Our second day in Kyoto started early. One of our top priorities whilst in Kyoto was to see Fushimi Inari-Taisha – the one with the orange gates. A ten minute walk from our hotel took us to the train line that lead straight to Inari, and perhaps because the train itself wasn’t terribly crowded, we were not prepared for the hordes of people pushing up the small-sized street to the shine from the station – it was utter madness!
I have to say, I’m not a religious man. I appreciate serenity, and introspection, and even some mediation. And the shrine at Fushimi Inari was none of these things. And once you’ve seen one tourist thronged shrine, I imagine you’ve seen them all, so after a quick squizz around the main campus, we headed off up the mountain, to follow the path to the top lined by (it is said) 10,000 orange torii (gates).
The mountain is 233m high, mainly stepped, with sub-shrines every so often and though the initial path was still beset by the masses, each junction, plateau, rest-stop and gift-stall along the way saw some fall by the wayside until Gail and I could, on occasion, believe we were the only people there. With a bit of patience, I could take photographs that supported that narrative too, but the reality was, we were never too far from people at any point – serenity, introspection and meditation are hard to come by in modern-day Buddhism, it seems.
Eventually we made it to the top (though the best view was actually about halfway up, where I also enjoyed lovely a vanilla and soy-oil ice cream) and continued on the path to follow the alternate route back down again – kind of anti-climactic, I know but that’s life – once you’re at the top, the only way to go is down…
Near the bottom of the route we spotted a sign promising amasake and respite, and having wanted to try some of what is, in effect, liquid rice-pudding with ginger since we first heard about it, we snuck off the beaten path to what we presume was the home of one of the caretakers of the shrines. We rang the bell, the lady of the house came out, relieved us of 600 yen and in short-time brought out two glasses of amasake which we proceeded to enjoy greatly on her porch…
We caught the train back into town and alighted in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. Despite being a fundamentally modern city Kyoto has a long tradition of geisha and the old streets – lined as they are with time-scarred wooden buildings – across the river from the now-modern shopping areas of Teramachi and Nishimura are the hub of the business. Kyoto feels more traditional than Tokyo – more people go about their daily business in traditional kimonos, for example – and this is nowhere more clear than in Gion.
We saw one geisha, in the back of a taxi, her perfectly white face, red lips and black, perfect hair glowing beside the man who had paid (handsomely, I understand) for her company. Geisha are not prostitutes – there is no expectation of sex; their training is that of an entertainer, with singing, music and poetry lessons along with etiquette and ceremonial training – but the whole notion still feels strange to me, perhaps because it is so structured and that those structures haven’t changed in many hundreds of years. It’s difficult to feel that stepping back 500 years is a great idea for equality and feminism!
As a (not entirely unconnected) aside – I snapped a picture of a sign that’s on every street corner in Gion which lays out the behaviour that’s acceptable in the area, because I found it hard to believe the first rule of Gion is “Do Not Touch The Geisha”, as if people need to be told that touching another human being – whatever your opinion and understanding of their profession – without their permission is not on!
Chao Chao Gyoza
Clearly, I could never pass up trying the Gyoza that have won the “Best Gyoza” award in Japan two years in a row, so the evening found us queueing outside of ChaoChao Gyoza, back across the river from Gion.
Along with their own, prize-winning gyoza, ChaoChao offer some speciality fillings, but we started with the basic ones – after all, sixteen gyoza for 600 yen is a hell of a deal! And it’s easy to see how they do them so cheaply – cooked together, and crimped only at the top, it was bit like receiving a bar of pork flavoured chocolate that had melted slightly in the heat. I mean, they tasted great, but the presentation and accompanying ease of eating left a lot to be desired!
We ordered a plate of speciality gyoza to try those, and they were much better – individually prepared and fully crimped. We had chicken, shrimp, Welsh onion (!) and curry varieties and all were very good indeed.
The atmosphere at ChaoChao’s was great – upbeat, noisy and fun. Our server spoke a little English and was very happy with our attempts to speak Japanese. We ordered another 8-rack of stuck together gyoza because we were having such a good time, but they weren’t really any better than the first lot. You get what you pay for, I guess, even in Kyoto!