Kyoto: In Search of Silver Temples, Sakura and Geisha

My parents (Siân and Dave) and I awoke early on the Saturday following our trip to Sakuya Konohana Kan to take a train to Kyoto to explore some of the delights this wonderful city has to offer. Luckily the sun shone for our visit to Japan’s former capital and so I was able to enjoy our first stop of the day – Ginkaku-ji Temple – in more clement conditions than the last time I visited (regular readers of this blog might remember that it snowed when Phil, Mori and I visited in February). You can read more about Ginkaku-ji in my blog from that trip .


Close to the entrance to Ginkaku-ji is the Philosopher’s Path – a lovely cherry-lined pedestrian path along a canal at the base of Higashiyama. The rather intriguing name ‘Philosopher’s Path’ was given for the 20th Century philosopher, Nishida Kitarō, who famously would wander along the canal lost in though. Sadly the cherries were not quite out for our visit; in just twenty-four hours with this glorious sunshine they would be in full bloom we were told.

Surprisingly little had changed in the garden at Ginkaku-ji since my last visit – it was still very lush and green and with few flowers. Like elsewhere in Kyoto it was much busier here than last time; now that spring has finally sprung it seems like everyone in Japan is out and about exploring gardens and each day brings more and more westerners to the Japanese isles. Strolling round the beautiful garden at Ginkaku-ji with my parents and I finally realise where I get my love of light and shadow from as mum takes nearly as many photos of the shadows cast on the lime green moss by bare-branched trees as I do!

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This time I was able to see one of the gardeners ‘raking’ the sand into position; fascinating stuff!

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Our bus ride from Kyoto Station to Ginkaku-ji had been decidedly crowded so we decided to make the most of the beautiful weather and to take a rather long walk to our next destination, Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. On the way we stopped at the Kyoto Handicraft Centre to admire some of the beautiful traditional Kyoto crafts such as lacquerware, woodblock prints, pottery, fans and clothing. Mum bought a beautiful Yukata (a lightweight summer kimono) to take home as a souvenir.

The Imperial Palace Park surrounds the Kyoto Gosho and Sento Gosho Imperial Palaces. The park is one of Kyoto’s most popular spots for cherry blossom viewing and that was the main purpose of our visit today; mum and dad were keen to see some beautiful sakura before returning to the UK, but had arrived a little early for the main sakura season. We certainly weren’t disappointed, as there were indeed some beautiful blossoms out at the Imperial Palace Park.

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Most spectacular of all were the several large ‘Shidareze-Zakura’ (weeping cherry trees) at the northern end of the park.

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There was also some form of photo shoot taking place in the park with the subjects wearing beautiful traditional Japanese dress.

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We had planned to visit Nijo-jo Castle next but sadly it shut at 4pm in preparation for a night time illumination event, so instead we headed to a hotel in the Gion district where we would soon be joining a tour group for a walking tour of Gion, Geisha dancing at Gion Corner, a tea ceremony and dinner.

Once the rest of the tour group arrived we were ushered into a fleet of taxies and driven to Gion Corner for an hour-long performance which featured not only the Geisha dancing we had been promised but several other traditional Japanese Arts. We were also provided with a very useful information leaflet about the performances that day from which I have extracted the text in inverted commas below.


Chado (Tea Ceremony)

The tradition of tasting tea originated in China in about the 8th century and was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhist priests at the end of the Heian Period (12th century), who used it to prevent drowsiness during their long hours of meditation. The popularity of tea-drinking among the people began in the early 14th century.

A merchant named Sen Rikyu (1521-1591) established the tea ceremony in present form under the protection of a powerful lord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598). Sen Rikyu had the idea of “Wa Kei Sei Jaku” as the essential ideals of the tea ceremony. This is the embodiment of the Japanese people’s intuitive striving for the recognition of true beauty in plainness and simplicity. Such terms as calmness, rusticity, gracefulness, or the phrase “aestheticism of austere simplicity” may help to define the true spirit of the tea ceremony.

In the Edo Period (18th century), many schools of the ceremony sprang up, differing from each other in the details of the rules, but maintaining the essence of the ceremony which the great master had instituted.



Kado (Flower Arrangement)

The Japanese have ‘a long history of loving and appreciating flowers. In Japan, people have put flowers in bottles or vases ever since the 6th century, around 1,500 years ago when Buddhism first came from China. Flower arrangement in Japan started from the altar flowers put in front of an image of Buddha or ancestors to console their spirits. In the Momoyama Period (16th century), it became fashionable to use flower arrangement in the tea ceremony house, but it was necessary to create suitably simple, natural, and symbolic arrangements. The style which is produced in this movement is Nageire (“throw-in”) style. Artistic, spiritual and religious elements were used in the techniques or arrangement and importance of symbolism in Japanese flower arrangement grew through them.

In the Meiji Period (19th century), Moribana (“in abundance”) style was newly added and developed as one of the traditional arts.

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Gagaku (Court Music)

The word Gagaku literally mean “elegant music”, and it is the broad designation for ancient Japanese music. The word also covers classical dancing and singing as well as instrumental music.

Gagaku dates back to ancient China, during the T’ang Dynasty (7-9th centuries). China was the cultural center of all Asia. This court music was introduced into Japan in the 8th century. This court music seems to have died out on the mainland with the fall of the T’ang Dynasty, but in Japan it continued to flourish among the members of the imperial family, the nobles and other upper circles of society, especially during the Heian period (9-12th centuries). It was performed at court banquets and at sacred rites in shrines and temple. Gagaku has been modified to suit the taste of the Japanese people [and] as a result, is now truly a Japanese classical art form.’

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Kyogen (Ancient Comic Play)

Kyogen is a kind of comic play performed as an interlude for Noh plays and spoken in the everyday language of the time.

Kyogen pieces have been handed down from the 15th century. It may be regarded as [a] form of art consisting of a primitive dance including acrobatic stunts performed at the time of rice planting or in supplication to the Gods for a rich harvest at shrine festivals. After the 16th century, Kyogen became exclusive among the people especially in the warrior class [i.e. Samurai] as one of their accomplishments under the patronage of the Shogunate at that time.

Today, two schools of Kyogen are extent – the Okura and the Izumi schools.’

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Bunraku (Puppet Play)

Bunraku ‘developed over a period of more than twelve centuries as the popular entertainment of the people. In Kamigata [Kyoto] this Bunraku art was established in the Eiroku Period (16th century), by Takemoto Gidayu, who is known as the founder and greatest contributor to the Gidayubushi, which is the music and dialogue of the puppet plays.

Gidayubushi is based on the daily life of merchants in Osaka, the biggest commercial city in Japan at the time, and Gidayubushi had the greatest success there.

In Gidayubushi, the common feelings of human nature, such as joy and sorrow were realistically portrayed. The great skill of the manipulators of the puppets has enabled Bunraku to flourish even until today.’

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And finally, the part which I had been looking forward to the most…

Kyomai (Kyoto Style Dance)

There are two types of Japanese dance. One is called Odori which originated in the Edo Period… It grew out of Kabuki Drama and strongly expresses man’s feelings in each action.

The other one is called Mai, and it started in the western part of Japan. It is generally performed in Japanese rooms instead of the stage. It was influenced by the Noh Drama. Kyomai (Kyoto Style) dance was born in the 17th century and it developed during the very courtly culture of the Tokugawa Period. Kyomai adopted the elegance and sophistication of the Imperial Court manners.’

The two dances the Maiko (apprentice Geisha) performed for us were very beautiful and moving indeed; definitely one of the highlights of my travels in Japan so far!

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After the performance at Gion Corner our tour guide took us on a walking tour of Gion, first leading us along the narrow machiya-lined Hanami Koji Street. Machiya are traditional wooden merchant houses and the streets of Gion contain some of the best-preserved examples in all of Japan. While some of the machiya on Hanami Koji Street are today restaurants and shops many are still used as Ochaya – tea houses where Geisha entertain whilst their guests dine.

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This rather large house at the end of Hanami Koji Street is apparently a very exclusive, invitation-only party hall.

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I had heard that apprentice Geisha were known as ‘Maiko’ but I thought it odd that our tour guide kept referring to Geisha as ‘Geikō’ and ‘Maiko’ until I read that ‘Geikō’ is in fact Kyoto dialect for ‘Geisha’. Interestingly you can spot one from another by looking at the detail in the obi at the back of the kimono; Maiko have a long ‘tail’ of fabric, whilst Geikō have the back of their obi tied up. Needless to say, we had our eyes peeled ready to spot any Geikō or Maiko on Hanami Koji Street that evening, and we were in luck too.



We continued on our tour, passing through the large arch which marks the entrance to Hanami Koji Street and crossing Shijo Avenue, the busy main road which separates Gion’s Hanami Koji Shirakawa areas. As one might suspect, the Shirakawa area surrounds the Shirakawa canal and features a very pretty little bridge, a small shrine and many more machiya. Illuminated at night, the area was resplendent with pretty pink cherry blossoms and the fresh green leaves of the weeping willows beside the canal and I made a mental note to revisit this area when I returned to Kyoto with friends the following week.

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Dinner itself was in one of the machiya houses and was a fairly modest Zen Buddhist affair; a vegan meal of tempura vegetables, rice, pickles and miso soup.



After dinner we had a tour of the machiya and I learnt that the reason the these style of houses are so narrow and long is that property tax in Kyoto was once based on the width of the street frontage, so houses were built to be a modest 5-6 metres wide but up to 20 metres long to evade tax! Reminds me of the troglodyte caves in France!

Our last treat of the day before catching a train back to Kobe was to participate in a tea ceremony at the machiya, where mum got her first taste of matcha tea. Interestingly, did you know that the large ‘doors’ which look like the entrance to a tea house are in fact windows? Instead guests are expected to squeeze themselves through the smaller doorway. As even samurai would have to remove their weapons to pass through this passageway into the teahouse it has the effect of making everyone equal once inside. More on this note in a future blog.

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