Kyoto became the capital of Japan in the year 794. It remained so until the Meiji government shifted its capital to Tokyo in 1868. For a millennia, almost everything we associate with classic Japanese culture – kimonos, tea ceremonies, temples and yes, geisha – came to its fullest refinement in Kyoto.
It is also where scores of emperors, as well as courtesans, samurai and haiku-writing priests, made their homes. These are among the things that made me choose to explore Kyoto.
I also decided to experience the “best of Kyoto” wearing a kimono with the belief that I would be able to immerse myself in the Japanese culture and its wisdom even more. Indeed it did more than just that. I came to the realisation that the kimono is not just traditional clothing for the Japanese but also something that affects how you feel, speak or behave.
After putting on a kimono, my posture became better and I had more balanced; my movements were more elegant and gracious too. My kimono consultant told me that the design of the kimono is only complete once the outfit is put on a person.
In a district called Gion, it looked exactly like how I had imagined old time Japan to be. The place is touristy but still enchanting and mysterious. Visitors can usually catch a glimpse of a geisha here.
Some of the old wooden buildings in town are now used as modern cafes or design studios. I took my time admiring the traditional buildings and narrow streets.
Gion is divided into three major business organisations: Catering, geisha house and teahouse. Catering businesses prepare food which they then sell and deliver to the teahouses. Teahouses are basically venues where all these businesses come together and guests are hosted to a grand evening.
The geisha house is where geishas and their apprentice, the maiko, work. These ladies entertain guests, usually in the evenings, at teahouses.
In the past, the maiko and geisha have been confused for companions or even prostitutes, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. These elegant women embody Japanese culture, executing flawless feats of artistry through dance and song all in the name of hospitality.
I also visited the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in my kimono. The forest was green and peaceful. It was windy when I was there and the tall bamboo stalks looked dreamy and mesmerising as they gently rocked back and forth as the wind blew. You can hear a soft resonating tune, which masked the city noise and made things calm.
The simple and linear shape of the bamboo is markedly present throughout Japanese history, in teahouses, on walls, in art materials, in music and interior design. Because of its firm and durable nature, the bamboo was considered the finest and most unique material for making everything from bows and arrows to whistles and pots. Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is a tribute to the beauty and usefulness of these giant grasses.
Of course my trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without setting foot at the Fushimi Inari-taisha. This is an old Shinto temple with many brightly painted orange torii gates that lead all the way to the top of the hills, where the Inariyama Mountain lies.
Torii gates represent the entrance into a sacred space, and passing under one means that you are on sacred ground in the Shinto religion. Shinto is a nature-based religion in Japan, so most of the important shrines are associated with a natural feature like a bay, river, or in this case, a mountain.
Many of the statues and artwork around Fushimi Inari-taisha feature foxes and I learnt that they are known as the messengers of Inari (synonymous to god). In fact, almost all Shinto shrines will have a pair of guardian dog or lion statues at the entrance.
Outside the gate of Fushimi Inari-taisha, there were street food stalls selling a plethora of Japanese food. They sell everything from dango, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, noodles, seafood skewers, mochi and ice-cream. It’s a foodie’s heaven though the prices are quite steep.
Aside from food, there are also many souvenir stores around so do get yourself a little Torii gate souvenir to remember this remarkable place by.