By Chrissie Walker
Kyoto is a magnet for tourists from inside Japan and beyond. It offers glimpses of a traditional way of life which is fast disappearing.
The city was largely spared from bombing during the Second World War, but small air raids did take place, and these resulted in inevitable casualties. It was also considered as a possible site for dropping an atomic bomb but, thankfully, its heritage was respected, and was thus saved from the devastation witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The beautiful city is one of the few Japanese towns that still has plenty of pre-war architecture, such as the traditional wooden townhouses known as machiya in the Gion district. Property taxes were once based upon size of street frontage – thus these buildings were constructed with narrow fronts but extending many metres to the rear.
Some of these houses remain the lodgings of geisha. One can see their names on wooden shingles above the doors. It is a district full of shops, restaurants and teahouses, where geisha entertain their well-heeled guests. Here the geisha are called geiko, and in fact they would be insulted if you called them geisha. These beautiful kimono-clad women are not ‘ladies of the night’. Nothing could be further from the truth: they are classically-trained dancers, musicians and panderers to wealthy male ego.
One might be lucky enough to meet a geiko in the street. These are not women who would take kindly to the suggestion of a selfie. They are refined and should not be considered as part of the wider tourist attractions. Touching or in any way interfering with a geiko or a maiko (apprentice) is frowned upon.
You will see many girls in kimonos in Kyoto, but on closer inspection you might notice that they are not Japanese at all but Korean, Chinese or Malaysian tourists. There are shops that hire traditional costumes and other articles by the hour. They are not of the quality of the real kimonos, but they look good in the pictures when the tourists get home.
Arashiyama is a suburb to the west of Kyoto and it takes about 30 minutes to get there from the centre. Here one will find some other quaint buildings and shops selling traditional food and gifts. There are still more kimono-hire shops and rickshaw rides, but avoid those and take a calming walk through the celebrated Bamboo Grove instead. Pictures from that stroll will present a more sympathetic image of Japan than will synthetic Japanese costumes.
There are indeed geiko, women in kimonos, crafts, art and food in Kyoto. It’s worth seeking out stores where the locals shop for fans, traditional shoes, and hair-pins. Those souvenirs won’t be cheap, but they will become family heirlooms. Furoshiki wrapping cloths are trending in this age of recycling and horror of plastic. These are squares of cloth which can be ingeniously tied to become shoulder-bags, hand-bags or wrapping for gifts.
There is a great deal of real Japanese culture still to be found in Kyoto. Skip the tourist shops and make for local markets and high-end boutiques instead. Or hire a personal guide before you go. They will be able to steer you to lesser-known places of interest and to specialist shops.