Good morning, everybody! It’s a new day, ok! The third full day in Japan with new things to discover. The plan for this day, although no plan was quite strict (and that is the key – plan your itinerary for the day, but allow the necessary time for some changes), was to visit Gion and one of the most important temple of Japan, the Kiyomizu-Dera.
Gion is a district in Kyoto where tourists might have the feeling of traveling back in time, take a glimpse of the historical past and Japanese traditions. The Old Ways, as some of us like to say. But to get there, we crossed our neighborhood surroundings (always a joy to walk those streets and meet nice people). Then we took the subway to a station where we changed the subway with a train – the Keihan Line, which led us to Gion-Shijo Station, our destination for the first part of the day.
We were in plain center of Kyoto City, the Gion District – and it was crowded with tourists from everywhere. For the first time, since being there, we just discovered what raising the bar in tourism means. And I’ve heard the target for 2016 is somewhere around 18 to 20 million tourists (for the whole country, of course).
We started to make our own way through the crowds and find the entrance to the old Gion, through Hanamikoji Street – also our way to the temples. Many small shops, selling various items, including food, traditional clothing products and accessories – you can get lost for a day in this area and never feel how time flies.
The main street (Hanamikoji Street) was filled with people, both tourists and local people. I guess the majority of foreign tourists is made by Chinese and other Asian countries people. But if you try a side street, after less than a minute since leaving the main street, you will find it to be quiet and even empty. It’s good to explore the small alleys, when you need to relax and breathe the silence. There are many houses which architecture reminds you the historical continuum.
Of course, apart the small boutiques, you can find bars, pachinko places, all other tourist-oriented attractions, but for us the most interesting were the tea houses (ochaya) that still keep the historical flavor and places where Geiko and Maiko ladies perform traditional dance shows for the public.
Lately, the number of geisha ladies (Geiko – the local term) has significantly decreased, but they still preserve the traditional entertainment forms and together with the historical architecture, they make the beauty and charm of Gion.
Dressed in kimonos and ready for a sightseeing tour of old Gion in a rickshaw, this is a way to spend a lovely afternoon of spring, in Kyoto! We never saw 2 kimonos alike. The diversity of graphic patterns is amazing.
Many young couples or groups, dressed in those traditional costumes are walking these small alleys along the “typical” tourists and they sure bring and maintain the charm of the local atmosphere.
Street artists are present, too. This is really a special part of the city, of the world – it’s like an enormous museum, only it’s alive and interacts with you – it is a world of its own.
We were on our way to Kiyomizu-Dera 清水寺, crossing Gion’s old streets and admiring the view. After a few crossroads, we started to march against the waves of humans. I thought Gion’s streets were very busy that day (and they were – during the Golden Week when so many people and students had some free days from work and school), but coming closer to Kiyomizu Dera’s entrance, “crowded” just got a new meaning for me.
The place was rich and filled with energy. The architecture, the inner balance of shapes, sizes and colors – the Great Design is simply breathless. Without using nails, the buildings show refined building skills, to the perfection.
To find a good spot for photography is not so easy, with so many people around you, especially panoramas, or looking for a better angle, then to realize that angle is, too, crowded with visitors. But when you get the chance to get yourself in position, you find the view is very beautiful. The “Pure Water” Buddhist Temple is truly a world heritage marvel, added by UNESCO in the 90’s on their heritage sites list.
Everything seemed connected with the nature, the whole universe. The architecture is timeless and you only feel that when you are there for yourself. Clearly the people all around are in a state of contemplation, which sends good vibes into the surroundings.
Many school students were there, wearing their school uniforms, some of them being actually on duty with some interesting homework : questioning tourists, like us, in English (that’s right – a perfect opportunity for them to get in contact with new people and exercise their English skills), about our favorite actors, why are we here and what do we like the most in our journey to Japan.
The God of Love was worshiped here and many people were around the site until it was almost impossible to walk further.
The gardens behind the temple are beautiful and they maintain the same mood for meditation and peace. I will surely come back, but at a different time, when it will be less visited by tourists. It is a place of inner search and you need the silence to clear your mind.
On our way out we contemplated once more, the greatness and the spirit strength of the builders. This is one of the most important sites to visit and we were glad, after so may dreams and planning, we were there to see it with our own eyes.
We said “farewell” to this marvel of human endeavor and took our leave, starting to walk our way back, through the narrow alleys of Gion. Only this time, it felt we were going along the wave of people, not against it. Evening was about to come.
We were starving after so many hours of walking and we planned to eat in a small restaurant we have noticed on our way to the temple.
The place was a family restaurant, not bigger than a room in a house, which can accommodate 4-5 tables. We wanted to taste the real okonomiyaki, served on a hot metal plate built-in our table, right in the center. It was based on a house recipe with at least one secret ingredient in the sauce. After such a long and full day, this diner was like a bliss.
But the day was far from over. The restaurant was somewhere inside Gion’s street & alley network so we still had a long way to go. But this part of Kyoto, during the evening, is simply stunningly beautiful.
Already out in the main boulevard, we kept walking, exploring the small shops, enjoying the local atmosphere. The night was near and the traffic was already diminished. A real pleasure to roam the street in the late evening breeze.
This is a micro-universe in itself; you need more time to explore and learn its secrets. You need to stay longer, experience different things, taste different foods and desserts.
The world of Green Tea products is just endless, a cult, I might say. The Matcha is a fine green powder made from green tea, which is the base for so many products, like cakes, chocolate and even ice-cream, or Kit-Kat chocolate-covered wafer biscuit bar. I could call this, the Matcha Philosophy.
The spring evenings were pleasant and the weather was so perfect. Many people felt this way – we still had to fight the crowds, but it wasn’t just like a fight, it was more like “going with the flow” experience. There were not a single trace of human aggressiveness – you still feel comfortable, even if you’re in the middle of it.
Ponto-cho, famous for its restaurants and geisha meeting, was an area with so many things to see. This alley (Pontocho Dori) is considered the most beautiful in all the city, with small restaurants, some of them forbidden for foreigners.
This street alone is worth being discovered in every detail. The night bring a totally different flavor to those places, the people are more relaxed, thinking about diner, about having a drink with friends, or co-workers.
Along the Shirakawa Canal we discovered more interesting bars and restaurants. There were also some night-clubs, but as we already got the idea, some of them were not for foreigners. The street was very well illuminated; it helped a lot for night photography, especially when you have to deal with longer exposure times, using my camera without tripod or image stabilization.
It was late and Gion Station was our final destination from this amazing part of the city. The train was by far our best choice for transportation. As I might have already said, in a previous story, Japan has the most precise and sophisticated railway transportation network in the world. We were about to get home really soon.
As always, we ended this super long day with a quick visit to our Family Mart store – a well deserved refill for the evening briefing where the “Cousins” assessed the day, the landmarks, the beautiful places and planned the adventures for the next day.
Photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2015 / http://www.sebastianboatca.com