Move over Tokyo – the land of the ris­ing sun has a cul­tural cap­i­tal com­plete with geisha, sa­mu­rai, and karaoke, dis­cov­ers Fri­day edi­tor Karen Pasquali Jones

Friday - - TRAVEL -

She looked like she’d stepped straight out of the pages of Arthur Golden’s award-win­ning novel. With her white face, crim­son lips, Ni­hongami bun, and vi­o­let an­tique ki­mono, Tomi-Tae was the dou­ble of Chiyo Sakamoto, the hero­ine of the his­tor­i­cal best-seller, Mem­oirs of a Geisha.

But while Golden’s geisha was a work of fic­tion, this ex­otic ap­pren­tice was stand­ing in front of me, wait­ing to per­form in a tra­di­tional okiya house in Gion, the geisha district of the for­mer im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of Ja­pan, Ky­oto.

The maiko – a geisha in train­ing, lit­er­ally trans­lated as ‘dance child’ – bowed so low that the flow­ers pinned into her hair flut­tered, try­ing to es­cape her elab­o­rate hair­style. Then she knelt down, care­ful not to sit on her obi (sash), which was tied around her ki­mono and hung down to her an­kles, and be­gan to play a koto – a tra­di­tional string in­stru­ment.

Sad, lilt­ing notes filled the small room, con­jur­ing up im­ages of the wa­ter of the Kamo River rush­ing through the city, and Tomi-Tae and her friends hur­ry­ing along the nar­row streets of Gion

on their high-heeled okobo. The song ended, and the mood changed as the maiko per­formed a mes­meris­ing dance – her hands cre­at­ing sto­ries of their own, while her body swayed gen­tly, like one of the fra­grant cherry blos­som trees out­side sway­ing in the wind.

As she twisted, I caught a glimpse of her bare neck. Maikos don the same white make-up on the nape, which is con­sid­ered sen­sual, leav­ing just a tiny patch of skin ex­posed. It’s part of the rich his­tory of the geisha and their cov­eted role in Ja­panese cul­ture.

The role of geisha can be traced as far back as 794 when the Im­pe­rial Court moved to Ky­oto and the Ja­panese be­came ob­sessed with beauty. Geishas were con­sid­ered the epit­ome of Ja­panese fem­i­nin­ity, and en­ter­tained the elite.

Now they play a piv­otal part in tourism as well as en­ter­tain­ing rich busi­ness­men with their mu­si­cal and dancing skills. Tourists flock to Gion to see the geisha of Golden’s novel and sub­se­quent Academy Award­win­ning film, star­ring Suzuka Ohgo.

But it’s rare to get a pri­vate au­di­ence with a maiko like this. And so af­ter show­ing us how to play a par­lour game that in­volves clap­ping, singing and try­ing to out­wit your part­ner – she won ev­ery time, which saw her gig­gle in de­light – the 18-year-old sits down to talk.

“I wanted to be a geisha since I was a lit­tle girl,” she ex­plained through her trans­la­tor. “My par­ents weren’t very happy at first as they knew I would have to leave home, but they sup­ported me when they re­alised how se­ri­ous I was. I came to Ky­oto aged 15. I now study very hard, es­pe­cially at mu­sic and cal­lig­ra­phy.”

She ex­plained how she works for Okaa-san, the mother of the house, who chose to train her be­cause she was a gifted mu­si­cian, and be­cause she is so pretty.

“I love to wear make-up and dress up,” Tomi-Tae said. “But I have to be care­ful about my hair and sleep on a spe­cial pil­low so I don’t mess it up.”

As she spoke the maiko looked much younger, her hands fly­ing in front of her mouth when she laughed, or tried to find the right word to ex­plain her life: how she gets to see her fam­ily only twice a year, and how she likes go­ing to the cin­ema with friends and has seen

Mem­oirs of a Geisha on YouTube. Ev­ery­thing took a while as my ques­tions were trans­lated into Ja­panese, and her replies ex­plained to us in English. “Have you heard of Justin Bieber?” I asked the teenager,

and sud­denly she didn’t need the trans­la­tor. “I love him,” she replied in per­fect English. “I’m a big fan. My favourite song is Baby. I would like to meet him one day.”

It was strange to think of this maiko re­lax­ing in jeans and a T-shirt on a rare day off, de­void of make-up, lis­ten­ing to the big­gest pop star on the planet in her bed­room, just like other teenagers.

But now it was time to leave, and she es­corted me out­side, where we posed to­gether for pic­tures while cu­ri­ous tourists and Ja­panese stared.

Be­fore she could take her leave, she bowed not just once, but twice, then again, and I found my­self caught in the com­pli­cated so­cial and cul­tural code that I sim­ply did not as a Westerner un­der­stand.

So I bowed ev­ery time she did, and fi­nally, af­ter about 10 min­utes of this, the mother res­cued Tomi-Tae and ush­ered her back in­side the okiya.

Walk­ing away – head and shoul­ders above the lo­cal res­i­dents – it was the first of many pinchme mo­ments in a coun­try that is abun­dantly rich in her­itage, his­tory and cul­ture.

Next stop Tawaraya Yoshit­omi for a Ja­panese sweet tea cer­e­mony, an elab­o­rate rit­ual where a fe­male tea mas­ter made a bowl of green tea – a task so rit­u­al­is­tic it took around an hour.

It takes 10 to 15 years to be­come a cer­ti­fied tea mas­ter, and I can see why, as ev­ery part of the cer­e­mony in­volves com­plex and com­pli­cated move­ments, al­most like a dance.

The green tea has to be brewed and fil­tered, but sim­ply touch­ing the crock­ery in­volves a se­ries of move­ments, and when the tea is fi­nally ready, it looks like a frothy green soup and can­not be con­sumed un­til the tea bowl has been ro­tated half­way round.

Af­ter I fin­isheded my tea, which was strong and didn’t taste at all like tea in theWest, I was re­minded to spin it back round to its orig­i­nal po­si­tion so as not to cause of­fence.

Sweets are of­fered with the tea, and we were in­vited into a con­fec­tionary room to make some. It sounded like fun, and I thought it was go­ing to be easy as I fol­lowed the chef, but it was much harder than it looked.

At first I thought we were cre­at­ing flow­ers and pretty shapes out of marzi­pan, like pe­tite fours, but in fact we were us­ing dough made out of beans and veg­eta­bles.

My sweets looked ugly and mis­shapen and tasted un­like any­thing I’d ever had be­fore – it was like eat­ing a very doughy and chewy semi-sweet jelly – and I could only man­age one.

Be­sides, I was too busy watch­ing the del­i­cate move­ments of the tea mas­ter, who was ev­ery bit as grace­ful as the geisha, with her in­tri­cate rit­ual in­volv­ing myr­iad bowls and a whisk.

I was fast learn­ing that ev­ery­thing in Ja­pan has some deeper mean­ing. The en­tire culi­nary world, and tea, is not sim­ply about sat­is­fy­ing one’s thirst or hunger – the ex­pe­ri­ence is a cul­tural one.

Ky­oto reigned as the cap­i­tal of Ja­pan for more than 1,000 years af­ter Em­peror Kammu made the city the cen­tre of his Im­pe­rial Court and Ja­pan’s po­lit­i­cal world.

Hav­ing es­caped most of the de­struc­tion of the Se­condWorldWar, it now has more than 2,000 shrines and tem­ples, and 17 UnescoWorld Her­itage sites.

Ky­oto res­i­dents are proud of their no­ble her­itage and tra­di­tions, which in­clude kaiseki ry­ori – food beau­ti­ful enough to be called art.

Four styles of cook­ing re­lat­ing to the im­pe­rial court, the Bud­dhist tem­ples, tea cer­e­monies and for­malised sa­mu­rai events de­vel­oped Ky­oto’s most so­phis­ti­cated culi­nary cul­ture, Kyo-ry­ori.

So it was no won­der that I spent as much time tak­ing pho­tos of meals dur­ing my stay in Ja­pan as I did con­sum­ing them.

I fell in love with tofu, which is served in dif­fer­ent ways, and which I dis­cover is part of the au­then­tic Bud­dhist veg­e­tar­ian cui­sine, Sho­jin-ry­ori, which came to Ja­pan from China with Zen Bud­dhism in the Ka­makura pe­riod from 1192 to 1333. But the stand-out meal, apart

from the must-try bento boxes, is lunch at Misogu­igawa, a fu­sion of French and Kaiseki-style food.

It comes in del­i­cate bowls with dishes so beau­ti­fully pre­sented that I hardly dared touch them, and in­stead stared at them as if they were paint­ings be­fore fi­nally tast­ing them.

An ex­plo­sion of flavours danced in my mouth, a sump­tu­ous blend of French and Ja­panese com­ing to­gether in har­mony.

The chef Teruo Inoue looked like he’d stepped off a run­way with the smartest chef’s whites I’d ever seen and a tie so im­pec­ca­bly knot­ted that it’s no won­der his dishes are as vis­ually ap­peal­ing as they are de­li­cious.

Later, I col­lapsed on the bed back in my room at Ho­tel Gran­via, a mod­ernist homage to glass and steel, di­rectly in front of Ky­oto Cen­tral Sta­tion, where bul­let trains speed past en route to Tokyo.

The ul­ti­mate in mod­ern Ja­panese chic, the ho­tel is part of the JR Ky­oto Sta­tion build­ing, and houses a theatre, un­der­ground shop­ping mall, mu­seum and depart­ment store.

The rooms are small byWestern stan­dards, but big for Ja­pan, and have all the mod cons and then some – I had to call down­stairs to the concierge to ask how to work the shower, which comes with a bucket. The pa­tient concierge ex­plained that it’s nor­mal in Ja­pan to wash us­ing the bucket and soap be­fore you go into the shower. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but nei­ther does the heated toi­let com­plete with mu­si­cal op­tions. They’re de rigeur in Ja­pan, and have so many but­tons on them that I’m sure I’m go­ing to be launched out of the cu­bi­cle into space if I press too many.

So I in­dulged my pas­sion for mu­sic over the road in a karaoke bar, which has pri­vate booths for par­ties of friends and col­leagues, who dine, drink and sing their favourite songs.

Our guide, Ted, along with the man­age­ment of Ho­tel Gran­via Ky­oto, took us along for an­other pinchme mo­ment when I found my­self hog­ging the mi­cro­phone wail­ing along to Jon Bon Jovi’s Liv­ing on a Prayer and Madonna’s Ma­te­rial Girl.

“You’re a re­ally good singer,” Ted told me, and I won­dered if he was be­ing sar­cas­tic or if it’s part of that be­wil­der­ing Ja­panese so­cial code again. Ei­ther way, I bowed, and watched as he belted out Elvis’

Sus­pi­ciousMinds pitch per­fect and com­plete with jig­gling hips and a Pres­ley-style pout.

Then it was off to bed, be­cause we were up early the next day to visit Kiy­omizu-dera tem­ple, in the east of the city, where a res­i­dent Bud­dhist monk greeted us for a guided tour.

Swathed in black silk robes and a golden sash, he was to­tally un­like any monk I’ve ever met. Well­trav­elled, flu­ent in English and mar­ried (as all Bud­dhist monks are al­lowed to be here), he had an aura of

so­phis­ti­ca­tion as well as tran­quil­lity. He guided us round the beau­ti­ful tem­ple, which was built in the early 17th Century with­out us­ing a sin­gle nail. The tem­ple is named af­ter the wa­ter­fall, which runs down into the com­plex from the nearby hills as Kiy­omizu means clear or pure wa­ter.

I mar­veled at the bright or­ange of the tem­ple, the in­tri­cate work in­side and out, but re­fused to go down into a spe­cial, pitch-black cor­ri­dor, which is said to leave people who en­ter it re­born when they come out the other side.

In­stead I smiled at the Ja­panese vis­i­tors in their ki­monos, and headed out­side to the stalls and shops to stock up on Hello Kitty mer­chan­dise for my lit­tle girl and a gold and black Bieber-style base­ball cap, com­plete with an or­nate em­broi­dered dragon, for my 11-year-old son.

Fash­ion is big busi­ness in Ja­pan, and we ven­tured across the city to Hosoo, a tra­di­tional weav­ing stu­dio that pro­duced silks and fabrics for Dior and other top de­sign­ers.

It was fas­ci­nat­ing to see the gor­geous de­signs be­ing cre­ated and then pro­grammed into a com­puter, which works the weave. It takes ages to make – I was there for a cou­ple of hours and only a few cen­time­tres are made in that time – so of course the work­man­ship doesn’t come cheap. But the qual­ity is in­cred­i­ble, and I drifted back to the ho­tel wish­ing I had a Hosoo keep­sake to take home.

I con­soled my­self with the thought of the next day’s ac­tiv­ity – a visit to the Toei Ky­oto Stu­dio Park – a theme park that also houses a real-life film stu­dio. More than 200 Jidaigeki movies are made here ev­ery year, and walk­ing down one of the streets, set in the Edo pe­riod, we came face to face with sa­mu­rai per­form­ing cham­bara – a sword-fight­ing play – watched nin­jas in the theatre, and smiled at the cou­ples dress­ing up as a sa­mu­rai, or geisha for a date with a dif­fer­ence.

As we were about to leave, a bunch of teenage school girls rushed up to me and thrust a let­ter in my hands. In per­fect English, 13-year-old Nag­isa in­tro­duced her­self, say­ing she came from In­noshima, an is­land, and would like to have a pen pal.

She was so shy and sweet, gig­gling be­hind her hand, as I read her beau­ti­fully scripted note and agreed to write to her when I got back to Dubai. And then I was off to my fi­nal stop in Ja­pan – a tra­di­tional inn or ryokan. These are the places we see on TV or in films, with rush mats and slid­ing paper walls – and great omote­nashi, or tra­di­tional Ja­panese hos­pi­tal­ity.

Our inn, Yoshida Sanso, was in­cred­i­ble – an au­then­tic ryokan built on the hill­side of Mount Yoshida in 1932 and the for­mer villa of Highashi Fushimi­nomiya, who is the un­cle of the cur­rent Em­peror Ak­i­hito.

De­signed in part by Tsunekazu Nish­ioka, who also re­stored Ja­panese na­tional trea­sures in­clud­ing Yakushiji tem­ple and Ho­ryu-ji tem­ple in Nara, the villa is made from Hi­noki cy­press with views over beau­ti­ful gar­dens, Mount Dai­monji and the range of Ky­oto’s east­ern moun­tains.

Our host­ess, Tomoko Naka­mura, whose fam­ily owns the villa, let us de­cide be­tween our­selves which rooms we wanted. I chose one with a bal­cony over­look­ing the gar­dens, com­plete with fu­ton, which is a mat­tress on the floor. I was sure that meant an un­com­fort­able night ahead, but af­ter feast­ing on kaiseki and be­ing given a scroll with a waka poem writ­ten out with a brush to keep for­ever, I fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke in the morn­ing feel­ing re­freshed and ready for break­fast while watch­ing the sun rise over the gar­dens. Sadly it was time to head to Kansai air­port in Osaka, but I wouldn’t for­get Ky­oto in a hurry.

Luck­ily I al­ready own a copy of Golden’s book, which I vowed to re-read as soon as I ar­rived home. It will be fas­ci­nat­ing to re­visit now that I’ve walked through Gion, met a maiko – and I now have mem­oirs of my own. Ones to trea­sure.


Ky­oto has more than 200 tem­ples and shrines, in­clud­ing Ginkaku-ji (this pic­ture) and Fushimi Inari Taisha (be­low right)

Karen and 18-year-old maiko Tomi-Tae

Maikos wear white make-up on the nape, which is con­sid­ered sen­sual

A room with a view at the Ho­tel Gran­via

Karen was guided around Kiy­omizu-dera by a well-trav­elled and ex­tremely friendly monk

It takes 10 to 15 years to be­come a tea mas­ter

Kiy­omizu-dera was built with­out us­ing a sin­gle nail

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