From the eleventh floor of the Isetan department store in Kyoto station, you can see the whole city. Its rectilinear boulevards of clean, modern buildings – shops, offices and hotels – stretch away into the haze of the hills that surround it on three sides. Criss-crossing them are neat, narrow lanes lined with boutiques and traditional teahouses that speak of an age long gone, when Kyoto was Japan’s capital and the geisha was queen. Here and there, a temple roof peeps out from a verdant cocoon of maple and pine, while patches of sakura, the much-vaunted cherry blossom, make an unlikely appearance midst the jungle of garish neon signs.
To the north and somewhere in the centre of this panorama lies the Imperial Palace, the Kyoto-gosho, a complex of buildings set amid stunning gardens, with avenues of acer, cedar and azalea. There are streams crossed by dainty, arched bridges, and well-stocked ornamental ponds. This site was the official residence of the Japanese emperors for five hundred years, though most of the original palace that stood here has long gone, damaged by fire beyond repair. The present buildings were completed only in 1855, just thirteen years before the move to Tokyo. Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years.
Apart from the palace, the city boasts one castle of note, the early seventeenth century Nijo-jo, built by a powerful Shogun, but now public property. It too is set in magnificent gardens. Nijo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kyoto abounds in gardens, havens of peace and tranquillity in the Zen tradition with ancient stones laid in symbolic patterns, arboreta of shapely conifers and mirror pools that teem with enormous carp. Sometimes there are pavilions with walls of paper and wood, their floors laid with tatami. There you can squat and, for little more than the price of a downtown coffee, be served with a bowl of green tea and a cake by a kimono-clad waitress in a ceremony that is as old as Kyoto itself.
In the evening, the streets are swelling with people, shopping, dining or simply enjoying the spring air by the river. April is the time of the hanami – blossom viewing. The Japanese have a thing about the seasons, and they celebrate each in their own special way with ceremonies and festivals, some semi-religious and dignified, others sheer outrageous fun – an excuse for partying, fireworks and plenty of sake.
Women in kimono and obi are still to be seen gliding along in Gion among suited sararimen and teenagers with bared midriffs and bright red hair, but real geisha are comparatively rare. There are probably no more than two hundred in Kyoto today compared with ten times that number a century ago. They earn their living on the stage or in a semi-secret world the western tourist seldom penetrates. Perhaps it’s the secrecy that has led to western misconceptions. These women, more properly called maiko and geiko – have nothing to do with the sex trade. They are talented entertainers who sing, dance and play musical instruments for the delight of private, exclusive banquets and parties. At their own theatre in Gion, they perform traditional music and dance for the public at large. Their most famous and colourful presentation, the Miyako Odori. – the ‘Cherry Dances’ – is given in April at hanami time, when the Japanese often picnic under the blossoming trees.
Travelling around Kyoto is relatively simple. There are the underground train lines and, if you can come to terms with the station maze and master the ticket machines, they offer a speedy and comfortable way of traversing the city. The bus service is even more practical – and cheaper – once you pluck up courage to try it. For less than £1.50 sterling [about $2.00] *, it will transport you anywhere within the city limits. The main destinations and street names are displayed in romaji – English lettering – on an electronic board at the front of the bus, so the language isn’t a problem.
Like any city in the world, Kyoto also has its museums, theatres and cinemas. It has fashionable department stores too, but if you are looking for souvenirs, – real souvenirs – visit the smaller shops where specialist advice and personal service are the norm. You might even get a cup of tea. Often there is a price to be paid. Electronic goods – cameras, mobile phones and the like – are inexpensive and funky and you can buy a genuine Japanese fan for around 5,000 yen.
But if you want a kimono, better sell your car first!