Kyoto is unlike any other city I’ve seen – never have I been anywhere as beautiful, as captivating, and as distinct as Kyoto, Japan. The heart of tradition, it protects and preserves the aspects of Japanese culture which make the country’s character unique.
This past weekend, I visited Kyoto for the first time. Since I’d never been to the city before, and knew very little about it, my friends and I joined a free walking tour of Gion.
Gion is a traditional entertainment district in the center of Kyoto. Woven throughout the famous district are streets lined with shops selling traditional Japanese craftwork, like chirimen craft and handmade ceramic bowls, as well as traditional Japanese snacks.
But what I found most interesting about Gion is the fact that it is also Kyoto’s most famous geisha district.
The tour guide led us to several ochaya (teahouses), where maiko and geiko entertain guests, for up to thousands of dollars. You can tell if a building is a tea house by the metal plate outside the door, and by the wood engravings which list the names of the geishas-in-training who live there. (See the picture below.)
According to the guide, there are only 300 geishas in Japan – all of them live and work in Kyoto.
Though Gion is well regarded as a hub for entertainment, there are temples and shrines located throughout the district as well, which make for an interesting change in both scenery and atmosphere. Sometimes temples – big and small – will spring up at random, near the edge of an alley or even in the middle of a shopping center. While on the tour, our group found ourselves occassionally wandering onto sacred grounds, which I suppose is the norm in a city that’s the center of traditional Japanese culture.
One of the temples that we stopped by had an area dedicated to Jizo statues, which are stone carvings wrapped in pieces of brightly colored fabric that are often found at temples or shrines.
The tour guide explained that these traditional Buddhist statues provided solace to Japanese women who suffered from a miscarriage, as the statue was believed to protect and prevent unborn children from going to hell. It’s believed that as the babies did not have the chance to build up good karma on earth, ‘Jizo’ helps smuggle the children into the afterlife in the sleeves of his robe.
Good karma seemed to be a common theme at the temple – because beside the Jizo statues was a large collection of Sarubobos.
Sarubobo literally translates to “a baby monkey.” Saru is the Japanese word for monkey, and bobo is the word for baby in the Takayama dialect. The sarubobo is associated with a protection from bad things; in Japanese, the word “leave” translates as saru, so possession of a sarubobo means that bad things will, well, saru. The monkey-shaped charms are all burned at the end of the year, though, so visitors will have to return to the temple at the start of the year if they want that bad thing of theirs to stay away.
After meandering along a few more vendor-lined streets, the tour came to a close, and the other tourists in the group went off to continue exploring the city on their own. Though brief, I’m glad I opted to take the tour – I ended up learning so much about traditional Japan through only a tiny glimpse of Kyoto.
I’m excited to go back soon, so that I can discover even more about the country I’m beginning to call home.