Once known as the ‘floating world’, Gion (Kyoto) is a mixture of cobbled streets, zen buddist temples, tea houses and the secretive and exclusive Ryotei restaurants. In between them are large Geisha houses that stretch hundreds of metres back from the street. Hidden from view are the Maiko (trainee geisha) and Geiko, as they are known in Kyoto.
What makes Gion so beautiful is that it still has wooden machiya buildings, preserved from the Edo period. Today they are beautifully adorned with lanterns, making you feel like you have stepped into another era.
The streets, food, and geisha inhabitants are all delicate works of art. You feel a bit like Godzilla, tromping around in your trainers, while everyone else glides around you in kimonos and slippers. Eating while walking is a no-no, as is getting into the spring baths without showering first. You must wipe your hands on hot towels before eat and never cross your chopsticks. Everything has a ritual, a rule or regulation. It seems strange at first, but you begin to respect the order and the reverence for all the hand-made, hand-cooked objects around you. Even tea comes with a ceremony.
Restaurants have small curtains outside their doors to indicate they are open and some have hand drawn wooden menus where the prices are written from top to bottom. You often have no idea what you are entering into, but our rule of thumb became, if there’s a queue or a large pile of shoes outside then it had to be good. Also the less English the better!
Our only regret is that we didn’t try the famous Kyoto kaiseki ryori cuisine. This is a meal of multiple dishes and a hefty price tag.
We stayed in Shiraume Ryokan (which translates as White Plum Inn). It is perched on the cute Shirakawa Canal in the heart of Gion and is named after the two 100 year old plum trees that sit on the bridge at the entrance. The Ryokan used to be an Ochaya – a Geisha House and it still retains all its traditional charm; from the tatami mats, wooden floors, spring water hot tubs and sliding bamboo doors. Everything about it was beautiful, delicate and ordered. Shoes had to come off on entering and were neatly packed away in cupboards to be replaced with corridor slippers. Then there were separate toilet slippers, kimono for wandering round the ryokan and silk pajamas at night.
Thank goodness it had air conditioning, otherwise we would have boiled alive – much like the famous Kyoto boiled tofu dish.
Food and drink are central to Japanese hospitality. At the ryokan we were never left wanting. We were served, fresh cold green tea for the sticky afternoons but hot brown tea for meals, green tea moochi with powdered soybeans on top, and sesame flavoured grilled crackers. These were all just the snacks.
The Japanese have a deep reverence for food – and even go as far as cooking with foods only available in certain months. Dishes are also recreated in plastic and displayed outside restaurants to show potential customers what beautiful dishes they could have to entice them in.
The traditional Japanese breakfasts however, were phenomenal. Every dish was beautifully presented in its own plum shaped piece of pottery or wooden box. Every item was so perfectly arranged in the tatami dining room that we were afraid to touch anything until given the all clear by the manager. We even took more time eating with the hashi (chopsticks) as we didn’t want to damage the delicately carved carrot flower or ginger roll topped with the maple leaf.
I think we said the word ‘oishi’, meaning delicious, about a hundred times. We should have learnt more japanese adjectives to try and describe these great morning meals. Tony the Tiger would quake in his fur if he saw what his Frosties were up against in Japan.
Some of the dishes we ate over the three days included:
Miso glazed cod
Grated daikon (radish)
Yuba (bean curd skin) and salmon
Boiled tofu – eaten with ginger, green onions and bonito flakes
Baby Mackerel eaten with sticky rice, strips of seaweed and soy sauce
Miso soup with noodles and seaweed
Japanese omelette made with a secret dashi stock
Umeboshi (Pickled plums) – so sour they make your face pucker
Pickled and stir fried spinach and radish
Most of the dishes come with a small teaspoon of radish. Radish features prominently in Kyoto cooking. The most amazing, is the Kiriboshi Diakon – a radish cut into a thousand pieces, dried and then re-hydrated. A delicate flavour that is used to adorn other dishes. If you don’t know what a daikon looks like – here’s the white radish as a character’s in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.
All these pickles, we were told, we more than just for decoration in the summer months. According to our hostess, Yomoko, water quality was very poor during the war years, that families had told children not to drink the water during the summer months when the water became contaminated. Years later when the children had become grandparents themselves, they still avoided drinking water in summer, and there were hundreds of cases of elderly being rushed to hospital with dehydration. The government desperately tried to convince its people to drink more water, but to no avail. In a cunning coup, the government switched tack, and instead recommended everyone eat pickles for breakfast. The pickles, they knew, would make people thirsty, and therefore lead them to water! Ingenious.
To get a real sense of Kyoto, however, – I recommend everyone watches, Memoirs of A Geisha. In the old streets of Gion, very little has changed. Even the Maiko (trainee geisha), still train in the city. It is apparently very rare to see them fully dressed in kimono that can cost up to £100k, escorting businessmen. We saw three on our visit!
It is, however, a dying art. A Japanese chef explained to us, how their livelihoods are now threatened by the hundreds of ‘girls bars’ or ‘hostess clubs’ that now litter the streets. Here businessmen only need to pay £50 an hour to have ‘flirtatious chats’ with young women in skimpy outfits.
What about their wives? Marriage in Japan is often still arranged, and there is very little romance involved. The wife quickly starts taking care of children and the husband’s look for attention elsewhere. But this is part of Japanese culture and jealousy is apparently rare.
It is a completely closed world still. You can’t just arrange to meet a Geiko – you have to be introduced. No money exchanges hands directly, but is instead settled with the owner fo the Okyia. Businessmen and powerful politicians will pay anything from £500 to £1000 an hour to be entertained by dancing, playing, conversation and the chance to experience the seductive art of the geisha.
“Remember, Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word “geisha” means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.”
Check out this clip from Memoirs of a Geisha to get a glimpse of what Gion is still like today. At the end of this scene, you will see Chiyo running through the Fushimi Inari gates, just outside Kyoto. We went there one evening and hiked the 4k up through the red candy cane gates to the shrines at the top of the mountain.
Beautiful though Kyoto and Gion is, you do wonder how long this delicate floating wooden world will last against the onslaught of commercialism.