Already feeling very satisfied with the decision to visit Kyoto, I jumped on a subway heading towards Gion and Hanami-koji, the heart of Japan’s Geisha activity. Although my hopes weren’t high, the neighborhood where you might spot them is also famous its elegant streets and classical architecture. It definitely lived up to its reputation.
I was just wrapping up a few photos and about to leave in search of food, when I spotted two Geisha walking towards me. I thought it must me my lucky day, until I tried to snap a few shots and realized my camera was set for slow shutter exposures of the architecture. Before I got it switched over to the right mode they were gone! I hung around for an hour and was also lucky enough to be spared the downpour for the whole time. I ended up seeing fourteen of the hundred Geisha and Maiko left in Kyoto!
As dusk began to set in and I left, feeling like I already accomplished the day’s mission to scratch the surface of Kyoto. I only intended on making one quick stop at the nearby Yasaka-jinja before heading downtown to find some food. I went down the short street and through a gathering crowd of people before I spotted a large group of men wearing the o-mikoshi carrier’s outfits that I recognized from Ueno in Tokyo.
Excitement began to overwhelm me as I pushed my way through to the central courtyard. There I was utterly surprised to see a large collection of paper lanterns which I’ve seen these at many shrines in Japan before. But nothing was quite as breathtaking as the first time seeing them lit, casting a warm glow over the faces of the crowd gathering for the festivities.
Only a few minutes later, a Shinto priest on the porch of the main shrine performed a short ceremony before setting fire to the end of a huge pole made of bundled wood. Once a blaze developed, it was hoisted above the crowd and the people began to chant. They took it to the main street of Shijo-dori and began a parade, complete with a healthy share of lanterns. So there was a lantern parade after all! I later found out its true name, the Mikoshi-Arai, but was still confused about the total inaccuracy of the information from the booth at Kyoto Station.
They took the procession through the city streets and pounding rain to the nearby Shijo-bashi Bridge, where the priests began another ceremony over the Kamogawa River. The rain was really beating down hardcore by this point. It was so bad that the parade occasionally halted as they pulled the huge torches into the covered sidewalks to keep them from extinguishing. I got lucky enough to be in the exact section as one of their stops and was able to feel the heat of the fire and the warmth of the people’s joy around me.
After a few more ceremonies and trips between the shrine grounds and bridge I decided to split in search of food. I snuck away from the crowds and dodged the rain by finding refuge in a very cheap conveyor-sushi restaurant.
Wow! Kyoto, what an experience! Everybody I’ve met has highly recommended spending time here, and I can confirm that it is not to be missed. I am satisfied to have at least seen it once, and got a pretty good first impression of its magnificence. I even considered the rain a blessing because it thinned out the crowds. This city pretty much cleared my “checklist” of Japan must-see culture: Zen Rock Gardens, Geisha, and Matsuri!!
Tags: - Photography, Asia, Festival, Geisha, Japan, Japan: Kansai, Kansai