Kyoto April 15 Evening: I woke up around 5:45 pm and we reached the historically preserved Gion district by the time the sun was setting. The Gion district is in two areas, there are several historically preserved streets bounded by a river with tea and performing houses on the other side of the river. Then there is 3 short blocks and a major street to cross to get to street Hanamikoji-dori, which starts with the café Linda and I stopped at the previous day. As you progress further down the street, each step takes you further back in time as the restaurants and tea houses have the old wooden fronts.
This is where Geisha and Maiko perform and entertain nightly and the street has people in rich suits and dresses hurrying to their meetings and dinners with Geisha. Each of the side streets as you continue down Hanamikoji-dori has old houses where the Geisha and apprentice Maiko are prepared for the evening; kimono’s, hair put up, make-up, the careful leaving of the nape of the neck free (considered the most sensual part of a woman), the decorated obi’s, combined to take hours of prep.
Then, if you are lucky enough to see a Geisha on the way her place of work it will literally be a flash as she moves on the high Geta shoes at a speed that is impossible to keep up with in normal walking (or jogging). THat's all we saw, the movement of colour as she comes out of the darkness of a side street into Hanamikoji; she crosses the street in a few seconds, looking back to avoid anyone coming and slides a door open, disappearing inside as it closes behind her. I wheel past and look back in time to see her take off her Geta at the shoe entrance and enter the tea house.
The red lanterns are often the signs of tea houses where meetings, entertainment and dinners with Geisha or Maiko can be arranged. Since we don’t have the three to four figures each to spend to get inside (if you CAN get an invitation) we take a picture outside. Then continue, walking and exploring the old exteriors of the houses on the side streets where the Maiko stay during the day, and do their training. A few streets down, still on Hanamikoji is the Gion Corner, a performance house where one can see the demonstrations of the Japanese art. This is where the names of the Geisha who have performed there that year are up in plaques outside and where, once a year, all the apprentice Geisha’s, the Maiko’s, do traditional dances collectively to demonstrate their progress in the arts.
We continue up side streets moving toward Shimokawara-dori which leads to Ishibe-Koji (where the old pavestone streets of old Kyoto are still intact). I wheel up to Shimakawara, and since there is very little light, I am not sure where we are, and neither is Linda. I look to the left and it sinks in that I am staring at Yasaka Junja (Shrine).
“Linda,” I say in a choked up voice, “Look this way.”
She does and simply says, “Ohhhhh….” As she sees the lanterns through the red torii side gate.
She had visited the shrine earlier the day before but for some reason it is open tonight, instead of just during day, full of hundreds of lanterns. She disappears inside to see what is going on and the beauty of the night lanterns while I stay outside with the red post lights and the shrine statues.
We continue on and south on these dark streets, seeing next to no one though it is only 7:00 ish. Linda finds the entrance to Ishibe-Koji by following what appears a hallway to a house, but ends up in the ancient streets that lead to the hundreds of years old Pilgrim’s path to the holy places of Kodai-Ji Temple, Yasaka Pagoda and Kiyomizu-Dera Temple. During the day these streets are completely packed, totally stuffed elbow to elbow with people and tours going to these sacred and ancient Kyoto sites but now it is empty as we wander through the streets, and I wheel over the old and smooth cobblestone.
These are the old merchant streets where the “walls” are shutters which open up and display wares and then close down for the night, as they have for hundreds of years. The second floor is for living as when the high ranking officials walked Kyoto, back when it was Imperial Capital, all the populace needed to bow, head down, but the merchants could retreat into their upper floors and spy down to see who was going through their area. This is proved true as during a picture taking of what seems a seamless street a door opens just as I take a picture and a woman in a green kimono steps out, then shuts the door behind her (nope the door isn’t just below the light…look closer). And with the quick click-clack of her wooden Geta, the wall is smooth and we are on an empty street again. This has the feel of the French Quarter at night when you are off the beaten track, knowing that lives go on here as they have for generations, and that you are lucky to just walk among it.
We emerge at the base of Kodai-Ji Temple, which is still open, along with all the major shines and temples, all for a festival we are still in ignorance about. There is a wheelchair route up to the Temple but after days of brutal uphills I let Linda go and stay behind to pop in and out, shopping in the ancient buildings (the shops stay open until 8 pm). Meanwhile, Linda ascended up to the Temple, following this night path.
She wandered around the shrine, taking pictures of the white and the black cow. This temple was lit with lanterns as well, making a magical night of flickering lights. And thus, the most common things, like statues are turned into fantasy items, making a temple bell, reflecting the lantern lights into a mystic object of both light and darkness; this is what we want shrines and the secret walks of the darkness to be all about: something far grander and mysterious than ourselves.
Linda rejoins me and we go down the side streets, heading toward the Yasaka Pagoda, also known as the five level pagoda which is also open, though we decide we will just observe, not enter, as we wonder why tonight of all nights the sites that are to be closed at 4:00 pm or 5:00 are open and alight with festive lanterns. Along one side street we stop at a kimono shop which has just closed; specializing in everything someone on the Pilgrim’s Path would want to make their outfit just as delicate and elaborate as a Maiko’s from fans to Obi pins and hair ornaments.
On another street, almost without light except the occasionally vending machine (can you go 50 feet ANYWHERE in Japan without one?), we find a sake shop, obviously a couple hundred years old and Linda and I argue about whether it is open. I pull the sliding door open but cannot enter so Linda does, as we have promised we will have Sake, or at least buy it in Japan. A bell rings and a woman comes downstairs from the living quarters upstairs where her father and grandfather would have grown up, to help Linda. Linda makes it clear this is her first bottle and the woman chooses one for her. You can see the woman’s feet but she is standing in a way to be obscured. I wait outside the shop, next to the large rope bound Sake barrels, which we wonder is some sort of “bring your own bottle to be filled”. Linda emerges Victorious!
We continue on until we are standing directly under the pagoda and take night shots of it. We ‘should’ continue on to the world Heritage site of Kiyomizu-Deru Temple but as I say, “Two World Heritage sites a day is enough for me!” Besides we have reservations in an hour for Japanese Korean style beef barbeque. I point us toward the river and we soon see the cars whizzing down the road beside it. In a wheelchair at night this seems a poor option and I see a delivery cycle emerge out of what appears a park and so we go that way. We wheel along, in almost pure darkness, noting that we have not had a problem with predators, nor, from the single women we see walking, do they seem a threat. From what we CAN see, from the ancient Samurai Wall to the shrines on either side, it seems that we are in the long and extensive sacred ground of….something? But we have no idea until we emerge from the trees to see this Temple.
What it is? I don’t know, I just call it, the Temple of the Night as we go past it and then out the doors which lead to the street and stand open (Vandalism doesn’t seem an issue either), though the admission gate and ticket booth is shut. Within a few minutes we are back in the edges of the Gion district. We are just passing through but some of the Geisha, their engagements for the evening over are leaving establishment and rushing away into cars waiting for them, giving us only glimpses. Two Geisha’s, from the marks on their neck, are going from this area to the protected Gion area by the river four blocks away – also where we are going. They are moving SO fast that Linda cannot keep up with them (though far taller). I however have WHEELS and take a 8 second film of them speeding toward the district before I put down the camera and then pass them, saying “Sumimasen!” as I go by, to indicate my apology for disturbing them. I cross the bridge and wait in the middle of the Gion street, they see me sitting waiting there. I don’t take their picture. I put up a hand in front of my nose in supplication and with a “take picture” motion ask if I can take their picture. One agrees (it was a bit unfair as by apologizing when passing they had to acknowledge me as a human, and by not taking pictures without consent I was doing everything within the rules of polite behaviour), and they both stand there at pose. Of course, I have to change camera setting and then a taxi comes and waits, and instead of my usual calm I panic and totally flub the picture (I didn’t want to use a flash as it was impolite). This leaves me depressed for the next 20 minutes as getting a consented Geisha picture is next to impossible and I blew it (see, people pay them by the MINUTE to be with them, and they posed for free…and I blew it – sob!).
Linda is still consoling me as we catch the subway and end up by Nijo (Niji-jo) Castle which is open tonight. This is a picture of the castle at night, that night of the Sakura festival. We wheel past the gate and the woman I talked to earlier asks us in to come and see the Sakura festival but we are already late for the dinner. Besides we had taken the pictures of the cherry trees in the day, but why was this Castle which I KNOW closes at 4:00 open at 8:00? “Sakura!” the women at the gate tell me happily and ask me again to enter (somehow they keep recognizing me, I can’t figure out how?). Now, to my regret, we did not even spend five minutes but rushed on to the wheelchair accessible (and ramped) Korean beef barbeque style restaurant. We drink, we cook beef, we have a good time and on the way home I see my first pro-disability store in Kyoto, a store called, “Sticks for living!”
The story of getting to Tokyo the next day has already been told. But on the 17th of April, the first thing I did (or one of the first things) was to TAKE a picture of our toilet (purely due to the demands of the readers of the blog, who seem Japanese toilet obsessed). As you see, this has heated seat, an odour release that occurs as you sit on the toilet and for several seconds after you get up. It has a button for water up the butt and for water up the vagina and a dial for heating the water: how hot and how forceful. It also has an “oscillating” feature for the water, though Linda says that it should read “pulsing” – which made me look at her closely again and say, “And HOW OFTEN have you been using that exactly?” I didn’t want to use the water spray feature but with the difference between my size (6’3”) and the average Japanese female (5’3”), I was worried I would on there and my right butt cheek would turn on the water up the butt just sitting there by accident. Being afraid of your techo toilet is not a happy place.
So we prepared and packed ready to leave Japan. Not that leaving and one FINAL shopping trip didin’t occur on the 17th. But this (again due to reader demands for photos) was the total amount of luggage we hauled to the train and then to the plane (We had mailed off two boxes of stuff to ourselves!). I carried the oxy bag on the back of the wheelchair, my mini backpack, the blue duffle bag on the lap with the computer on top. Linda had the big backpack and the rest, including our rolls of washi we hand carried back.
Tomorrow – April 17th 10:00 am to April 18th arrival at our Seattle Hotel.
6 hours ago