My first impression of Kyoto was good, but the best was still yet to come. Geisha and more beautiful scenery were in order.
By the time afternoon rolled around, my body was ready to give from all the walking around in the cold, but there was one more stop on the tour itinerary.
“Stroll through the beautiful gardens of Heian-jingu, a spacious garden with a large pond and Chinese-inspired bridge,” my itinerary said. But after passing through a giant orange torii gate — a Japanese structure that marks the entrance of a Shinto shrine — the so-called beautiful gardens were nowhere in sight.
Instead, large reddish-orange buildings with green roofs emerged in the distance. These buildings looked strangely familiar, I thought. It reminded me of some of the architecture I saw in China, namely at the Forbidden City.
Well apparently, this was all part of the Heian-jingu Shinto shrine, constructed in the late 19th century and meant to resemble the architecture of the Heian period in Japan (794 to 1185), hence the Heian part of Heian-jingu. And according to Hiro-san (my tour guide), the Japanese used Chinese architecture as inspiration for their own during the Heian period.
Finally, walking to the back of one the buildings, a magnificent scene of sakura reflecting off pond water — almost creating a whimsical fantasy world — appeared before my eyes. The much-anticipated garden — featuring ponds, weeping sakura trees and other plants and wildlife — was a sight unlike any other. It was absolutely stunning!
Nothing could beat the feeling of the crisp spring air on my skin as I strolled through this beautiful garden with wonderful company. I was in my own Shangri-La.
After a stop at a traditional Kyoto gift shop, Hiro gave us the option of either returning to the hotel with Carol (my tour escort from Hawaii) or tagging along for a dinner stop at a Kyoto shopping center followed by a tour of the Gion district — an area best known for geisha.
At this point, I was starving so there was no way I could turn down option B!
My tour mate Howard had taken this Japan tour several times before and was familiar enough with the mall that he knew exactly where to go for dinner: Katsukura for Japanese tonkatsu — breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. So of course, a few of us followed behind.
Hawaii has a fair amount of restaurants that offer pretty tasty katsu, but this was undoubtedly the best tonkatsu I’d ever eaten. The tenderness of the meat, melt-in-your-mouth panko crumbs, and perfectly blended sweet and savory katsu sauce all contributed to what was one of the most delicious meals of my life. I’m not even exaggerating!
Geisha sighting at the Gion district, Kyoto
Initially, my mom and I were wavering on whether we would join Hiro for a tour of the Gion district. I mean, we had spent practically the whole day on our feet in the cold. But as someone who swears by the saying “carpe diem,” how could I possibly pass up the opportunity to see a geisha in the flesh?
Geisha are often misrepresented as female prostitutes, but if you read the novel “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden or watched the movie, you may recall that geisha are extensively trained Japanese entertainers who sing, dance and attend to guests during meals, banquets and other events. There are many different types of geisha, but most people recognize them by their snow-white faces and donned in traditional Japanese kimonos.
Hiro informed us that geisha sightings are rare and we’d be lucky to see one, but just the thought of entering geisha territory was beyond thrilling!
After walking for what felt like miles on a deserted street, I assumed we reached our destination when I noticed a herd of people grouped on one side of the street. I hate crowds, but I couldn’t blame them for what they were gawking at: there were sakura trees lit up everywhere on this stretch of the road. It was like I entered a magical world yet again.
You might also recall that “Memoirs of a Geisha” is set in the Gion district. Although the plot and characters are fictional, Arthur’s use of specific detail paints a very realistic picture of the scenes that take place here during World War II.
Walking along the same Shirakawa stream that was mentioned in “Memoirs of Geisha,” I could clearly visualize the characters interacting with each other. The feeling was so surreal, almost like I was reliving those poignant moments in real life.
Our agile and mischievous tour guide — who had to have been a ninja in his past life — turned a corner and led us through a narrow passageway. What tricks did he have up his sleeve this time?
Suddenly we were on a quiet, desolate road flanked by old buildings and the soft glow of red lanterns. It was like a scene straight out of an old Japanese movie. Hiro explained that this area was where young geisha, also known as maiko, went through their training.
I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed that we hadn’t seen any geisha yet, but I was satisfied with Hiro’s exclusive side tour as well as the chance to experience Gion as a whole.
As we walked back to the main road to catch a cab back to the hotel, a middle-aged woman with white makeup and dressed in a kimono suddenly appeared from around the corner. Could she be a real geisha? She was indeed!
We quickly whipped out our cameras and snapped pictures of this rare sighting as fast as we could. She was kind enough to stop and pose for photos before hurrying off to her appointment.
What an opportunity! Carol told us that not all tour guides volunteer their free time to show group members places that aren’t on the itinerary, but Hiro was kind enough to do so. For that, I am so grateful for one of the most memorable days of my life.