KYOTO: Of Geishas and Gardens



In Kyoto, they call geishas “geikos” – women of art – consummate entertainers trained in conversation, music and dance, with hordes of male admirers and rich patrons for lovers. But I never expected to see one in broad daylight on my way to the temple.


Climbing the sloping paths of Higashiyama (Eastern Mountain District), Home of the Blue Dragon, I strolled past the 1,500-year old Yasaka pagoda, weaving through rickshaws, ogling at traditional wood dwellings, pottery shops and teahouses which catered to tourists and pilgrims through the ages.


For a moment, I forgot I was also in the neighbourhood of Gion, where geishas live in the separate reality of the “karyūkai”, the “flower and willow world”.


So, I was surprised when the “geiko” materialized out of a teahouse gate before me in a spectacular flurry of gold-embroidered vermillion kimono with a drum-knotted “obi” sash.


I stared at her white rice-powdered face, crimson lips, hair pulled up in “shimada” chignon and skewered with gold pins from which a sprig of flowers dangled. She took mincing steps in her raised wooden clogs and her pocketed sleeves trailed the ground. But she kept her eyes down and clutched a gift box.


All at once, shutters clicked in rapid fire. Tourists frenzied as paparazzi reporters pursued her on both sides of the street. Quickly, she ducked into the crowd and disappeared.


In modern Japan, “geikos” and apprentice geishas called “maikos” have become a rare sight outside traditional “flower towns”. A century ago, the country boasted over 80,000 geishas. Now, only 1,000 to 2,000 remain.


In this city, 15-year-old girls can apprentice as “maikos” and become full-fledged “geikos” at 18. But to achieve perfection, they put in years of expensive training in traditional dance, playing musical instruments, such as the samisen”, plus learning how to entertain with subtlety and grace. Many remain mired in debt to their houses long after they become “geishas”.


Nevertheless, they inhabit a dream world of glamour. And as I resumed walking, a bunch of Westerners costumed as “maikos” dashed before me, snapping souvenir photos of each other.


I hastened up the path. The sun was ascending to its zenith and I have three temples to visit. Hot and thirsty, I just want a drink from the wishing fountains of Kiyomizudera, the “Pure Water Temple”.



Devotees praying for love, prosperity, long life and success jostled to get in as I rinsed my hands and mouth at the temple’s dragon “tsukubai” trough. The crowd literally swept me through the main corridor strung with hundreds of chimes tinkling each time the wind blows.


More people crowded by the altar of the eleven-faced thousand-armed Kannon of Mercy paying their respects, buying talismans and incense or trying to foresee their future via traditional “omikuji” (sacred lot), drawing random fortunes written on paper, much like fortune cookies without the cookie.


Just for fun, I picked a fortune stick and was given a paper saying I’ll have great blessings and gain wisdom from my travels.


Next to the wall, others are hanging up “ema” votive tablets – small wooden plaques scrawled with prayers and wishes for the temple spirits.


From the Hondo’s main hall, I stepped out into the overhanging wooden stage. The imposing 40-foot high veranda built without nails juts out over hills lush with cherry and maple trees to overlook the skyline of modern Kyoto.


During the Edo period, 234 people jumped from this stage believing if they survive, their wishes will be granted. So far, 200 made it, giving rise to the expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” – the Japanese equivalent of “taking the plunge”.


Below, to the left of the stage, I made out long queues of people at the wishing fountains flowing from the Otowa (Sound of Feathers) Waterfalls at the foot of the temple hall.


In the 8th century, the monk Enchin searched for the headwaters of the river flowing into Osaka Bay and discovered the falls. He also caught Japan’s first military leader, Tamuramaro, hunting deer for his wife who believed that drinking deer blood eases childbirth.  Enchin condemned the general for slaughtering the animal and Tamuramaro built the “Pure Water Temple” to atone for his sin.


Otawa’s pure waters are divided into three separate streams, each with a particular power – one grants longevity, the others grant success at school and love. I drank from both ends and marvelled how the waters stayed so cool and sweet through the centuries.


Refreshed, I set out for Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), the retirement villa of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu which was converted to a Zen temple in 1408 to symbolize paradise on earth.




The shogun’s 600-year-old dwarf pine tree still flourishes in the garden, alongside a camellia which Emperor Go-minoo planted in the 16th century. But the site’s most prized gem is the Golden Pavilion, a “Shariden” (reliquary hall) for Buddha’s bones.


Set amidst lush gardens and a tranquil Mirror Pond, the dazzling pagoda rises 40 feet high, its two upper floors coated in pure gold leaf.


Each floor was built in the style of different periods. The first floor (Chamber of Dharma Waters) was fashioned in the Fujiwara palace style and used for Noh plays – Japanese classical dance drama.


The Kamakura “samurai”-styled second floor (Hall of Roaring Waves) was the shogun’s private meeting room and was also used for composing poetry. Now, it houses a seated Kannon flanked by the Four Heavenly Kings.


The Muromachi, old Chinese, Zen-styled third floor (Firmament Top) with a golden phoenix perched on the roof, was used for meditation.


Below, the Mirror Pond reflected the pagoda in all its silent resplendence. Only the schools of ravenous giant carp thrashing about broke the stillness.


Inside the Toryumon (Gateway of Success), in the Ryumontaki waterfall, the carp has a counterpart in stone – actually, a boulder representing a carp climbing the falls so he can transform into a dragon.


In the middle of the Mirror pond, the Shogun also erected a small stone pagoda, the White Snake Mound, to console the soul of one of his mistresses who drowned herself in the waters in a jealous fit.


My last stop was Ryoan-ji, “Dragon Peace Temple”, most famous for its Zen rock garden which awed countless multitudes through the ages, including England’s Queen Elizabeth.


Its rectangle of raked white sand with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss is a masterpiece of Japanese culture. Yet the history of the garden remains a mystery. No one knows when it was created, who designed it or even why it was created.




I let my eyes roam across the earthen wall-enclosed arrangement of rocks, wondering. Some theorized they symbolized a tigress carrying her cubs across a pond. Others reckoned they are mountains rising above clouds, islands, whales, birds, life itself or abstractions like infinity and perfection. To me, they resembled turtles scurrying out to sea.


And somehow, just gazing at it, I felt calmness descend over me despite all the haste, the crowds and the heat.



(Reprinted from my Travel Column at Manila Bulletin, “My World In a Flashpack”)


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