“Here, we have another temple,” I heard the old man saying over a grapevine of tourists. “And then we have another shrine. And then another temple, and then another shrine.” The man talking was a travel agent surveying a rumpled sheet of paper he just fished out of his pocket. His finger was hovering over every detail as though his eyes alone could not be trusted. Around him, a busy but far from intimidating network of people was laboring uphill through a path flanked by wooden structures. Arcing over them were trees still crowned with green leaves, waiting to be turned fiery-red by the incoming autumn. On my clock, it was 11:20am, nearly 24 hours since we arrived in this city. And from the earphones hanging around my neck, Carey Mercer was wailing one of the most heart-wrenching questions of his singing career: “When am I ever gonna feel the sting of your sun?”
I remember all of these things because I made it a point to take note of that moment should it ever arrive—that instance when someone from our tour group finally complained out loud about our itinerary. “What did I get myself into?” the man asked. “A tour of Kyoto,” his female companion answered dryly.
To be specific, it was a four-day familiarization trip backed by the Japanese government to support the 2014 Visit Japan Travel Mart, a massive multinational affair spearheaded in favor of the country’s tourism. Currently, Japan is eyeing to bring in 30 million foreign tourist come 2030 and the event was among the recent strides done by the country to achieve that goal.
The Kyoto trip served as its follow-up. It was bankrolled to introduce (or reintroduce) the city to a contingent of travel agents and media practitioners. This, in turn, was done in the hopes of generating more foreign interest for Kyoto. Midway through our tour, however, there were people who were already beginning to seem disinterested. And it was not difficult to understand why. We were at the foot of a slope headed for the Sanzen-in Temple. Before we got there, our group visited two other temples and one shrine. After Sanzen-in, we were slated to visit yet another temple and two other shrines. “By now, I think they should be bringing us somewhere different,” the man said. “You know, just so we won’t get bored.”
The girl responded dryly. “What exactly did you expect?”
Indeed. Kyoto after all is known as the city of ten thousand shrines. It is also known for the preservation of numerous temples that now more or less dictate the area’s urban design. Climb the observation deck of the Kyoto Tower in Karasuma and you will find them in great numbers, scattered throughout the city, framed by lush greenery or turn-of-the-century architectures. You will also find the result of a local legislation launched in 2007, one which serves to regulate the height and design of commercial and residential structures. Because of that, Kyoto’s temples are always highlighted, never overshadowed.
“It’s a city practically built on temples and shrines,” the woman added. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Ironically, it was our regimented tour that eventually proved her wrong.
In Kyoto, temples and shrines are attractions that you see in maps. They are the stunning remnants of a storied past that often find themselves in postcards, guidebooks and exasperating digital pop-ups. More often than not, they are the breathtaking standouts that blatantly say “come and visit.” But they are not the only ones that get people to actually stay. Kyoto, after all, is also teeming with attractions that can’t be found in maps. They are the ones that come to you or the ones you find accidentally.
For Jinatshisa Arunrungruangsri, a reporter from Thailand who joined us during the trip, it was a fox, considered to be an animal of fortune in Japanese lore; she found it darting through one of the bushes near the Kurama Dera Shrine and has since then felt that she was blessed. For me, it was a street musician I had the pleasure of listening to by accident after straying from our group one evening; he could hardly say “thank you” in English but he can do Born-in-the-USA Bruce Springsteen justice by playing a harangued, heartbreaking version of “Dancing in the Dark.” For the girl—the one that thought Kyoto was nothing more than temples and shrines—they were brightly colored kimonos; on our way to Sanzen-in, she saw them being sold in a small store with a name she could not even read.
These are the details in Kyoto’s way of life. And as we learned during our four day sojourn in the city, these are the details that are difficult to escape, even for most of us who were confined to a tour of mostly temples and shrines.
The grace of the geisha
As a destination, it is true that Kyoto’s tourism is anchored on select locations. But in order to get to a great number of them, the city’s rules and regulations force tourists to discover something more. For instance, there are strict designated parking areas in the city and a number of them are not located near popular tourist sites. There are also paths, like the ones leading to Sanzen-in, that do not allow vehicular traffic. All these limitations force travelers to either walk or ride a bike. It forces them to slow down and be more open to other possibilities. Effectively, this makes Kyoto a destination of surprises. And to a number of people in our group, one of the biggest surprises of the trip came while they were touring near the district of Gion.
“We were just walking around when we saw her,” a travel agent said, “she came out of a cab and went into a tea house. It all happened so fast that we weren’t able to take a picture.”
And “she” never gave them another chance. Much to their delight, however, they did manage to get more than just a picture of two other women who were just like her. At the Hatoya Zuihokaku Hotel— where tatami-matted floors, occasional tea ceremonies, and onsen baths constantly champion the Kyoto of the old—the aforementioned women visited us carrying with them an art form that has endured for centuries.
The older of the two sat by the door cradling in her arms a shamisen, a three-stringed guitar that reverberated a thick, lingering sound. Meanwhile, the younger woman sat in front of the crowd. She is of a small frame but her presence was punctuated by a discreet, unwavering, red-lipped smile.
Soon enough, the older woman cracked the air with a note from her shamisen. She then began to sing of Gion, the heart of Kyoto’s geisha culture, and its ethos of grace. Meanwhile, the younger woman began to move. Her every flick, twist and step was measured and fluid. It was as though she wanted us to appreciate every shape she made with her body, every moment in life.
The geiko and the maiko: it is a tandem that thrives only in Kyoto where young women are actively indoctrinated into the geisha culture. That evening, the geiko Miehan told me that there are many like her all throughout Japan, but women like Korin, her partner maiko, a young geisha in training, is rare anywhere else.
“Anywhere else but here,” said Nobuko Takami, our guide and translator during the tour. Here in Kyoto, she said, the geisha culture is celebrated and embraced so much that it creates an inspiring atmosphere suitable for the geisha training of young women. Of course, it should be of note that this doesn’t make it that much easier to be one.
To be maiko, and eventually, geiko, in Kyoto, Hatoya Hotel’s Naomi Nashima said that one must have the proper connections to an okiya, an establishment that houses and trains those who want to be part of the geisha community. And once a girl gets in, she would have to go through a rigorous and extensive training to learn various disciplines related to the craft: from the playing of instruments, to the dances, to the seemingly simple business of serving tea, and the intricate art of social interaction.
Commitment—it is a must to be part of the community. It should be of note, however, that in Kyoto, such a trait is not so rare even outside the world of the geisha.
Committing to Kyoto
Behind the counter of a store somewhere in the inner city of Kyoto, a young girl was exercising what in my experience was the most common ritual in a land that managed to net 51.62 million tourists last year: the practice of commerce.
I call it a ritual because that’s what she made it seem like. She bowed her head diligently, moved her hands with grace to receive payment and recited a spiel seemingly second-nature to her in delicately uttered Japanese. She’s been doing that for the past three customers that stood before her and it appeared that she had no problem doing that even at the face of a challenge: an older foreign-looking woman who appeared to be in too much of a hurry to want anything to do with her proceedings. “Jesus Christ,” she drawled. “Hurry up.”
When the cashier finally handed out the purchased items, the woman yanked it from her so hard that she wobbled momentarily. Of course, that didn’t really discourage her from bowing her head again and say “thank you” in Japanese as the woman stormed out of the store. She then turned to her next customer, repeating the sequence all over again as if nothing happened.
Commitment—this is the very foundation of Kyoto. At the Kamigamo Shrine near the Kamo River, it is the commitment to heritage that has forced carpenters to learn an ancient building technique using bamboo nails that continues to sustain the authenticity and the integrity of its structures. At the Kyoto Aquarium, it is the commitment to a concept and its finer details that created waving handrails lining its steps. At every other business establishment I’ve passed through in my stay, from the ice cream stall of Kisen Chaya, to the concierge of the massive and secluded Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto, it is the commitment to work that has created an efficient city. And everywhere in Kyoto, it is a commitment to the land that has sustained an inescapable atmosphere, a way of life that doesn’t just make people want to visit here; it makes them want to stay.
An example is Nashima who was born in the Shiga Prefecture. She got the chance to study in Kyoto for college and ever since then, she did what she could to get a job here. And in telling her story, she gave me a little lesson on Kyoto-ben, the local dialect.
“Here in Kyoto,” she said, “When people say “thank you,” they don’t usually say “Arigatou gozaimasu.” They don’t force all those syllables in one go. They use the dialect and say
‘Okini.’ It’s very slow. Very mild. That’s the way I like it.”
That’s the way of Kyoto; it will urge you to slow down, to savor every moment and this comes off as yet another form of commitment.
When it did that to me during my last night in the city, the timing seemed inappropriate. I was supposed to meet my group at the Ninja Kyoto Restaurant and Labyrinth at Nakanocho by 6:30pm. I came from Gion and was 20 minutes away from arriving late. But then something caught my attention as I was crossing a bridge over the Kamo River: a throng of people, mostly couples, lined by the bank. Some of them were just sitting there, others were lying down. All of them, however, were drawn there for a reason. I wanted to know what that was, so I found a spot at the area and sat down.
I could not see a temple nearby. I could not see a shrine. No geiko or maiko either. There was just the river reflecting the dark of the night. There was just the cool and refreshing autumn breeze. And behind me, there was just a constellation of lights coming from establishments flanking the water. It was just Kyoto and its details, Kyoto and its way of life.
Still, I could not help but stay.