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10-15 May 2018. I have six full days in Kyoto but I lose two of them.

I lose the first to pain. I spend two weeks exploring Tokyo, Shirakawa-Go, Kanazawa, and Kyoto, walking anywhere from eight to twelve kilometres a day and worrying about it the whole time. I’m worrying that I’ll do too much – whatever that means exactly. I literally worry myself to a standstill. My hip is as painful as it has ever been and I have no choice but to rest for a day. I spend the day talking to Don, editing photos, and writing, but mostly I take the time to look at all the stupid beliefs I have about my body that have created the pain in the first place: mainly that it’s possible to do too much and so wreck my (new) hip, and also that the healing will never end. I do a lot of psychological and emotional release. I stop believing that shit. After that day for the next five weeks I walk about ten to fifteen kilometres a day with little or no pain. On two days I walk over eighteen kilometres. Of course there are times I’m weary but that’s the worst of it.

I lose the second to rain. I don’t mean rain. I mean RAIN! Bucketing down.

On one of those two days I probably would have gone to Nara. On the other I definitely would have made the journey to Ine fishing village. Ine looks so charming and would have given me another taste of rural Japan. If nothing else it would have gotten me out of tourist central. And make no mistake Kyoto is tourist central. In 2017 over fifteen million foreign and domestic tourists stayed at least one night in Kyoto. Add in day-trippers and the number swells to 53.6 million!

On a bright warm sunny day I join the crowds in Higashiyama, the well-preserved old town on the lower slopes of the eastern mountains of Kyoto. There are no vehicles in this part of the city, and despite the crowds the sense of old Japan still permeates the streets and alleyways.

I climb the steep streets

and the Ninenzaka steps

making my way through the narrow winding paths up to Kiyomizudera Temple. I don’t go inside. I know I’m supposed to go in and look at one of the (many) iconic temples of Kyoto but I’m more drawn to photograph people in kimonos. The kimono is traditionally a conservative garment, but like a magpie I’m loving the unrestrained colours and patterns that I’m seeing.

One day I had a long talk with the man behind the bar in the hostel in Kyoto. I asked him to look at a blog post I’d written about Japan to make sure I was not completely off base with it. He told me that the part I’d written about Japanese tourists dressing up in kimonos to go sightseeing is not right and that no Japanese person would ever do that. What followed was a whole boatload of information about kimonos, how to pick out the real ones, the variation in quality, and the variation in designs. He pulled up picture after picture on the Internet and told me a little about the history, and who would wear what. It was incredibly fascinating and informative.

So when I start exploring the main sites of Kyoto I test this information. I ask people wearing kimonos where they are from. The most frequent answers are China, Korea, and Taiwan. These two couples, posing in front of the entrance to Kiyomizudera Temple, are from China.

As I explore further I see many women and couples dressed up for the day,

and pass by several rental places.

An Indian family, parents and two children, emerges from one of them fully dressed in traditional Japanese regalia.

So tourists dress in kimonos to go sightseeing. It’s a thing. So is hiring a jinrikisha to complete the experience giving a hint of what it was like to be wealthy in an earlier time.

In amongst the crowds of visitors every now and then I see some of the people who live and work there.

Each time it feels a little bit as if I’m seeing through a veil. I wonder what Higashiyama is like when there are no tourists and the local people can occupy the streets without the crowds. I wonder if they feel the same as the people of Venice where the streets are no longer their own, but belong now to the millions of tourists.

The word kimono means simply “thing that is worn”, or garment. Japanese people today rarely wear them in daily life instead saving them for special occasions such as weddings and funerals, tea ceremonies, and summer festivals. They are generally more restrained in colour and of much higher quality than the simple but brightly coloured yukata (summer kimono) rented to tourists. Married women wear black, woven with exquisite understated patterning as seen in this wedding photo.

You may see a group of young women dressed in brightly coloured kimonos for a coming of age celebration at twenty years of age, but for the most part the kimonos worn by Japanese women are more understated like those seen in this picture, though these women are still most likely tourists dressed up.

Walking on I come across a couple having their wedding photos taken. Oh this is exciting! It’s the real thing, and I join the photographer in taking pictures.

The bride’s kimono is of the highest quality and is probably a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. All the patterning is embroidered on the highest quality silk brocade. I am in awe. This garment is no doubt worth millions in yen, and is one of the most beautiful garments I’ve ever seen. During the Edo period (1603-1868) kimono making developed into an art form and this wedding dress is an exquisite example of the kimono as art even if it is no heirloom but was made especially for this wedding.

And then I come across another couple having wedding photos taken. This bride’s dress is very unassuming, highlighted with the red accents of the obi (belt), flowers, and head decoration. Still, the rich quality is obvious.

I walk on a little then come back to them. The photographer and his assistants are dressing the bride in a heavy white over-coat. Once again I’m aware of the difference in quality compared to the garments the tourists are wearing. It’s Dior versus Walmart. It’s a painstaking process to ensure that the coat sits on her shoulders in exactly the right position. Then when all is perfect it’s time for the photo.

I photograph these two women in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market.

I think it’s possible they are actually Japanese women out shopping together: it’s the way the obi is tied at the back, in a big simple square shape as opposed to the floppy bows seen on the tourist outfits. But there’s no telling really. Some people pay more to be dressed exactly as the Japanese would dress.

Kyoto is Japan’s main centre for kimono manufacturing, and they can be very expensive. Although they are not worn as frequently as in the past, in part due to the expense, they have unchallenged cultural value and great symbolic importance. Representing Japanese culture they are worn at embassy functions and official international occasions. Also kimonos are seeing something of a renaissance among young people. There are now shops selling second-hand ones, which make them more accessible.

And now for something completely different. I see this woman on the main road leading down from Fushimi Inari Shrine.

She stands next to a large red banner. Maybe she is from a religious sect or cult. She barely moves as she watches people streaming by. Most of the time her hands are in a prayer position. I’m annoyed that I didn’t think to photograph the entire banner. With the slogan I may have been able to find out something about her. As near as I can tell the banner says Many ca . . s are coming. Let’s walk in . . .
Let’s walk in peace maybe?

Meanwhile back in Higashiyama, a little away from the main tourist areas I’m so excited when I suddenly see these two women walking towards me.

They are geiko! Geiko is the word for geisha in the Kyoto dialect. Or perhaps they are maiko – apprentice geiko. I am sure of it. I can’t believe my luck. On this quiet pathway I have come across something authentically Japanese, something truly iconic.

Don’t they look beautiful!

Continuing on I come across four more geiko and I rush to photograph them. They even pose for those of us who’ve gathered around them.

But alas no. All of them are tourists dressed the part. It’s only later that I learn the truth. It’s the little things. The elaborate hair decorations would indicate a maiko. Geiko wear very simple hair decorations. Also looking closely at my photos I can see they are all wearing wigs. Maiko style their own hair. Only geiko wear wigs. Maiko never paint the upper lip red. And so it goes. It’s the details that give them away. Another thing is that neither geiko nor maiko would be on the streets at that time of day. And they would never never never pose for photos.

But don’t they look spectacular!

One evening I go for a little stroll around Gion, another well-preserved area of old Kyoto, and known as a good place to spot geiko, as in real geiko. I call it a stroll but in truth I’m out geiko stalking. I don’t see any even though it’s the right time of day, and I’m in the most likely area. Still I feel I’ve had my fill – two weddings, another in Tokyo, and tourists playing the part in very beautiful renditions of the traditional ensembles.

Next post: the streets and architecture of Kyoto. Or maybe a day at Arashiyama. Oh and I also went to a festival in Kyoto. That’s coming up too.

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.