How to find serenity, scenery and artistry off the tourist trail in Kyoto

In this city of a thousand shrines’ quiet, neat side streets and more storied districts, travelers can still find history-rich sights and striking examples of artistry that are well off the tourist path.

They say that the geisha of Kyoto are some of Japan’s most secretive, subtle and special. At dusk, as a dreamy pale blue light settles over the city, these ethereal, traditional performers glide along the willow-lined canals and the pretty paved lanes of the historic Gion district — the largest and most well-known geisha district, known as hanamachi — slipping into old, beautifully preserved wooden ochaya laced with glowing red lanterns. In these teahouses, they entertain guests with drinking games, witty conversation and dance performances accompanied by a stringed instrument called the shamisen.

As the former imperial capital, and with a history going back to 794, Kyoto is considered by many to be the birthplace of this guarded, elusive art form. Its roots can be traced to the 18th century, however some say they stretch even further into the past, linked to the dances of the 11th century. While hanamachi are fast vanishing in more modern metropolises such as Tokyo, there are still five of them woven around Kyoto’s cobbled streets.

People from all across the world come to Gion to encounter one of its legendary geiko and maiko (the Kyoto words for geisha and geisha apprentices, respectively; gei means “art” and ko “child”) and throughout the year, foreign tourists swarm around its streets.

It’s a cool early evening in March, and I sit with friends by a huge window at Itoh Dining, a famous teppanyaki restaurant in Gion by celebrated chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, watching as a geiko wrapped in an exquisite black-and-yellow floral kimono zigzags her way through a group of tourists. One man leaps in front of her on several occasions, thrusting a lens into her face like a paparazzo, while another follows her from behind with a selfie stick, tapping her on the shoulder. The geiko doesn’t flinch, and at times she even slows down to smile at the cameras. Passers-by turn and crane their necks out to see what all the commotion is about, and a crowd begins to swell.

We are dining with Hiro Miyatake, a Japanese friend who attended university in Kyoto and now lives in Tokyo, who rolls his eyes at the scene unfurling outside. “Here in Gion, geikos and maikos have become a real spectacle, which goes against their very values and traditions,” he tells us as we watch on, maneuvering his chopsticks around a glistening slice of Kobe beef and making a “mmh” sound as the succulent meat dissolves in his mouth. “It’s complex, though, because as Japan changes, art forms such as this also need tourism to survive. But if you want to see the authentic geiko way of life, you need to head to Kamishichiken. Barely any foreign tourists go there,” he says.

There is no shortage of significant, history-soaked sights in Kyoto. It was spared major damage through World War II, and more than 2,000 temples and 17 Unesco World Heritage sites have endured till today: extraordinary places such as the 17th century Nijo Castle, made entirely of wood and gold leaf; the otherworldly Arashiyama bamboo forest; and the 8th-century Kiyomizu-dera temple, constructed without a single nail. The city’s old-world charm survives too, and while ancient traditions, crafts and rituals are well preserved and reimagined right across the country — from tea ceremonies and sumo wrestling to the modern spins on ikebana and even the subtle yet omnipresent philosophy of Zen — Kyoto is perhaps the beating cultural heart of Japan. For many travelers, a highlight is the window it provides into enigmatic, deep-rooted traditions, such as geisha culture.

Thanks to the impending 2020 Olympic Games and government plans to develop tourism into a powerhouse of the economy (it hopes to reach 40 million international arrivals by 2020 and 60 million by 2030), the industry is booming in Japan — so much so that some experts are suggesting it is even placing historical sites and infrastructure under pressure. Last year, foreign visitor arrivals climbed 8.7% from the year before to top 31 million. The ancient capital of Kyoto, of course, is at the forefront: more than 15 million international and domestic tourists poured into the city in 2017, creating heaving tourist sites, queues at restaurants and clogged roads, and placing public transport under pressure. Then there are the cultural faux pas: diving into onsens; stomping over tatami mats in shoes; eating and walking at the same time. Even Kyoto’s mayor said that the city “is not designed for sightseeing, nor to be a theme park”.

But Hiro assures me that a quieter, under-the-radar side of Kyoto certainly still exists — one that celebrates local culture, customs and artistry. So, for the next few days, my mission is to find what Pico Iyer called “the quiet places in Kyoto, the places that held the world within a windless moment”.

The following day, Hiro arranges a visit for us to Kamishichiken, the oldest hanamachi in Kyoto, located in a residential neighborhood on the northwestern fringes of the city, about a 25-minute drive from Gion. Its name translates to “Seven Upper Houses” — a nod to the seven ancient ochaya, which were built from leftover materials that came from the construction of the nearby Kitano Tenmangu shrine, in the 17th century.

An alleyway in Kamishichiken

Its calm, labyrinthine alleys are lined with a mélange of old wooden machiya townhouses, concrete abodes from the 1980s and little ateliers selling kimonos, woven textiles, mochi and ceramics. It hums with local life: lively produce markets, offices and bento joints. What’s more, its distance from downtown Kyoto means significantly less tourists poking cameras at the maiko and geiko that call this area home. The services of geiko and maiko are expensive and exclusive, usually requiring a formal introduction from an existing customer, however, Hiro has managed to arrange a morning meeting with a maiko over piping hot sencha tea at her okiya, or geisha house.

We slip into a minimalist black building with latticed doors and are ushered by the okamisan, or “mother of the house”, into a large room lined with fragrant tatami mats. Soon enough, 21-year-old maiko Umehina arrives, her face painted paper-white, lips and eyes lined a deep scarlet and her jet black hair molded into a graceful, sinuous sculpture adorned with silver ornaments. She has an air of maturity and eloquence that belies her age, telling us that she was first attracted to the art form as a 17-year-old, when she watched a documentary and — despite her parents’ protests — became determined to “become a cultural ambassador for [her] country”.

“The industry is still very closed and people don’t really understand it, and that was the point of geiko and maiko,” she says, gracefully adjusting her sapphire-hued silk kimono. “But that made it difficult for my parents to understand what it is all about — which is art and tradition. The reason I agree to do meetings like this is that we also need to bring our art into the modern age to keep it alive… to educate the world on what we do, rather than [have] them just following us around taking photos.”

Umehina gives us some tips for exploring her quiet and quaint neighborhood: her favorite café is a short walk away — a kawaii little place called Jam Jar Lounge & Inn run by Australian Danny Matheson, who, together with his Japanese partner Kazuo Ikeda, restored a gorgeous 110-year-old machiya into an antique-filled Melbourne-style coffee shop and guest house.

Danny Matheson

We order strong flat whites while Danny — an encyclopedia of Kyoto’s hidden gems — tells us about the history of the Nishijin weaving district we are in: A must is a visit to the Nishijin Textile Center, to see how kimonos are made (they have a free fashion show on hourly “so you can see how the kimono has evolved over time”, Danny says), as is a visit to the intriguing Soushi Tsuzure-en Textile Studio, a workshop where artisan Hirano Kikuo educates young students on his craft of weaving silk tapestries. We also learn of the incredible traditional architecture on the fringes of Kyoto — behind Jam Jar is a 1,400-year-old machiya, the oldest surviving wooden house in Kyoto.

Hirano Kikuo at work

“Kyoto is a tourist mecca right now, but the younger generation still celebrate and embrace culture and tradition in a way that isn’t common around the rest of Japan,” Danny says. “We have geikos and maikos come for coffee, as well as lots of young Kyoto girls wearing their gorgeous kimonos. You’d assume they were tourists, but they are locals.” He adds that there are still plenty of secret little places among the sightseeing hubs. “There are scores of people at Arashiyama, for example, but nearby are the most beautiful little cottages and villages that nobody goes to.”

Kitano Tenmangu

Danny also recommends the nearby Kitano Tenmangu, a leafy Shinto shrine dedicated to a deity called Sugawara no Michizane​, the Shinto god of education. Built in 947, the shrine has seen some renovations over the years, but it hasn’t been touched since 1607. And though some of its courtyards are crowded with students praying and ringing bells for good grades, it’s still a wistful and reflective space, with endless groves of pale-pink plum trees — in full bloom during our visit — and vast, moss-covered gardens as bright green as a cup of matcha tea.

Locals praying at Kitano Tenmangu
Wooden prayer plagues at Kitano Tenmangu

A gurgling stream with little bridges even meanders right through the picturesque panorama. In the fall, the gardens’ maple trees are illuminated from sunset until 8pm each night. The trees line the 10-minute walk from here to one of Kyoto’s most famous attractions, Kinkakuji, the stunning pavilion covered in gold leaf.

Even in the thick of Gion, one can find hidden treasures tucked down narrow alleys and behind plain doors without signs. One night, we discover an elegant bijou bar called The Common One — a designer’s dream with its pale blonde wood, tatami mats and bespoke washi paper screen doors. I’ve never seen a mixologist take so much pride in the preparation of a martini. We also hop into Tempura Endo Yasaka, where we sit in a private dining room in front of a bronze pot of oil as the chef deftly dips mountain vegetables, prawns, bamboo shoots and even sea urchin into a delicate, crisp batter.

Flowering plum tree in a temple courtyard

After dinner, we wander through an almost empty Maruyama Park, perhaps the most popular spot to view cherry blossoms in all of Japan, set deep inside the hubbub of the city. As we take in the shadows of the sakura trees — on the cusp of spring, their buds are almost ready — and the silence of the night, it strikes me that the real charm of Kyoto is that it is understated, modest, subtle and deeply entwined with nature. I am reminded again of Pico Iyer’s prose: “Inside the temples, Nature held her breath. All longing was put to sleep in the stillness, and all was distilled into a clean simplicity.”

This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

CL Seng

Photographed by

Lauryn Ishak

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