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Kyoto: Geishas and Temples in Japan’s Imperial City

Great historical cities frequently preserve residues of a culture past that are subtly and slowly absorbed into their modern architecture, art and life. Kyoto has no need to preserve a fabled past, for its history and culture are presently alive and extraordinarily ubiquitous in their present glory. Beyond the nondescript high-rises around Kyoto Station lays the Japan of of epic tales. Geishas glide past 17th-century teahouses in Gion’s narrow alleys. Pilgrims meditate in Ryoanji’s Zen rock gardens and under billowing cherry trees on the Philosopher’s Path.  And epicures follow glowing red lanterns down narrow streets to lively yakitori-ya or izakaya where kaiseki ryori, seasonally inspired Japanese cuisine, is artistically presented and served with plenty of cold sake.

Kyoto was Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868.  Over the centuries, Kyoto was destroyed by many wars and fires, but due to its historic value, the city was dropped from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb and spared from air raids during World War II. Countless temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures survive in the city today.  We visited Kyoto with our cousins Lonny and Hitomi from May 16 -18, 2010.

We started our first day with a walk down Kiyamachi dori and Pontocho. Pontocho is Kyoto’s traditional nightlife districts where you might be able to spot a geisha apprentice at night. The Pontocho area lies between Sanjo-dori and Shijo-dori and was once the undisputed red light district of Kyoto. It basically consists of two narrow streets, one so narrow that it is more or less a pedestrian lane or alley. This narrow alley known as Pontocho is the stone paved street closest and running parallel to the Kamogawa river. Built on a sandbar, it quickly became home to tea-houses, geisha entertainment, seedier establishments and to an illicit trade in prostitutes that the Tokugawa shogunate disapproved of but was pragmatic enough to tolerate.

Laura strolls Pontocho at night

We next made our way towards Gion and the Minamiza theatre. The Minamiza theatre is the birthplace of kabuki and a landmark of the city.   Nearby, we visited the Gion Yasaka shrine, one of Japan’s most popular Shinto shrines. Yasaka Shrine was first built in 656 AD. It was dedicated to Susa-no-o, the god of prosperity and good health, and his wife and eight children. Most of the buildings that remain today are from a reconstruction in 1654. In 869, the omikoshi (portable shrines) of Gion Shrine were paraded through the streets of Kyoto to ward off an epidemic that had hit the city. This was the beginning of the Gion Matsuri, an annual festival that has become world famous.

Gion Yasaka shrine

After, we walked around Higashiyama-ku, a ward in Kyoto that enjoys protected status to preserve the traditional style buildings, to the Yasaka-no-to pagoda. The Yasaka-no-to pagoda is the centerpiece of Hokanji Temple, which belongs to the Kenninji branch of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Tradition holds that Shotoku Taishi built the temple after being instructed to do so in a dream of the Bodhisattva Nyoirin.  The pagoda was originally built in the 6th Century and rebuilt in the 1400s.

Walking Higashiyama-ku with Yasaka-no-to pagoda rising behind

While in Higashiyama-ku, we also visited the Kodai-ji Temple. The Kodaiji Temple was founded during the Momoyama-period, by Toyotomi Nene to commemorate the death of her husband. Nene was the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 to 1598), the powerful general who succeeded in unifying Japan at the end of the 16th century.

The rock garden of Kodai-ji Temple

We built up an appetite from all this sightseeing and so decided to duck into Issen Yoshoku, a small dive, for some of its famous Okonomiyajki. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients, including eggs, cabbage, pickled ginger and a variety of fillings decorated in japanese mayo, okonomiyaki sauce and a few other things. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked.” Issen Yoshoku is very comical, starting with the statue at the entrance of a dog pulling a boys pants down. There is a huge red menu which only has one item in it. Accompanying diners at each table is a lady mannequin dressed in a kimono, some suspiciously similar to a sex doll. But the Okonomiyaki is first rate — a cacophony of flavors and textures that massage the taste buds.

Snacking on some Okonomiyajki at Issen Yoshoku

Nearby, we bought some kuro shichimi (black seven spice powder) from the famous Gion Hararyokaku spice shop. Readers with a serious culinary interest, or those interested in learning about a three-hundred year-old spice recipe created by a famous samurai that at any one time in history has only been known by two living persons, should read our dedicated post about Gion Hararyokaku spice shop (just saying).

That evening we had one of our most memorable meals thoughout all our time in Asia at Kikkoya, a izakaya set in a vintage late Edo-period Kyoto-style machiya (town house). The delicious and beautifully presented dishes were outmatched only by Kikkoya-san’s Okami-san (polite Japanese word for the mistress of the restaurant) warm hospitality. You can find Kikkoya by visiting their web site, though the site is written in Japanese.

We were treated like honored guests by Kikkoya-san's Okami-san and owner

The next morning, following a quick breakfast, we took a walk down Teramachi, one of Kyoto’s most distinctive and historic streets.  ”Tera-machi” means “temple area”  and dates from the late 15th century when the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi relocated several Kyoto temples here as part of the rebuilding of the city after nearly a hundred years of war.  The tree-lined street, which runs parallel with the south side of the Imperial Palace, is full of upmarket antiquarian book shops, stylish cafes, pleasant restaurants and traditional teahouses. Shimogyroyo Shrine and Gyoganji Temple are situated along the street.  Also noteworthy are Honnonji Temple, where Oda Nobunaga met his death in 1582, Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine and Yatadera Temple.

The sights and smells of Nishiki Market are pleasantly overwhelming

Crossing Oike Street opposite Kyoto City Hall, Teramachi becomes a covered arcade as it runs down to the Nishiki-Ichiba food market and Shijo Street. Nishiki Market is a narrow, shopping street, lined by more than one hundred shops. Various kinds of fresh and processed foods including many Kyoto specialties, such as pickles, Japanese sweets, dried food, sushi, and fresh seafood and vegetables are sold. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki Market has a history of several centuries, and many stores have been operated by the same families for generations.  While in Nishiki Market we snacked on some Takoyaki. Takoyaki is the small, round cousin of okonomiyaki. It’s basically a flavored batter with a tiny piece of octopus (tako) inside, and is a quintessential street food snack.

Snacking on some freshly made Takoyaki

Snacking on some freshly made Takoyaki

Our breakfast walked off, we made our way to Kinkaku-ji.  Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), also known as Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple), is a Zen Buddhist temple that is the most popular buildings in Japan. The garden complex is an excellent example of Muromachi period garden design.  The temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408.


Kinkaku-ji was built to echo the extravagant Kitayama culture that developed in the wealthy aristocratic circles of Kyoto during Yoshimitsu’s times. Each floor represents a different style of architecture. The first floor is built in the Shinden style used for palace buildings during the Heian Period.  The second floor is built in the Bukke style used in samurai residences, and has its exterior completely covered in gold leaf.  Finally, the third and uppermost floor is built in the style of a Chinese Zen Hall, is gilded inside and out, and is capped with a golden phoenix. The gardens surrounding Kinkaku-ji hold a few spots of interest including Anmintaku Pond that is said to never dry up, and statues that people throw coins at for luck.

While at Kinkaku-ji, we were approached by some kids that wanted to interview us for a school assignment.

The kids are alright

We next visited Ryoan-ji, a nearby temple belonging to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai branch of the Zen sect. The earliest temple recorded on this site dates from 983, though it was originally the estate of one of the branches of the Fujiwara family during the Heian period. After serving as the retirement home of an emperor it became a temple known as Tokudaiji (also referred to as Enyuji). The grounds offer an idyllic vision of Japan that bests the most creative imagination, including gardens surrounding a “mirror shaped” pond populated by waterbirds and mandarin ducks.

Ryoan-ji Temple

But it is the highly acclaimed rock garden that makes Ryoan-ji a significant sight to visit. It is a simple rock garden, consisting of nothing but white gravel/sand and 15 rocks, laid out just after the Onin Wars in the late 15th century. Put simply, this rock garden is acknowledged to be one of the absolute masterpieces of Japanese culture. The simple yet striking garden is just 30 meters long from east to west and 10 meters from north to south. There are no trees, just 15 irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes, some surrounded by moss, arranged in a bed of white gravel/sand that is raked every day. The elimination of trees and plants and overall simplicity is reminiscent of abstract art. The 15 rocks are arranged  in such a manner that visitors can see only 14 of them at once, no matter what angle the garden is viewed from. It is said that only when you attain spiritual enlightment as a result of deep Zen meditation, can you see the last invisible stone. That is a description, but to understand its effect, and its purity, you have to go there. We tried to photograph it, but the design is such that it cannot be photographed in its entirety and its parts to do not sum up the whole.  All you can do is just put the camera away, sit down and contemplate it. The longer you sit, the more the garden fascinates. Especially when you realize that no matter where you sit, you will only see 14 of the rocks at any one time.

Later that day we were fortunate enough to take in a geisha dance performance. True geisha dance performances are rare events that one can only witness if they are part of the affluent clientele of Kyoto’s elusive Geisha tea houses or if they are fortunate enough to procure a seat at one of the annual public performances given in Spring and Fall. The Kamogawa Odori is a geisha dance performance presented in the late spring in the Pontocho district of Kyoto. Pontocho is one of Kyoto’s few remaining geisha districts. The Pontocho district has been putting on their Kamogawa Odori since 1872. Every year a new performance is put on based on a variety of traditional Japanese stories.

We followed the show with some shopping, including a visit to an ultra-upscale fan shop where we learned how to flip fans.  It’s a bit like quarters, except you’re flipping the equivalent of really fragile thousand dollar coins.

We finally made our way for an ishi-yaki dinner at Issian. “Ishi-Yaki” is an ancient cooking method where raw meats and vegetables are cooked on a very large, smooth stone, searingly hot.  At Issian, we sat at a bar while owner Kenichi Yoshida placed fresh cuts of meat and local vegetables on individual stones taken from Mount Fuji in front of us.  The dishes were accompanied by delicate sauces and (of course) lots of Japanese sochu and beer.  It smelled wonderful and tasted even better.

We started our next morning at  Kiyomizudera. Kiyomizudera (“Pure Water Temple”) is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, and derives its name from the fall’s pure waters.

The temple was originally associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965.

Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, 13 meters above the hillside below. The stage affords visitors a nice view of the numerous cherry and maple trees below that erupt in a sea of color in spring and fall, as well as of the city of Kyoto in the distance.

The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams, and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit, namely to cause longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy.

We next visited Sanjusangendo. Sanjusangendo is the popular name for Rengeo-in, a temple in eastern Kyoto which is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The temple was founded in 1164 and its present structures date from 1266.

Outside Sanjusangendo

The main hall, which houses the statues, is with over 100 meters Japan’s longest wooden structure. In its center sits one large Kannon, flanked on each side by 500 smaller statues, standing in neat rows side by side, each as tall as a human being.

Lou conjures Musashi's ghost

In 1604, Sanjusangendo  was the scene of swordsman Miyamoto Musashi’s famous duel with Yoshioka Denshichiro.  (Those interested in Samuri epics and Edo-period Japan should read the canonical Musashi.)

Sanjusangendo's torii (orange gates), a fixture of Shinto shrines.

Unlike Kyoto’s mountain temples, which are mostly Zen, Nishi Honganji, and its sister temple Higashi Honganji, are the headquarters of the two factions of the Jodo-Shin Sect (True Pure Land Sect), one of Japan’s largest Buddhist sects.  Nishi Honganji (West Honganji) was built in 1591 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, after the sect’s former head temple, Ishiyama Honganji in Osaka had been destroyed by Oda Nobunaga due to the temple’s interference in politics. Nishi Honganji is the head temple of the Honganji faction of the Jodo-Shin sect with over 10,000 subtemples across the country and 200 temples overseas. Nishi Honganji’s two largest structures are the Goeido Hall, dedicated to Shinran, the sect’s founder, and the Amidado Hall dedicated to the Amida Buddha, the most important Buddha in Jodo-Shin Buddhism.  The halls are vast tatami rooms with colorful painted wooden sculptures and gilded arches. Especially as a study in contrast to Kyoto’s zen mountain temples, Nishi Honganji is an awe-inspiring structure.

Nishi Honganji

It may sound like we saw much in three days, but hardly scratched Kyoto’s surface.  In no time, we were back on the bullet train sipping iced Japanese beers and planning our next visit.

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