Kyoto Tour: 3-Day Girls’ Getaway

January 28, 2014

three days in kyoto

“Everyone is staring at us,” said Rebecca.  “That’s because you’re dressed like a Geisha!” I reminded her.  I have to admit, she did look stunning, even minus a Japanese heritage.

Kyoto is awash in stunning sights, and with a pair of good walking shoes and a lot of energy and motivation, it’s possible to see and do a lot in three days.

Our centrally-located Karasuma Kyoto Hotel was an excellent choice.  It was spotless, reasonably priced, and close to both Kyoto Station and downtown.  The rooms were large by Japanese standards.  But the best part was the bakery in the lobby offering the most humongous, rich cream puffs I’ve ever tasted.  You know the kind I’m talking about…. they’re so big you buy one to “share” but they’re so good you end up eating nearly the whole thing yourself.

Established in 794 A.D., Kyoto is a treasure trove of culture and history.   With its shogun palaces, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, it’s one of the best preserved cities in Japan. Rebecca, Marie and I set off for our first day, opting to take a full-day tour. Our world-wind Japanese itinerary permitted only one day in Kyoto for historical sightseeing and it would have been impossible for us to get to the major sites our own in that short time.

First up was Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1603 and residence of the first Togugawa shogun.  Upon arriving, I discovered to my horror that I had neglected to put my memory disk back into my Nikon the night before.  After mentally berating myself for a good thirty minutes, I finally succumbed to posing for photos for the day.  Tough work, but someone had to do it.

The most famous site on our tour was the oft-photographed Golden Pavilion temple and gardens.  On the way out, I was snagged by two young Japanese school girls carrying pads and pens, scouting out foreigners to interview…my blonde ponytail is always a dead giveaway.  They struggled to ask their questions in English and even more to translate my answers.  At the end, they took my picture asked for my autograph.  How sweet is that?

Of all the sites visited, the highlight for me was Sanju-Sangendo.  The outside of this shrine was very modest and unadorned, so I was totally taken aback when I entered the Hall of 1001 Statutes.  Placed at precise angles executing a distinct visual rhythm from every vantage point, the ancient images of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, projected an ethereal, serene atmosphere.  Unfortunately, photography was prohibited.

We snickered when Marie paid 200 yen for an omikuji (paper fortune) at the Hejan Jingu shrine.  Traditionally, predictions range from amazing to horrible, but by tying the slip to a tree you can avert an unlucky fortune.  Marie had the last laugh, however, when she read her fortune out loud on the bus, “You are like a moon that can shine through a cloudy sky.”  Drat!  I wanted that to be my fortune!

Our last stop of the day was the Kiyomizu Temple, a rambling complex in eastern Kyoto.  The sun beat down on us as we climbed the inclined path and endless stairs to the top, where were rewarded with a jaw-dropping view into the precipice below.  We were regaled with stories originating from the Edo period in which tradition declared if you jumped off the veranda and survived, your wish would be granted.  Legend has it that 234 jumps were recorded, with a surprising 85% surviving.  “Don’t do!” our Japanese guide insisted.  Illegal now.”  Seriously.

Back down at street level, we happily found ourselves surrounded with row-upon-row of shops selling all manner of Japanese goods, like Samurai swords and green tea ice cream.  Well, those are the things I bought; there were lots of other things, too.

Our second day was technically in the Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe metropolis; since Osaka is only thirty minutes by train, it seemed a shame not to go.  After arriving at Osaka train station, we took the subway directly to Osaka Castle.  It was another long, uphill trek in the hot sun to get to the castle, but the grounds and landscaping were beautiful. This shogun castle is impressively perched at the top of the steep hill, complete with an impossibly high wall and moat.  The scenery here made a great backdrop and we took advantage for a bunch of fun photos.

The Dotonbori district of Osaka, along the canal, is the place to go for colorful nightlife, theater, shops and restaurants.   While not as neon-saturated as Tokyo, the bright lights juxtaposed against 17th century temples and atmosphere makes it a must-see in Osaka.

Our last day in Kyoto was our favorite day from our week in Japan.

We spent the morning and part of the afternoon walking all over the downtown area, just blocks from our hotel.  The Nishiki Market enveloped us in a sensory overload of enticing (and repulsive!) seafood, other foodstuffs and Japanese candy.  Marie, who could eat raw fish for every meal, was in heaven.  Me?  Not so much.  For lunch, I attempted to eat a “squid on a stick.”  Granted, it had been boiled first and shellacked with a kind of soy coating, but after I forced myself to stop gawking at its unattractive looks, my teeth could not penetrate the tough, slimy skin.  Yuck!  I abandoned the squid for some tempura shrimp, much more to my liking.

Beyond the fish market was a plethora of shops where we found everything our hearts’, or pocketbook, fancied, from yukata – the casual kimono, to fans, jewelry, art, tea sets, paper lanterns, masks, and of course Maneki neko – the Japanese lucky charm cat from which some say Hello Kitty originated.

In mid-afternoon, we took a taxi to the Maiko Café in the Gion district where we were transformed into maiko, geisha-in-training, through a three-hour makeover.  We were served green tea and then led upstairs where three Japanese women – including one young woman who was a real apprentice maiko – began the process.  After we changed into their schoolgirl-like protective outfits, the white foundation was painstakingly painted on our face and necks. Eyes were rimmed, lips painted cherry red and adorned black wigs set on our heads.

The geisha wardrobe involves many different layers, from the undergarment, long silk kimono with floor-length sleeves, embroidered collar, and cord and obi sash that are wrapped as tight as Scarlett O’Hara’s corset.  The completed outfit is so heavy we could barely move.  And what movement we could muster was further inhibited by the geta on our feet, the high wooden soles of these sandals taking our full attention in maintaining in an upright position.

Fun photos ensued, indoors and then outside the geisha studio.  We took a slow, deliberate stroll with parasols in hand to a nearby shrine – not an easy feat wearing the heavy kimono and balance-threatening geta, but we giggled and shuffled our way through the cobblestone streets, eliciting stares from passersby.

The geisha head-turning escapade was the highlight of our entire trip to Japan, and well worth the $150 price tag.

If you go:

My three-day adventure in Kyoto, Japan was published by inTravel Magazine, October 30, 2013.

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