Today was my only full day in Kyoto, and thankfully it was a beauty. The morning sun beaming brightly I headed out just before 9 am, making a quick stop at a nearby coffee shop for an egg sandwich for breakfast. Kyoto was the city I had spent the most time in on my last visit, and I managed to hit a lot of the major sites. Thus, my plan for the morning was to see a few shrines that were a little more off the beaten path. As Kyoto’s public transit system is a bit of a mish-mash, my best bet would be buses, as the city is covered a dense network of bus lines, so I picked up a one-day transit pass and headed off. My first stop was Sanjusangedo temple, not far from Kyoto station, and thankfully the bus stop was literally outside its front door. Upon entering I was ushered inside the main hall, where I unfortunately couldn’t take pictures. It’s a massively long hall (apparently the longest wooden hall in Japan), and filled with a thousand life-sized statues of kannons (goddesses of mercy). There were also 28 statues of guardian dieties surrounding them, and each had a little blurb about them and their various superpowers. I brought my little calligraphy book and had them sign their seal before touring the rest of the hall, dodging a tour group of kids (my favourite kind). It was quite well-labeled, with lots of English descriptions of the history and architecture. I ventured out into the little garden area, which wasn’t super extensive but still pretty.
I quickly caught the bus and went a few more stops north to Gion, the famed geisha district. In my search for traditional Japanese dance performances, I’d read somewhere about an annual event called Onshukai. Traditionally, it was a testing ground for the skills of apprentice dancers, and it just so happened to fall in the first week of October. I wanted to see if I could get a ticket or at least find the theatre for later. I recognized the area from my tour the last time, and it was nice to see a little bit of character to the buildings. I got slightly lost in the winding unmarked back streets, but eventually found the theatre. There was no English signage advertising the event, and the ticket office was closed, but I did see a sign in Japanese with the two ticket price points for the show. So I decided to come back later, now that I knew where it was. I hopped a bus bound for Shimogamo shrine. There was no entry fee, thankfully, and so I leisurely toured the complex. It wasn’t terribly large, and it was obviously not tourist-oriented, as there was no English signage at all, but it was an elegant temple. I grabbed another signing for my book of temples before ambling in the general direction of the bus stop.
I was feeling distinctly tired–perhaps a been-on-the-road-too-long sort of tired. So I opted to head back to the hotel for a little bit to change and grab a bite to eat. In the interest of keeping up with my sightseeing duties, I took the same bus that went in a loop around the city. I was able to snag a seat and watched as we made our way through the streets of Kyoto. It was a fairly big loop, so it was about 45 minutes later when I got back to the hotel. I changed into something comfier, grabbed a couple sandwiches at a pasta salad at a nearby convenience store for lunch, and moved on. I went back to Gion area in search of Kodai-ji temple. For whatever reason, my internal compass was off (or it was one tucked-away temple) because it took me awhile to actually find it. I did stumble into Maruyama Park, that I’d only seen previously at night for their lights festival, so it was nice to see it again in daylight. After much wandering, I eventually found it. Not surprisingly, like all good shrines, it was at the top of a steep path.
The gardens were pristine and manicured, and because there were relatively few people, it made for a pleasant tour. There was a large statue on the other side of the temple wall, which sort of loomed over the temple. I found it later it was part of a shrine devoted to remembering soldiers lost in World War II. After climbing through the garden, the path went through a lovely grove of soaring bamboo and other old trees with gnarled, convoluted roots. By then, it was nearing 3 pm, and I wanted to head back down to the Gion theatre in case there was a line up for tickets. I meandered my way out, randomly coming across a photo shoot for who I think were a bride and groom. There seemed to be lots of kimono-ed ladies out in the park…not sure if there was some event, or if this was just regular fare for a night out on the town. I managed to navigate out of the park without incident and was soon at the theatre, with mercifully no line, and soon had my tickets for the show.
I sat down on a curb for a quick bite of my pasta salad I’d purchased earlier before entering the theatre. I did feel distinctly under-dressed, as many were out in their Sunday best, so to say…ladies in fine kimonos, and men in suits. I was relieved to see other folk in jeans and shorts (mostly other foreigners), as I made my way upstairs to find a seat. I’d purchased an unreserved seat ticket, as it was half the price of the reserved, and that entitled me to a spot on a tatami mat at the top of the theatre. The view was fine enough, and I had could see the stage quite well. Other attendees started to trickling as I waited, discreetly eating my salad. The show started promptly at 4 pm, announced rather ungracefully by what sounded like a prison buzzer. The dancing was beautiful, with fabulously ornate kimonos and shimmering golden fans. I started to think of Thai dance, unconsciously comparing the styles, and found many similarities. Anyone who says Thai dance is slow should take a look at some traditional Japanese dances. The opening number was a lovely large group number that had a relatively lively pace at the end, with impressive fan exchanges. Many of the following numbers were duo or trios and were much slower. You can tell that the show was not pandering for tourists, as some of the movements were glacially slow. But I tried to pick out the nuances–subtle head turns, bending of the knees. No idea what was going on, or what was being sung about, but I suppose having spent enough time watching various Thai dance shows, I was use to not knowing. Interestingly, they closed the curtain between each dance, with a brief break (5 minutes) or so in between each dance. Boy, if I knew that I could do that, things would’ve been a lot easier during my Thai dancing years.
In the end, it was a lovely show, and definitely worth seeing. I’ve always wanted to see real Japanese dance, and this show gave me just that. Ironically, for all the desperate searching tourists do on the streets of Gion to catch a glimpse of a geisha or maiko, all they’d have to do is attend one of these shows. There were a host of them in the audience; I actually stood directly next to one as we shuffled our way out of the theatre. As soon as we left, she scurried off down the streets, and nearby tourists, elated to have finally spotted one, clamored to take photos. I’m not sure what it is that captures the imagination of tourists so much–perhaps they are symbolic of something truly Japanese. Or they are just these mythical, elusive figures, so rare to see. I hopped on a very crowded bus back to Kyoto station, and stopped briefly at a convenience store to pick up some sandwiches for dinner, before heading back to the hotel for the evening.