Japan’s Imperial Heart: walking the streets of Kyoto

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Kyoto’s Kamo River



9-15 May 2018. Kyoto is old, but she is no old dame. She is an ancient goddess in a flowing silk kimono patterned with blossoms and egrets. Or perhaps she is a sophisticated and admired geisha from the mists of time. One bows down to Kyoto in reverence of her age, accomplishments, beauty, and elegance. For 1000 years she was the capital of Imperial Japan, and today is one of the best-preserved cities in the country.

I walk all over Kyoto, from Higashiyama to the Philosophers Path, along the narrow secretive streets of Gion, along modern roads and freeways, down crowded tourists streets lined with street-food stalls, along the five covered blocks of the Nikishi Market, and by the green banks of the Kamo River.

On my first day there I’m walking down the main road from Fushimi Inari Shrine looking down the side streets as I go by. Suddenly I see the tell-tale red, white, and blue spiral stripes of a barber’s pole.



Spontaneously I walk towards it. I’m about due to have my hair buzzed off and here’s my answer. It turns out to be the most elaborate, and expensive, head-buzzing ever.

I walk in and discover a small establishment with two men, and two chairs, both vacant. I mime that I want my hair buzzed off and am invited to one of the chairs. I am royally fussed over. A small towel is tucked into the neck of my t-shirt, a paper is wrapped around my neck, then the usual salon cape is draped around me with not one but both men spreading it out. A hot towel is wrapped around my head (sigh) and a hot collar draped around my neck and shoulders. I close my eyes as I sink ever deeper into the chair. Powder is dusted on my head, followed by a slow careful buzzing. Then I’m asked if I want a shave! I hope he’s referring to my head and not my face! I decline.

The barber picks up a square item made of hard rubber that fits in the palm of his hand. It has widely spaced “teeth”. He uses it to massage my head, then brushes my head with a smaller brush, and then again with a softer brush. A little powder is sprinkled on my neck. Collar, cape, paper and towel are removed and I’m brushed off with a little broom. It is done.

When Don and I buzz each other’s heads it takes about five minutes and then we shower off all the debris.

The most we’ve ever paid to have it done by a barber is $24 in Vancouver. The least is $1.50 in India. The elaborate ritual I undergo in Japan costs $36. It’s worth it just for the experience.

Shimogyo Ward, where my hostel is located, is mostly modern with more traditional buildings, such as these ones, scattered here and there,



but “Old Kyoto”, the Kyoto of earlier eras, is to be found in Gion and Higashiyama.

I wander around the Gion area one evening stalking geiko. Geiko is the word for geisha in the Kyoto dialect. I’m in the right location. This is where the Geiko houses are. And I’m there at roughly the right time to maybe catch one or two as they head out to their evening engagements, but alas no, it is not my destiny to see any. I am however charmed by the centuries-old buildings.



It is here, in the ochaya, or teahouses, that the patrons of Gion have been entertained by geiko in private exclusive ceremonies for centuries. This practice has continued without interruption from the samurai of ancient times to modern day businessmen.

To be clear geisha, geiko, and maiko (apprentice geiko) are not, and never have been prostitutes; rather they are artists, entertaining with music, singing, dancing, conversation, and games. It is an exclusive, elegant, private world. I have no entree into this world, but can only wistfully hope to catch a glimpse of it. I’m attracted by the ritual and the elegance and most of all by the mystery. I have, however, to content myself with the traditional buildings, quietly but resolutely guarding their secrets.





On the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains is Higashiyama where the two-kilometre stretch between Kiyomizudera Temple and Yasaka Shrine is one of the best-preserved historic areas. Up near the temple it’s crowded with foreign and domestic tourists, and school children on a cultural excursion,



but lower down where the streets are lined with traditional town houses known as machiya it’s quieter. I’m charmed by the weathered wood, the tiled roofs; the look and feel of a kind of ageless stability. I’m curious by nature. These machiya have the feeling that much more goes on there than I can see. I want to know what’s inside, how the families live, if there is the same timeless grounded feel inside as there is on the outside. The buildings seem to radiate both a quiet sense of privacy and at the same time a feeling of welcome.





As I make my way up to the higher levels of the area, towards the Kiyomizudera Temple,



the streets become narrower and open only to pedestrians. Near the temple I find a bench in the shade and savour soft ice cream, and later find a place for coffee. It is not Starbucks. Not here. Here, lining the narrow alleys there are cafes and restaurants



and merchant stores that have been in the same families for generations. They sell exquisite Kiyomizu-yaki pottery,



fans,



masks and tourist trinkets,



sweets, traditional Japanese dolls, oiled-paper umbrellas, and things I cannot fathom.





Higashiyama, perhaps more than any other part of Kyoto, invokes the feeling of life in earlier times when the city was the capital of Japan. The businesses and buildings have preserved their traditional design, and the feeling is further enhanced since power poles and lines have been removed from sight on the main streets.

I walk and walk, following the cobbled streets towards Yasaka Shrine. I stop in one of the restaurants for a lunch of rice with vegetable and prawn tempura that nourishes both body and soul, and then walk some more, traversing the cobbled streets, peering down tiny side alleyways lined with machiya,



alongside gardens, and at times high up overlooking the town and the towering Yasaka Pagoda.



I’m making my way to the Philosopher’s Path. I’d read that “good walkers” could walk from Yasaka Shrine all the way north to the Philosopher’s Path and the Ginkaku-Ji Temple. Considering myself a “good walker” I continue on. I haven’t really investigated how long this will take; I simply follow the arrow on my phone.

I walk through the lovely gardens of Maruyama Park near Yasaka Temple,





and I pass by several of Kyoto’s 2000 temples and shrines. The city is Japan’s spiritual capital.











but for quite a time I’m on fairly main roads that are all modern industrialised Japan. I could be anywhere. It’s perishing hot. I have no water with me. I had no idea the walk would be this long or this uninteresting. After about forty minutes I head onto smaller streets.



And then I see a rectangular metal structure that I think will save my life. I bow to the god of vending machines, and, inserting the correct coins, I extract a small can of ice-cold latte. I drain it in almost one gulp. Of course I knew about Japan’s love of vending machines but had not used one until now. Suddenly I understand. I have been converted. I am a believer!

There are 5.5 million vending machines in Japan and annual sales total more than sixty billion yen. Soft drinks, coffee, tea, cigarettes, candy, soup, hot food, sake, beer, rice, umbrellas, batteries, bagged vegetables, fortunes, t-shirts, electronics, ice cream, condoms, flowers, ties, toys, surgical masks, ramen, bananas, eggs, porn, pantyhose, puppies! Oh I have to stop. This is by no means a complete list. Drinks and meals that should be hot will be hot; things that should be cold will be cold or ice cold as appropriate. On this day, after walking for nearly an hour in relentless heat, I fall in love with them.

Walking on I find another vending machine and have a second latte, and soon after I finally arrive at the beginning of the Philosopher’s Path. It is a little slice of heaven. No longer is there noise and traffic. I’m walking on a narrow path by a small canal. The path is shaded by the surrounding lush greenery. Trees and moss, and the rippling of water now accompany me instead of bare concrete sidewalks and traffic.



It’s a quiet green oasis high above the city and I feel my shoulders relax. I slow down. I breathe in the green beauty all around me.



The Philosopher’s Path is approximately two kilometres long, and is named for the famous Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro. Nishida graduated from Kyoto University with a degree in philosophy in 1894, and eventually became a prominent professor. It is said that he would meditate while walking along the path on his daily commute to the university.







At the end of the path I turn onto the street leading to Ginkaku-ji Temple. As with all important temples the world over the street leading to it is lined with shops and cafes for all the devotees and tourists. I walk on by and start the climb up to the temple. Suddenly I stop. I am done. I simply don’t have the energy to walk any more, let alone up hill. I make my way back down to the street and enjoy my second soft ice cream of the day. I need this so much more than I need to see another temple.

As I’m walking along the Philosopher’s Path and starting to tire the thought keeps arising how will I ever find my way home? And every time the immediate answer is trust the unfolding. While eating my ice cream I pull out my old-fashioned paper map of Kyoto and see there’s Keihan Line information on the back of it. My hostel is two minutes walk from the Keihan line. The map also shows the name of the station nearest to Ginkaku-ji Temple. I walk down the road a bit and see a taxi stand. I get a taxi to the station and a train home. Simple.

While in Japan I did a lot of walking, much of it unnecessary, and some of it really pushing myself. I seemed to unconsciously create more walking than I needed to do by going in the wrong direction, or not correctly following directions, or not reading the map accurately, or being given the wrong directions, or not learning how to use maps.me properly. I felt, and often was, incompetent, and many days I walked more than necessary because of it, but I also think at some level I was testing myself. I was unconsciously pushing myself, wanting to find out just how much I could do, because I had the tour in China coming up, and when you’re on a tour there’s only limited possibility to go at your own pace. On a tour you have to be able to keep up. So for all I walked more than I needed to, and for all I pushed myself, sometimes beyond stupid, Japan turned out to be getting fit for China in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before I left Canada. It worked. And by the end of four weeks in China I was as fit as I’ve ever been.



Next post: Aoi Matsuri – a centuries old festival in Kyoto, and a geisha show.



A lovely article about Kyoto: In Kyoto, Feeling Forever Foreign



All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.