I noticed her shoe first as it slipped out of the taxi onto the dark cobblestone alleyway. I recognized it immediately—it was an okobo, a wooden platform shoe worn by a maiko, an apprentice geisha. The pale wood of the okobo was followed by a flutter of deep green silk embroidered with orange maple leaves. The maiko gracefully slid out of the taxi and scurried towards the softly lit gate of a teahouse. Her white painted face, expressionless behind the makeup, was bowed demurely toward the ground. Her jet-black hair was sculpted into a voluptuous peach shape and adorned with lacquered barrettes. Her vibrant kimono’s long sleeves billowed gently behind her as she walked down the dark narrow street of Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. She was a snapshot of the past, a perfectly preserved glimpse of Japan’s rich, unique history.
The flash of a camera jolted me back to the present. I stood—camera poised—at the corner of the narrow street with my travel companion, Ben, and a handful of other tourists. But she slipped behind the gate before I could act—my enchantment with her beauty had caused me to miss my opportunity. The five other tourists, all Japanese, murmured amongst themselves and compared images on the display screens of their cameras. Happy with their pictures, they set off down the labyrinth-like roads of Gion, cameras ready for the next maiko or geisha spotting.
Ben and I were in Kyoto for only two days on a quick weekend getaway from our jobs as English teachers in Tokyo. I had been living in a suburb of Tokyo for nearly a year but was still constantly in awe of, and still constantly surprised by, the complexity and mystery of Japanese culture. Regardless of how much I tried to immerse myself into a Japanese style of life, I was still an outsider, never truly penetrating the real Japan. Even though I studied the language and learned the proper etiquette I always felt there was a secret code that was known only to Japanese—a language inaccessible to outsiders. In Kyoto, a living museum of ancient history where even Japanese tourists traveled to experience a sense of uncorrupted traditional culture, I hoped to uncover these secrets and gain more of an understanding of the essence of Japan.
Our first stop in Kyoto was Gion. It was ancient Japan as I had always imagined it—beautiful wooden temples, teahouses, restaurants, and crowds of tourists
and locals in both modern and traditional dress. Ben and I spent two hours wandering about in hopes of encountering a geisha. The maiko in the green kimono was our first. Disappointed that we missed the photo opportunity, but excited that we had seen a fully dressed maiko in the flesh, we decided to call it quits and find some dinner.
Gion’s busy streets are lined with touristy restaurants, but Ben and I were uninterested in throwing our lot in with the crowds—we wanted real Japanese fare. We wandered deeper into Gion, knowing we were hopelessly lost but enjoying the sense of adventure. The streets became narrower with fewer pedestrians, and the omiyagi shops, or souvenir shops, which were every second storefront on the busier streets, became less frequent. At the end of one dark, seemingly unpopulated, alleyway we noticed the trademark flag and lantern of an Izakaiya, or Japanese pub, hanging over the doorway. Between the two of us, Ben and I could speak some Japanese, but the restaurant name was written in Kanji, the most
complicated of the three alphabets used in Japan and the one that was still totally incomprehensible to us. Still, the dishes looked appetizing and its anonymity was more than appealing.
The pub was dimly lit, narrow and crowded. It consisted of a long bar and only three low tables on tatami mats, which were occupied. We found two stools at the bar, and before we were perched on our seats two cups of hot green tea and two bowls of gomae, or spinach with sesame, were placed before us.
We were the only foreigners in the pub, and the proprietor excitedly introduced himself as Yuki. With our broken Japanese, Ben and I introduced ourselves and explained we were English teachers visiting from Tokyo. While Yuki expressed delight at our shoddy but valiant attempt at Japanese, I noticed a large poster of Marilyn Monroe tacked to the wall behind him. Above it was a framed picture of the New York Yankees. In fact, every wall was covered in campy photos, posters and newspaper clippings of American celebrities and sports heroes. It wasn’t exactly the décor I had envisioned for my authentic Kyoto dining experience. Behind the bar were Polaroid snapshots of Yuki and various other foreigners who had stumbled upon his little pub. With hand gestures he made it clear he wanted us to pose with him as well. We willingly obliged and soon our photo was tacked on the wall—part of a bizarre album of both nameless and famous foreigners.
We set off early the next morning for Ryoanji, a temple famous for its Zen rock garden. The garden contains fifteen large rocks scattered in five clusters amidst a groomed rectangular surface of raked white pebbles. Alongside the garden runs a viewing platform designed for meditation. Although the garden contains 15 rocks, it is constructed so, regardless of where you stand or sit on the platform, you can see only 14
rocks at a time. It is said only after attaining spiritual enlightenment as a result of Zen meditation can the 15th rock be viewed. I sat down on the platform, which was crowded with other tourists both Japanese and foreign, and began to count. I counted five times, each time moving further down the platform to a new vantage point, and each time counted 14 rocks.
Resigned that I would not reach spiritual enlightenment that morning, I studied the other visitors on the platform: an ancient, wrinkled monk immersed in deep meditation; a foreigner snapping countless pictures; a teenage girl dressed in slouch socks texting on her cell phone. I wondered if any of them could see the 15th rock and hedged my bets on the monk.
From Ryoanji we traveled onto Kinkakuji, the temple of the Golden Pavilion. Although Kinkakuji is a popular destination for tourists, it is only 50 years old. (An obsessed monk burned the original temple to the ground in 1950. The pavilion, as it stands now, was rebuilt in 1955.) Kinkakuji may not be a remnant of ancient times but it is no less impressive with its gilt gold façade. I was amazed that a structure built so recently could evoke the ancient spirit of the city. Two young girls dressed in kimonos walked by and I was, again, struck by a sense of timelessness.
After soaking in the stunning sight of Kinkakuji and emptying our wallets in the temple’s omiyagi shop, we decided to head over to the Imperial Palace. On our way out of Kinkakuji’s grounds, I noticed a crowd gathered just outside the entrance—they were watching a maiko. Dressed in a pale turquoise kimono covered in gold cranes with mountain peaks adorning the hem, the maiko held an ornate paper umbrella to shade herself from the morning sun. Flanked by two stern-faced chaperones, she glided toward the entrance of the temple—her eyes averted from the crowd of tourists staring at her every movement. The crowd filled in behind her. I looked down at the camera hanging limply from my hand and realized I had again failed to snap a picture.
A short bus ride later, Ben and I stood across the street from an imposing entrance to the Imperial Palace’s garden. The palace itself can only be viewed by appointment but we wanted to take a walk through the extensive gardens. As we were about to cross the street, a luxury tour bus pulled up beside us. The flash of a camera caught my attention and I peered into the tinted windows of the coach. I could see a crowd of Japanese tourists pressed up against the window, cameras in hand. I looked behind me, expecting a geisha or a maiko to be walking past. There was nothing but an omiyagi shop. I squinted to see if there was something of interest in the store. Nothing. I wondered frantically what it was that they saw. What did they know that I didn’t? I turned back to the bus and realized the something of interest was us. Ben and I, foreigners to the country, were the object of the photo shoot. The tourists were as curious about me as I was about Japan. And we were all curious about geishas. I smiled up at the bus and waved, savoring my few minutes of feeling exotic. Afterward, I gave up trying to photograph geishas. I’ll simply remember them as the white-faced wonders of Kyoto—just like me.