I’ve had a lot on my plate lately, with studying and work, so I haven’t had much time to update this blog. I do apologise! But now I’m back, and I have plenty to write about following the trip my husband and I took in April this year.
We stayed in another machiya, this time close to Higashiyama, just off Gojo-dori. It was a very quiet, residential neighbourhood. We had walked through it before, on our way to find the Hill of Ears (Mimizuka/耳塚) and Toyokuni Shrine (Toyokuni-jinja/豊国神社), so we knew that it was an area where older people live.
I found the machiya on the Home Away site, as I had the house we stayed in last year. This one was called Ojizoya and is managed by the Windows to Japan company. The name comes from the fact that there is a small shrine to Ojizo in the alleyway.
From the website, it looked ideal – really convenient for Higashiyama, Ninenzaka, Sannenzaka, Kiyomizudera and Gion, and with good transport links. Booking was easy and the staff were helpful. We’d originally asked to rent another of their houses, but when they found out that we like to cook for ourselves while on holiday, they suggested this house as it has a full kitchen and is more suited to self-catering.
We flew to Kansai International via Amsterdam on KLM this time, and took the express train to Kyoto. We were early, so hung around Kyoto Station for a while, where we saw an impressive Lego model of the station.
Then we took a taxi to the machiya because our cases were heavy and we didn’t want the hassle of trying to lift them on and off a bus! I handed the taxi driver the map in Japanese provided by Windows to Japan and said in my best Japanese “この住所までおねがいします”. He made a performance of studying the map and then took us east of the station through quite heavy traffic, muttering and consulting the map as he drove. It was a very similar experience to taking a taxi in the UK!
We arrived safely, though, and the house was lovely. My husband had the usual trouble with the low doorways and I don’t think he was as enamoured of the house as I was as a result, but I thought it was charming.
Best of all, though, was that we were a short walk from one of the three hanamachi (花街) or Flower Towns of Kyoto, Miyagawa-cho (宮川町). Miyagawa-cho is a quieter area than Gion, not as packed with tourists, tucked away as it is beside the Kamo River. In our three previous visits to Japan, we had never seen a Maiko or a Geiko while walking around Gion. We had seen plenty of people dressed up as Maiko, but not the real deal. This visit, things were different.
On our first full day, we headed over to Higashiyama to see Kiyomizudera with the cherry blossoms out. On our way up Gojozaka (the pottery slope), I spied a couple of Maiko visiting a temple across the road from a shop we were in.
It was Kyo Odori time, with the Maiko of the different hanamachi performing a series of dances in their local theatres. Because we were only a stroll away from Miyagawa-cho, we decided that we would go to watch one of the Odori performances. First we needed to find the Miyagawa-cho Kaburenjo theatre, so we took a walk through the area, heading south from Shijo-dori.
First we passed a really old looking wooden building, and then we found a shrine dedicated to Ebisu, the god of fishermen.
It was a peaceful shrine, with a display of bonsai trees as well. Local residents came in and out to make their prayers, and the atmosphere was very tranquil. Until the sound of drumming reached our ears, coming from the Kaburenjo theatre. Then we heard Japanese flutes and voices singing, so we knew we were close. We headed around the block, passing a curious street corner and a sign warning against allowing your pets to foul the street (oddly it shows cats being instructed by a dog – a bit like former smokers taking the moral high ground with those who continue to smoke, perhaps…?)
We turned the corner again, walked down a short alley that was home to a rabbit café and an Okiya with a lantern bearing the symbol of Miyagawa-cho, and then emerged close to the theatre.
It was the end of the final performance of the day, and when I made my way against the flow of departing guests to ask the staff how to buy tickets, I was given literature and shown where the booking office was at the foot of the steps. I needed to return the next day to buy tickets there. As I walked back down the steps to my waiting husband, a couple of Maiko who had been performing in the Odori arrived outside their Okiya with their House Mother. One of them was introduced to some acquaintances of the House Mother, so I had the chance to quickly take some photographs of them. They were beautiful.
From putting these pictures up on Flickr I discovered that these were Maiko Korin (小凛) in peach and Maiko Miena (美恵菜) in yellow.
We returned to watch the Kyo Odori a couple of days later. It was amazing. We paid for the tea ceremony as well, and joined a queue of people who slowly made their way into a room on an upper floor of the theatre. We were seated towards the front of the room on a bench with a low table in front of us, along with another couple, and had the perfect view of the two Maiko who were responsible for making the matcha tea and distributing it to honoured guests along with the accompanying mochi. Those of us who weren’t honoured guests were served by older Geisha. The tea was deliciously bitter and the mochi very light. When we had finished, a Geisha came back to our table and carefully wrapped our plates in paper, then handed them to us as a souvenir. When I looked at the plates later, they have Kyo Odori painted on the underside.
After the performance, we took photographs of each other on the steps. Here is my husband, with a small crowd of other departing guests:
We went out for a meal afterwards, and walked home past the theatre again in the dark, taking photographs of the lanterns outside the tea houses.
Our luck was in again as we went past the theatre – two Maiko emerged from an Okiya and headed off to work. My “sumimasen” fell on deaf ears. They moved away from me incredibly quickly on those high geta, but I managed to get a photograph that wasn’t too blurred!
On our last day in Kyoto we took another walk around Miyagawa-cho and found a tiny torii gate resting against the fence of another wooden building.
It’s details like this that I love about Japan. I also love things like the next photo…
Maiko Betty Boo tucked away above the rarified calm of Miyagawa-cho!
Once again, we were lucky enough to encounter more Maiko going about their business. One in particular impressed me with her haughty demeanour and ability to really move atop her geta, the likes of which I have never seen before, in terms of height!
And then, just as we were leaving, having seen a Maiko get into a taxi but not drive off, this young lady came rushing up, all smiles and apologies for keeping her sister waiting.
I feel very privileged to have seen these young women going about their daily business. I hope I wasn’t too intrusive in taking photographs of them. I’m sure they know that they are a big draw for tourists in Kyoto, but I was conscious of the fact that they are people, too. They have chosen to enter into a traditional career and have duties and obligations as part of their work, so I can understand that it might be frustrating for them to be stopped or photographed every time they step out of the Okiya to go to work. A tricky line to walk, I’d imagine. The women I saw on this holiday were nothing but gracious, though. As is to be expected!
I loved staying where we stayed this year and can wholeheartedly recommend it for being convenient for the tourist spots, while still being far enough away to feel that you’re really coming ‘home’ after a day’s sight-seeing.