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Kyoto: geisha city
May 4, 2011 | By:
A tour of teahouses, Zen gardens, markets and more in Kyoto, historical home of the geisha, with Oliver Bennett

Kyoto is a city of gardens, temples and shrines. Photo by Oliver Bennett

I had often wondered what went on at geisha houses. Were these chalk-faced tea parties really chaste, or did steamier stuff occur? Now, after a night in a genuine Kyoto geisha house, I can tell you that they’re tamer than a WI meeting.

My particular pansticked maiden played pat-a-cake and rock-paper-scissors with us, then she danced. Small instruments were plucked, songs were sung. The worst depravity was the incessant shots of saké.

But this strange experience is worth a look while in Kyoto, Japan’s geisha city. As I walked along Sanjo-dori, a central shopping street, I saw several chalk-faced wraiths in kimonos, posing obligingly for tourist photographs. They’re part of the living heritage of Japan’s sixth largest city and undisputed art hub, home to 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, gardens and – of course – geishas galore.

Kyoto hosted the Imperial Court from 794 until 1868, when it transferred to Tokyo, and to ‘get’ Japan, Kyoto is a must. This Florence of the Far East was untouched by this year’s earthquake and is instantly likeable on arrival. It was more ramshackle than I expected, with telegraph wires straggling along the streets and a provincial air, in relaxed contrast to Tokyo’s neon intensity.

I checked into the super-chic Park Hyatt Kyoto, and enjoyed some shoes-off downtime in the tranquil monochrome bedroom before heading out into the muggy air. As I walked, I noticed imposing walls with pagoda-like eaves curling behind them like barely-contained triffids. A millennium’s worth of culture was tucked away in central Kyoto.

Indeed, bang next door to the Hyatt was the Sanjusangen-do temple, home to a sacred collection of 1,000 life-size Buddha figures, as awesome as China’s Terracotta Warriors. I was taken aback by this astonishing sight, and my reverie was only interrupted by a squadron of schoolchildren shrieking “hello!” at me.

Indeed, every Kyoto sight seethed with blazered juveniles, particularly the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), a vital Zen Buddhist site consisting of a three-storey palace decked with gold leaf and perched beside an eternal pond. Kids aside, this too was spellbinding, and merely one more of Kyoto’s 17 World Heritage sites.

Up the road, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) was perhaps even finer: a collection of temple buildings with gardens of raked gravel: authentic Zen gardens, copied badly in boutique hotels the world over. Here was the real deal, as serene as an empty beach.

The Silver Pavilion is at the end of a famous Kyoto walk called the Philosopher’s Path, close to the cobbled Sannenzaka street. It’s a steep drag full of souvenir shops, where keening kimonoed maidens sell bean paste sweets and Hello Kitty keyrings. Somewhat monument-saturated by now, I went for a stupendous lunch in a Shinto temple: fungi and tofu, garnished with leaves echoing the seasonal foliage.

I then tottered downtown to the Nishiki Market, to marvel at the culinary souvenirs: purple persimmons, lotus roots and wild mushrooms arranged like a landscape. After translating prices (with horror), I repaired to Kyo-machiya, a ceremonial teahouse. “For the best green tea you take the veins out of the leaf,” said the proprietor, pouring a brew as vivid as an emerald, with lots of gracious bows. This was no mere cuppa – this was art.

Refreshed, I continued on to Kyoto’s bamboo forest, a remarkable walk through an avenue of stalks 200ft high, and then to the Katsura river for a chug upstream on a motorised punt. “It’s a favourite place to come moon viewing,” said my guide, Mieko Ogawa. “It’s considered auspicious.” Even without the moon – or a go-faster geisha – I felt fortunate to have seen Kyoto.

Visit Hyatt Regency Kyoto’s website or phone 0845 888 1234