“I simply want to saunter the streets of Kyoto,” I kept on saying this like a mantra to Man of Aquarius till he gave up on suggesting anything which even minutely sounded like a concrete travel itinerary. However, the best laid unplanned plans can sometimes turn unknowingly into proper plans. We had only scheduled a day in Kyoto. I had Gion as a destination looming large in my mind for obvious reasons that I like millions of others wanted to see geishas and was smitten by the book “Memoirs of Geisha” and “Geisha: A life” by Mineko Iwasaki.
The Kyoto station was buzzing. We stopped by at a place called Juicer Bar where I had a unique blend of Uji green tea and yogurt juice. It did not feel like Kyoto of my imagination at all. There was still time for it. We took the bus which lead to Gion. I learnt the correct pronunciation on the way which was “G” as in “Go”. We bypassed the stop and alighted at a random bus stop. No complains at all as the place seemed very easily navigable. We took a cab back which drove through maze of pretty back alleys and drop us at an intersection of Gion. The dreamy Gion I had been wanting to visit so badly. These were streets which inspired imagination. I took a deep breathe. At the entrance of a temple before long tourist queues stood a geisha in her full regalia. She very gracefully posed for photos which no one could get enough of.
We took a turn towards Starbucks and sat by the window sipping coffee. It seemed the perfect pace to take in Kyoto for time being. Geishas in groups or individually went walking past at intervals. Did it feel surreal? It did. But now when I think of it, it seems like a such a normal occurrence. It was time to saunter the streets. I saw the Kanji museum I had read about in Asahi Shimbun. Deciding against going there we started walking aimlessly and went in side a souvenir shop strongly against Man of Aquarius’s wish. I am glad I did as I found a bottle of rice bran cream. Once again we resumed our gallivanting. “Where are we going?” I was questioned. At that moment just as I was about to answer, “I don’t know”, a tour group walked by and I pointed towards them. We followed them and here is an amazing tip I discovered: If not sure where to go in a famous tourist place, just follow a tour group or crowd. It will lead to something very interesting.
The group entered the district of Gion flanked by toy like wooden houses on both houses. I was finally here, were I was wishing to be, I thought. The place felt quiet except for few women in Yukata going about their day and restaurant owners sitting in the front room of the restaurants. Tourists walked about as if in a daze in all directions. But inspite of it, the place felt silent. There was no chattering. The place demanded complete silence which seemed to come naturally. We walked right at the end of the lane and entered a huge garden. It was the entrance to Kennin-ji temple, the oldest Zen temple in Japan. We ventured in drawn by its beauty and tranquility.
Kennin-ji is a temple of the Zen sect. At present, there are three branches of Zen in Japan- the Rinzai, Soto and Obaku schools. Kennin-ji belongs to the Rinzai tradition. The temple was founded in 1202 by the priest Esai. It was patterned on Bai-zhang-shan, China’s first Zen monastery, and the buildings were designed in accordance with the Song dynasty style of architecture.
We slowly explored room by room taking in the verdant view through the doors and windows. Some were meditation rooms, while other rooms were designed for tea ceremony. I found a quiet spot outside a rock garden with rocks laid out in geometrical design and sat there. Man of Aquarius did the same. There was nothing to say, but let the peace get washed over oneself which sounded just like the gentle breeze. The temple was divided into different complexes. We took our time walking around each one and taking the lush sites surrounding it. At the souvenir shop a woman was selling traditional teas. We tasted all of it and decided on one which for lack of any other way of describing tasted just like soup. I still call it “Soup tea”.
Everyone who was visiting the temple was going back again towards the lane which took us here. Man of Aquarius in a genius stroke decided to enter a lane which seemed deserted. It was deserted. I was famished by now. I saw a Pachinko parlor sign of all places in Gion. Nearby was a hardware store with an old man moving about. We tried to find out if he had one of the sesame seed crusher which we had seen in a restaurant. Since he couldn’t understand what were we asking, we decided to scout it out on our own. It was a successful mission.
Right now next door was the one of the major discoveries we made. Musoshin ramen restaurant was such an unassuming place with trove of treasure. We were the only customers. Without any delay, the owner showed us to the ramen order machine set by the door. It all felt very video gamey to be ordering a bowl of noodles through the vending machine. We inserted the change and selected our dish option. “Don’t order too much, just because it’s fun to do it on the machine,” stated Man of Aquarius matter-of-factly. I stopped right there. We sat on an elongated table counter adjoined to the kitchen. The noodles had the most sublimely flavored broth which played around with my palette, wherein, the moment I would hit on a taste it would transform into another one. After having our fill we stepped out into the Kyoto afternoon sunshine.
Once again we were guided somehow by our wandering eyes and located Ueshima coffeeshop two doors down. A cute old Japanese grandma was manning the coffee machine. The place had a very dainty bakery feel to it. Jazz was playing in the background and sound of plates could be heard in the room inside. It was a house where the front-room was converted into a coffeeshop. I loved the idea. We ordered strong iced coffee, and savored it with Jazz music. The grandma kept on moving about with her chores. Meanwhile her daughter came in from grocery shopping errand. She greeted us and we started chatting. Without realizing an hour had passed by.
Trying to find our way out to the main entrance of Gion, we took the way of adjoining street. No sight had prepared me for this. I was standing right outside a Koto Shamisen shop. I was thrilled beyond words. Not even seeing geishas had thrilled me so. I remembered a scene described in “Memoirs of Geisha” where Chiyo describes how she learnt Shamisen by practicing it while running her errands and once when Mameha calls her and Chiyo makes an excuse of buying Shamisen strings to get out of Okiya. I waked in and looked around. It was beautiful messy with instruments placed in every corner. There were lots of books strewn around as well. I took in everything through all my senses and walked out peacefully.
Man of Aquarius wanted to explore the maze of streets and so we did. We came across a bridge which ran across Shirakawa river. I saw mothers going about on their famous mama-chari bicycles alongwith many people strolling by the river. We did the same and sat on one of the many rocks. Directly opposite us was a building with restaurant in it. People sitting by the window were looking at us and we sat there looking at them.
We were ready to leave and come back again. It felt like a day which we copied from an article titled, “5 things to do in Kyoto”. At the Kyoto station I came across Shinkansen timetable and saw the train-time for Hiroshima. We didn’t take that train. We instead took the train back to Osaka, dozing off throughout the journey till we got off in a hurry at the wrong station.