Spotting a real geisha is not easy; they are like butterflies- beautiful, colorful and ethereal.
Despite the differences in the cultures, everyone, sooner or later, starts to admire their elegance and strive for perfection. Gion in Kyoto is the most famous geisha districts in all of Japan, where a chance to see a real one are pretty high. It is a place, where kimono rental shops grow like mushrooms after rain, offering a glimpse of a traditional life style to whoever desires it.
Geisha means ‘artist’ and refers to Japanese female hostesses who serves and entertain powerful, wealthy male businessman and politicians- the ‘modern samurai’. The ones who live in Gion are called geiko, understood as ‘a woman of the arts’. The geishas still in their training period are called maiko– ‘dance child’ and usually receive only half of the geisha salary. It takes years to master traditional Japanese arts such as dance, classical music, art of games and conversation, before an apprentice becomes initiated into the geisha community.
After hours of a ‘Geisha Hunt’ I lost hope to see one. The moment I complained aloud a geisha almost run into me. She was in a big hurry, apparently trying to reach the pick-up spot, which was exactly where we stopped a few seconds earlier. I stood there not believing my luck. Feeling like an intruder in her presence, I was brave enough to take only this one picture (above). A few seconds later another geisha rushed by (below). Honestly, photographing running cheetahs was easier, and even though the pictures could have been better I was extremely happy to see real geishas in an atmospheric Gion district.
Gion remains an enclave of old-style Japanese houses called machiya, some of which are okyia– the geisha houses. There are also ‘tea houses’ called ochaya, where geishas work in the evenings. The most famous one- Ichiriki Chaya, is located right at the entrance of the Hanami-koji street. It is one of the oldest and most exclusive in the country, thus the access is strictly invitation-only. It became famous because of the story of 47 Ronin and their leader- Oishi Kuranosuke’s, who spent time there trying to mislead the potential spies. Some of the most prominent scenes from the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ were also located there. It is easy to recognize thanks to the groups of tourists waiting in from of it with their cameras on a stand by :)
The ochayas usually have no kitchens, therefore, the food is being delivered from the nearby restaurants (below).
A scene form the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Movie; Ichiriki Chaya in the background.
A big variety of movies, which take place in Japan, give us quite a good picture of how a traditional Japanese house looks like. Paper sliding walls, floors covered with tatami and squeaking shiny floors- this is what I expected to see in the first hostel we stayed in.
Japanese traditional houses have no clear devisions- the walls can seperate rooms or disappear when needed, crating more spacious interiors. Only sanitary- a kitchen, a toilet and a bathroom have a distinct and defined location. The most characteristic elements of the interior are the tatami– straw modular mats covering the floors and defining the proportions of the rooms- and the shoji– sliding doors made out of wood grid, covered on one side with a paper layer that allows soft light to pass through.
In the pictures you can also see
– tokonoma– a kind of a small alcove, located in the guest room, were usually a vertical scroll of calligraphy or piece art is hanging, decorated with traditional ikebana flowers. (In this case the ‘piece of art’ wasn’t very impressive ;)
–rōka– small hallways connecting the roomsNot really knowing what to expect I kept wondering if thin, single-layered glass walls can keep the warmth inside? The moment we entered the hostel through a tiny sliding doors to a tiny low corridor (genkan), my concerns did not disappear. It was freezing cold inside! I had no intention to take my jacket off and soon my feet turned into icicles. The nice reception girls offered, however, warm slippers and invited us to a peculiar table. Only later have I found out that it is a kotatsu– a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon, or a heavy blanket. Underneath was a heat source and a hole for the legs, so we could sit comfortably enjoying the warmth and pleasant chat with hot green tea in out hands. Entrance doors from inside of genkan. The doors lock can not be more advanced ;) (above).Backpackers Guest House, Nara- than you for your hospitality.
Japan is famous for its spectacular festivals, which are essential parts of strong, well-rooted traditions. The Fire Festival was the main reason why we chose NARA as our very first destination. The mystery around this event mixed with the fine festive atmosphere gives the audience show and fun they came for.
Here is a bit of explanation I found:
The Wakakusa Yamayaki is an annual festival during which the grass on the hillside of Nara’s Mount Wakakusayama is set on fire. The mountain is located at the eastern end of Nara Park, and when it is set alight it can be seen throughout the city. The burning of the mountain itself is preceded by a fireworks display. The festival takes places every year on the fourth Saturday in January.
The Wakakusa Yamayaki has been taking place for hundreds of years and its precise origins are unclear. One theory claims that the burning of the mountainside began during boundary conflicts between Nara’s greattemples, while another claims the fires were used to drive away wild boars.
Mount Wakakusayama before and after the festival.Local Police and Fire fighters wait for the sunset (above).
Representatives of local monasteries take part in the procession, which precedes a really long prayer and setting the hill on fire (below).
15 minutes of fireworks are followed by setting the hill on fire, which lasts around half an hour. In the mean time the artistic program kicks off.
Most of all Nara is famous for its 1500 DEERS, which wonder around and pose for pictures. Local gift shops are full of objects, which either have something to do with horns or fur. Sweets, called ‘deer poop’, can be found in all different sizes and flavors. Enjoy ;) The local deers know their ways with girls ;)
My favorite afternoon snack- Matcha Latte (above) and Matcha cookies (below).
Many months ago we run across cheap tickets to Japan and without much thinking we booked the flights. Only later have we realized that we are going to spend 1.5 weeks in the area, which is not so close to the equator any more. At the end of January we packed our ridiculous winter jackets and off we went to a lifetime adventure!
Kansai Airport, the one close to Osaka, is only a 6 hours long flight from Singapore. From there we went straight to Nara, where an annual fire festival was taking place that same evening! More about that in the next post.
Nara was the first capital of Japan for only 74 years, before it was moved to Kyoto. This short period of time was, however, enough to turn a sleepy village into a significant spot on a cultural and architectural map of Japan. Among temples and shrines, which together are part of UNESCO Heritage Site, the Eastern Great Temple is definitely the most impressive. So called Tōdai-ji is a temple complex and one of the biggest wooden structures in the world. Its Great Buddha Hall houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha.
The columns in the Hall are massive! One of them has a hole at the bottom. Whoever manages to squeeze through will leave the temple with a lot of luck. The spot seem to be extremely popular among students, who line up in long queues to face the challenge. The smart ones start with the arms up and have their friends to pull them out- lets say it works as well ;)
In stead of real donations, one can buy a real roof tile, sign it and become a part of the temple for another few years.
The Great Hall, just like all the other historical places, were always full of Japanese school trips.
Nara was the coldest places of all we have visited. The monks in this particular monastery were kind enough to offer hot free tea in a warm and cosy room to weary travelers and local worshippers.