teahouses and restaurants. Their skills run from hostess to singer or musician, to performing dance and providing stimulating conversation. They entertain small parties of men. Maybe some women are involved too. I’m not sure. Their line of work calls for discretion, so they never talk about their jobs to anyone. This is why there is an air of mystery surrounding them.”

“Why don’t they talk about their work?” asked my youngest.

I wondered what I could say so that he would understand but not draw any wrong conclusions? Were Geisha’s the equivalent of “Call-Girls” in the U.S.A? There were rumors of abuse in the Geisha world a long time ago. What was it like today? So, I came up with this. “Geisha’s work with people that prefer their privacy for many reasons. They may be powerful businessmen or celebrities who don’t want their lives talked about by the media.  So its the Geisha’s job to be very discreet with the clients that come into their establishments.” And I left it at that. The world would reveal itself to them in its own time.

We followed our Google Maps, the rented pocket wifi never failing us(mentioned in my first post, “We’re Going to Japan”). As we moved closer to the Higashiyama District, the streets started to fill up with pedestrians. Here were some of the most impressive structures yet. As a foreigner, I couldn’t help be surprised and dazzled by things that were rarely seen in the United States and indeed weren’t as old. The five-story, dark brown Pagoda that stood near the Yasaka Shrine was one of them.

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As we turned a corner following our maps like a compass, we were surprised to encounter the ancient wooden structure looming in front of us. Multiple roofs, stacked on top of each other, reached their way to the heavens, eaves curling upward like hands in praise. Why was it there? What was it used for? Here we were at a loss. With a language barrier on our part, all we could do was admire its architecture. Later I learned that it was called the Yasaka-no-to Pagoda, also known as Hokanji Temple built around 592. Visitors can enter the Pagoda up to the 2nd floor. It was closed when we saw it.

We soon fell into a throng of tourists and school children as they made their way past the many souvenir shops, restaurants, and teahouses on Matsubara Dori(street). We were all heading for Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Dera Temple. The energy was high. This was the Japan I recognized. We climbed the picturesque Ninenzaka steps to the temple. Although Kyoto is filled with many temples and shrines, this particular temple got my attention. Sitting on a slope along the base of Kyoto’s eastern mountain range, the Main Hall commands a breathtaking view of the city. A wide wooden verandah juts out, held up with a network of beams piercing the ground below. Tourists enjoy expansive views of the city and mountains from here.


Kiyomizu Dera means “pure waters.” The Otowa Waterfall, located at the base of the temple, draws folks from near and far. The waters are claimed to have unique benefits for those who touch or drink from them. Pilgrimages are made to visit this special place.


As we finished our climb on gradual sloping, cobblestone streets, a towering red and white gate flanked with lionlike deities stood before us. Was this Kiyomizu Dera?  Where was the large brown, wooden temple pictured on websites I had seen? There were no signs written in English that I could spot. Without an interpreter, we relied on our maps. I was at a loss, the boys confirmed with their smartphones that we had indeed arrived. I could only see a pagoda behind the gate and a sacred bell. I insisted that we hadn’t found the right temple. I began to walk away. Google Maps showed the temple moving away from me. We circled back and decided to enter the grounds. To my chagrin, my kids were right! The grand temple that I had seen on the internet was hidden behind a slew of scaffolding! It was under renovation, but visitors were still allowed in.


We paid a small entrance fee and began our journey to the Main Hall.  The sun broke through the clouds and brightened the buildings like a cluster of shiny jewels against a green velvet carpet. The grounds are extensive. One can easily spend hours here. Busloads of people were buzzing around. Kiyomizu Dera is by far the busiest place we had encountered in Kyoto. I was overwhelmed but not distressed.

Passing under a second gate, the Middle Gate, that stood further inside, we walked through a covered passageway and into the Main Hall, where the veranda skirted one side. I took in the views while the rest of the family did their own exploration.  On the opposite side was the sanctuary. Shoes were sitting along the floor. To enter, you had to leave your shoes behind. My youngest son noticed this and quickly slipped his off and disappeared inside. Photos are not allowed. However, on the internet, the official Kiyomizudera site, walks the viewer through the Hall showing the sacred Kannon that we weren’t allowed to photograph.


Making our way outdoors, we walked to Oku-no-in or Innermost Temple that afforded another great view of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains, its large veranda also extended over the hillside. From here, we could see the massive structure of the Main Hall and the scaffolding that crisscrossed on the face of it like fish netting.

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Everything that embodies the Japanese spirit could be felt. Temples with names like Aborted Fetus Temple Dedicated to the God of Mercy, The Achievement Temple, the Pagoda of Easy Child Birth, and The Hosho-In Temple were a few of the worship structures on the temple grounds. Many halls and lecture rooms were scattered throughout. Statues were viewed along paved pathways, and a monk stood patiently, waiting for alms.

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Walkways led deeper along the mountainside.  Woods surrounded us. We decided to explore more of the mountain and eventually found ourselves in an area where crowds ceased to go. A sign indicated another temple. I was game for a little exploring. It seemed like we were going “where no one had gone before” (yes, I’m a Star Trek nerd). We deviated from the itinerary I had put together and hiked in. Paved walkways turned into a narrow footpath covered with leaves. Japanese maples, ferns, mixed with pine surrounded us. Any minute I imagined a Samurai jumping out of the forest in front of us. The outdoors grew quiet. Alone in our thoughts, we walked for about 20 minutes.

Another sign, posted along the path, announced Seikanji Temple just ahead.
What kind of temple were we going to see? Why was it hidden in the forest? Suddenly the dirt footpath turned to pavement, and a flight of stairs appeared. At the top was a large, open wooden door, flanked by white walls and a tall fence. We walked through it. Like a land lost to time, we saw monuments in grey stone topped with crowns and covered with moss at their base. The garden around them had stunted trees expertly cut in the traditional bonsai method. A bell hung under a pavilion off to the left. A small shrine in white and brown wood stood in the center. A long, thick rope hung from the eve. What would happen if we pulled on it? Who would we summon? We decided to leave it alone.


Each of us spanned out into the garden; I went back to where we entered and stood among the monuments. I noticed a large rock fenced off in front of me. What did it mean? Why was it special? I could see Kyoto in the distance. I turned back and saw that two of my party had sat down in front of the shrine. My youngest was walking around the back of the shrine. We had the place to ourselves. It was a welcome retreat.


Sometimes it’s nice to follow a whim. After we rested, we made our way towards Nijo Castle. It was the last tourist attraction I wanted everyone to visit. It was a Shogun’s residence. We were on the go once again, making tracks towards the west side of town. According to open hours listed, we would have plenty of time to get to it. There was one thing, however, that I didn’t consider. Nijo castle is so famous and busy that a policy of closing off entrants 30 minutes before closing hours was in place. We arrived 30 minutes before closing time. Bummer! We were all disappointed.

I had a plan up my sleeve. The Imperial Palace was by our hotel. We headed back and had time to enjoy its beautiful grounds. Surrounded by pine trees and lovely manicured gardens, this was a beautiful place to end our day and our brief stay in Kyoto.