KYOTO, Japan—Dinnertime was approaching, and we found ourselves in the entertainment district of this ancient city in an impromptu pastime: geisha-spotting.
It was an afterthought, really. One in our party, a Japanese-American researcher, knew Kyoto and said we might happen upon a geisha or two, with luck, walking by at dusk.
Fortune was with us. Geishas appeared one after another, kimonos fluttering gently and sandals clack-clacking on the pavement. Each had white makeup, red lipstick, a traditional chignon hairdo and a brightly colored kimono.
"I think this one is legit," said Delilah Russell, the researcher, as one approached. What she meant is that in some areas of Kyoto, Japanese tourists (and even some foreign women) can pay for the fun of getting dressed up as geishas. It takes an hour to apply the makeup, put up the hair bun and prepare the kimono.
"Sometimes the daughters go with the mothers. The moms watch how the daughters transform," said Hideko Uemura, the 72-year-old proprietress of a small ryokan, or rustic inn.
Before coming to Kyoto, I never paid much attention to geishas, the Japanese entertainers skilled in the arts of traditional music, dance and conversation. I hadn't even seen "Memoirs of a Geisha," the movie.
Yet as several companions and I began a 48-hour tour of Kyoto, geisha spotting became one of the more memorable aspects of visiting Japan's cultural heartland.
The goal of our trip was simple: In Tokyo for a weekend off, we decided to zip down to Kyoto to chronicle how much temple-hopping, castle-visiting and dining we could cram into two days.
After dropping our bags in a ryokan, we dashed off to perhaps the most famous of the 1,600 shrines scattered around Kyoto, the Kiyomizu Temple, perched on a hill with breathtaking views from its wooden verandas.
A hint of red had crept into the foliage, the sign of autumn's imminent arrival.
After sunset, we hopped into a taxi, itself an experience. Japan's taxis are large and comfortable. Drivers offer white-glove service, opening rear doors with a lever and inviting passengers into compartments in which the seats are covered in white lace.
We headed to the Gion district in search of dinner and, after glimpsing a few geishas, ducked into a hot pot restaurant, where we dined on batter-fried tempura of shrimp, hot peppers, mushrooms and pumpkin, washed down with sake, or rice wine.
Afterward, we headed toward Pontocho, a former red-light district that's been transformed into a lantern-lit, stone-paved lane of pricey bars and restaurants.
En route, the unusual fashion sense of Japanese youth beguiled us. A young man with spiky hair and dark glasses stood beside a woman in a maid's outfit, beckoning us into their costume club. We saw young women with socks pulled over their knees, men with elaborate leather boots and a fair share of Japanese in kimonos, or long robes.
In Pontocho, muffled laughter escaped from the Daitomo Bar, so we dropped in, and the owner, Yumiko Mori, later regaled us with stories of geishas bringing their patrons into her venue for songs, conversation and light entertainment.
"Here's a photo from last week. He's a patron with a geisha and a maiko (geisha apprentice). You probably think he's paying a lot of money," Mori said.
Indeed, many Westerners associate geishas with sexual activity. In fact, most geishas simply entertain patrons with song and offer an attentive ear. Several hours of small talk can cost $500 or $600.
A block away, we strolled along a canal. Buskers crooned in the streets, and music poured from bars. Kyoto feels like the Amsterdam of the Orient.
As midnight approached, we hurried back to the inn. A sign warns guests that the door is locked at 12 a.m. At the entrance, guests exchange shoes for slippers.
My third-floor room was tiny. Each guest unrolls his own futon, or cotton mattress. Mine was firm. Instead of pillows, we were given cloth bags filled with grain. I woke up with sore ears.
The next day, after hitting a cafe, we hurried off to see temples and shrines. The first stop, Sanjusangen-do, an awesome wooden temple dating from 1266, was within walking distance. As soon as I entered the long hall with its 1,030 standing Buddha statues, I felt a sense of holiness. Bells tinkled and incense wafted.
A monk in a purple robe led the chanting. Other monks opened and closed prayer books in a rhythmic motion, occasionally erupting in chants themselves.
Afterward, we tackled a list of temples so famous that they're all UNESCO World Heritage sites. But be prepared for crowds. The number of visitors to Kyoto, Japan's most popular tourist destination, is climbing toward 50 million a year by 2010. Most are Japanese, but foreign tourism is expected to grow from 896,000 people in 2004 to 2 million in 2010.
That doesn't mean language isn't a barrier. Taxi drivers generally don't speak English, so bring a bilingual map to point at destinations. Restaurants often display meals in window cases, so it's easy to point at food. But I admit that one unforgettable meal of succulent roast duck, fish and autumn vegetables would have been impossible without a native Japanese speaker at my side.
We made an initial round of temples, including Ginkaku-ji, or Temple of the Silver Pavilion, replete with harmonious gardens of rock, plants and sculpted mounds of sand. Later, there was the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, covered in shimmering gold leaf.
It was the surroundings as much as the temples that kept my attention. On the approach to one temple, a lane of shops offers green tea ice cream and packages of pickled vegetables. Vending machines sell Pocari Sweat, a Gatorade-style beverage with a less-than-appetizing name.
On the final day, we headed off to the moated Nijojo Castle, then on to the Ryoanji Shrine, home to a zen garden. The rock-and-gravel garden contains 15 rocks of various sizes. No matter where you are on the viewing veranda, you cannot see all 15.
Schoolchildren eagerly moved about counting the rocks. They never got past 14.
Like Kyoto, the garden never reveals all its secrets.
IF YOU GO:
From Tokyo Station, the major rail depot in the capital, one can take a Shinkansen, or Japan Rail (JR) blue bullet train, and arrive in Kyoto in two-and-a-half hours. Cost is about $130 each way. Slower trains, such as the Hikari and Kodama, are cheaper. Tickets can be purchased at the JR teller counter.
WHERE TO STAY: The most culturally rewarding accommodations in Kyoto are ryokan inns or guesthouses. A few luxury hotels, such as the Hyatt Regency Kyoto (http://kyoto.regency.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels), are also available. I stayed at the Ryokan Ohto, which caters to foreign travelers (www.kyoto-ohto.com, price about $37 a room with communal bath). If you want a ryokan with an English-speaking host, try the Uemura, just steps away from the Kodaiji Temple. The owner, Hideko Uemura, is a delight (tel: +81-75 561-0377). Prices run around $75 to $100 per night and include a hearty breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT: Breakfast is usually provided in your hotel or inn. At restaurants, try the sansai soba (buckwheat noodles with wild mountain vegetables) and gohei-mochi (grilled rice cakes with nut sauce). I had an extraordinary meal at the Un Bo restaurant (tel: +81-75 525-2900, address: East from Higashiyama Yasui intersection, five minutes walk south down Shimokawara Street). It's around the corner from the Uemura Ryokan. Ask the Japanese host to call ahead to arrange a fixed course meal, as English isn't spoken there.
DRESS LIKE A GEISHA: Want to put on white makeup, pull your hair into a bun and dress like a geisha? Check out these Web sites of Kyoto businesses: www.yumeyakata.com/eng/ and www.wakjapan.com/en/katei/kimono.html
TO LEARN MORE: Japan National Tourist Organization, (213) 623-1952, www.jnto.go.jp.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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