KYOTO- My best friend and I went to Gion district, known as the best place in Kyoto to spot geishas.
Having just landed in Japan, we had a late lunch. But at 6pm, we were ready to have some matcha dessert. So we headed to Tsujiri, a famed green tea café. They serve everything green tea, actual hot or cold tea, to cakes, to soft serve ice cream, and even boxes of green tea sweets to take home. Rissa and I both chose soft serve ice cream with red bean paste and mochi.
The ice cream is made with generous portions of matcha, making it sing delicious hints of bitterness we both liked. I immediately ate the soft and chewy mochi, while Rissa saved that best bit for the last. Upstairs, there’s a cozy area to sit, chat, and even numerous power points to charge your phones. We then plotted the rest of our evening.
Deciding on Yakitori, we zoned in one restaurant. But before going skewer crazy, we walked around Gion. Filled with interesting shops, my attention shifted from one indulgence to another: cute Japanese lunch boxes to adorable Japanese dolls, … My favorite would have to be a shop with all types of pickled vegetables.
But in between shops, I would get a glimpse of a beautiful lady dressed in a kimono. Then like an inexperienced paparazzo I only managed a shot of her back. Drawn by the mystique of geishas, I survey the streets of Gion in search of these beautiful women. Rissa points out that I just saw the women in training. (Maiko is the term for those in training, while Geisha or Geiko after two to five years of training).Determined to see more, we continue to walk. But our motives were slightly different. I wanted to see geishas, Rissa wanted to eat more. Rissa spots grilled mochi locals were eating. Some were savory wrapped in Nori (that one I liked). The rest were dipped in a sweet teriyaki-like glaze. I’m not much of fan of those. But in the name of being a tourist, you just got to try these interesting street finds.
We continue walking toward Ponto-cho. This narrow street is filled with restaurants serving Kaiseki. Pretty as it was, the street was filled with many tourists.
Our heart was still set on Yakitori place. My best friend is extremely analytical and great with maps. I am unafraid to ask for directions to just about anyone. Together, we make a great team, yet we still could not find the elusive restaurant. With Rissa figuring it out on our waning wifi connection, we found ourselves lost over and over again. But what we found at about 10pm were the prettiest geishas on their way to an engagement, or on their way home. I discreetly attempt to take a few photos before my phone’s battery dying. These geisha just go on with their day. Tourists, be respectful. One Chinese lady aggressively hounded the geisha with her phone right smack on her face. The geisha shook her hands clearly saying no more.
When we finally found the restaurant, we discovered it was closed for some holiday. We circled the streets of Gion some more, now almost 11pm. We settled into a sushi bar with all locals tucking in to some food, sake and beer around the counter. We sighed, finally able to rest our tired feet and drink a giant bottle of Kirin each to the most decadent bites of scallop, salmon, ebi, and tuna sashimi. The sushi chef, a big jolly man asked, “Where you from?” “Philippines!,” we chimed. The two other diners a couple dressed in tennis outfits, “Ah,… Philippines.” They don’t speak English, and we don’t speak Japanese. We smile and tuck into the decadence array of sushi the chef laid piece by piece in front of us. Before they left, they said goodbye as if we had been friends for long. Without really planning it, we found ourselves in one of the few restaurants in Gion devoid of tourists, except for us. Everyone was Japanese, probably locals just ending their day with a bite and a drink.
There is something so captivating about Japan. Surely, it is a beautiful setting. Kyoto speaks to my soul. It is a city, yet it has the warmth and friendliness of the countryside. The train stations are clean. The streets are wide, well-lit and safe, perfect for female travelers like me and my best friend. But it is the people who truly make this place wonderful. The Japanese are sincerely polite, kind, patient and so helpful. One man saw us holding a map, appearing perplexed, he offered, “Can I help? I speak English. I used to live in New York.”
At the end of the night, we made it back to our hotel by midnight. My fitbit tracker tells me we’ve managed to walk 18, 976 steps today. I suppose, that’s a fair exchange for our fill of tempura, green tea ice cream, mochi, and sushi. But again tonight, I’m reminded of how important it is to get lost. When you let yourself, wander, and freely explore, in the process you get to engage with a place. You see sights you’ve never even known existed. You talk to several strangers. You ENGAGE! That’s what life calls us to do, every single day. We are not here merely to thrive and do the same routine. We are here to get lost and engage with the world around us. Who knows in the process, you may have several serendipitous encounters with lovely Geishas!
I learned from Patricia Noda (@kokorobosoina) on Instagram that the Geisha in the blue Kimono is Tsuruha and the one in yellow is Mamekiku. Ia asked how she knew them. She told me, “I love Maiko and Geiko and follow their careers online.” After some research, I find out that Tsuruha is a Geiko and Mamekiku is a Maiko. They do have many photos online.
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Copyright 2015: Maida Pineda