The Floating World

Japan, Part VI

For a moment I was worried. The woman at the tourist office was telling us that there was no accommodation left in Kyoto. I regretted lingering over the bento boxes in the Tokyo Station food court now, deciding which combination of sushi, tempura, vegetables and rice in a compartmented imitation-bamboo box to buy. Because our 11-ish departure had ended up more 2-ish, we might have to catch the next train out of town and stay in Osaka or Nara.

“Very hard to find Western-style hotels right now. Only Japanese-style.”

Oh, was that all. “That’s fine,” I said, not letting on that we’d been about to ask for a ryokan anyway. Who wants to stay in a same-as-anywhere hotel room when you can have futons and rice-paper doors?

Ryokan HeianboWhich was how we ended up in Ryokan Heianbo, only a couple of blocks from the train station. It was just as we’d imagined: puffy futons rolled up neatly on reed-matted floors; sliding rice-paper doors that turned one spacious room into two; folded yukatas (cotton dressing gowns) and all the equipment and materials needed for a tea ceremony. We lounged around on the futons for a while, staring out the window at the dangerous-looking tangle of wires knotted around the power pole outside; then, before it got too late in the day, headed out to explore the floating world of Kyoto’s Gion district.

My family passed through Kyoto in 1985 and stayed with a printmaker friend of my father’s. I remember eating tempura in his elegant home, and being entranced by the city’s cramped streets, which suddenly made sense of Japan’s tiny cars. Soon after Jane, Kim and I left our ryokan we were walking through those same streets, lined with traditional wooden houses, largely unpainted and slightly shabby around the edges. It felt more like the Asia we knew, or have known most recently: the low-key houses of Malaysia, Thailand, or even the seedier districts of Singapore. In Kyoto, which hasn’t rebuilt its landscape over and over like Tokyo, it’s easy to see that the southeast Asian tigers really are at the same point as Japan in the 1960s or early 1970s, before it became indisputably rich.


Gion stretches along either side of the river, where old buildings a few stories high house restaurants with red lanterns strung along their balconies. We watched waitresses in purple robes serving customers as the daylight faded, before continuing northeast towards Yasaka shrine. On Hanami-koji, a street of high-class restaurants, we were held up by a crowd watching a limo inch its way down the street, with their cameras all pointed at a nearby restaurant entrance. Some local celebrity inside, no doubt. Distracted by the crowd, I almost missed seeing a real-life geisha walking past on her high wooden sandals, in kimono and chalk-white make-up; there are less than a thousand left in the whole country, and many of them work here. I snatched a blurry photo of her departing figure in the half-light, but it could have been anyone; a lot of the local women heading out for a night on the town were also wearing kimonos.

Kyoto GeishaA group of those kimono’d women had gathered at Yasaka shrine, paying homage by clapping once or twice, tossing coins, and tugging on the cords dangling from the bells high above their heads. Behind them, the shrine’s central pavilion was surrounded by row on row of rice-paper lanterns, all lit up, with calligraphy covering their surfaces.

We walked on into the heart of Gion, the Shinbashi district. It was fully dark now, and the cobbled streets and wooden buildings took on a magical air. The street intersected a canal, across which were more dimly-lit restaurants. The water trickled musically, the leaves on the trees tensed and relaxed. The atmosphere reminded me of Avignon, another beautiful place to stroll after dark.

Back across the main river, we walked along Pontocho, crowded with illuminated signs and prospective diners. We stuck our heads in a few restaurants that were full before finding one that wasn’t, specialising in traditional Kyoto dishes. Just by stepping inside it we seemed to occupy all the remaining available space, but a waitress managed to squeeze past us and show us to a cramped table. Even sitting down was a challenge: it looked as if it was a low table, but actually had a well underneath for our legs, so wasn’t that bad once we were in—except that it took some unnatural leg-folding to get in, and we weren’t getting out again in a hurry.

Dinner involved large gelatinous cubes of tofu and a heap of bonito shavings, like the leftovers from lathe-turning a lamp-stand out of a dried haddock. Kim dared me to try whale bacon, but not even an “I bloody dare you” would make me come at that. (In Tokyo we’d seen a whale restaurant in Ginza—you could tell from the bronze statue of a leaping humpback outside the door. I preferred watching the real thing off the NSW coast ten years ago.)

The Japanese guy sitting next to us asked where we were from. When I told him he said, “Australia! G’die, mite.” I thought it was only Poms and Yanks who came out with that. He’d never been to Oz, so might have picked it up from one of them.

By the time we emerged from the restaurant and walked south along a parallel street, Gion had filled with drunken teenagers. We left them to it, walked back to the ryokan, put on our yukatas and sipped green tea.


Kyoto had been sunny when we arrived and was again the next day—a welcome change after all that rain in Tokyo and Nikko. It was our day to explore Higashiyama, the temple district that runs along the hills of Eastern Kyoto. We walked there, which took longer than expected and meant it was lunchtime by the time we reached Chawan-zaka, the “Teapot Lane” that runs up to Kyoto’s most famous temple. Every second shop on the street sold pottery, and every first one sold souvenirs. Stopping into one stylish pottery shop, Jane and I looked around for a small piece to take home. They were all stunning, both in appearance and in price; it took a while to find one we wouldn’t have to carry around gingerly like a Ming vase. But we did: a teardrop-shaped jug with a deep ochre glaze the size of a teacup with no handle.

Watching the saleswoman wrap it was worth the price of purchase alone. She packed it in foam into its box, then wrapped a square sheet of paper around it in finest origami fashion, so that a final tongue of paper covered up all the other folds and left the box looking hermetically sealed. At the end she gave it a tiny shake to make sure it wouldn’t rattle in the box.

After a pitstop for iced coffee, we finally reached Kiyomizu at the top of the street, in its commanding position with views out across the city and forested hills behind. The buildings around the entrance were all painted lucky orange; the ones further back were solid dark timber with huge black roofs. At the main entrance stood a water trough guarded by a slinky bronze dragon, one of the few details I remembered from my last visit.

It felt very different from that visit, though, which took place on a foggy winter’s day. For one thing, the place was now packed: everyone in Kyoto seemed to be there for their Sunday outing. Schoolboys were wearing their uniforms, young men and women their best kimonos. (Well, the women who weren’t wearing black T-shirts that read “GLAMOUR PANTS THECHARM I want to be seemed in this way indefinitely”.)

Kyoto Schoolboys

By Kiyomizu’s entrance was a special shrine which the guide book encouraged us to visit, but didn’t want to give away too much about. We entered it down a steep staircase taking us into pitch darkness, with only a hand rope and the person in front to guide us. We stumbled along, wondering when the light would return, as the path took a couple of 90-degree angles... then passed a dimly lit dome of a rock. And then were back out in the daylight. “That was it?” we muttered. That was it? Apparently it represented Bodhisattva’s womb. A black hole with a rock: I’ll bet the bouncing baby Buddhas are glad to get the hell out of there.

The temples and streets that day were the supposed focus of our sightseeing, but the people were the real attraction. Near the exit of Kiyomizu some monks stood by the path, waiting silently for donations. One was dressed in a Japanese flat-coned hat; another wore a polka-dot dress and bright red wig. Along Sannen-zaka was where we really hit gold. As I did a piece to camera for Jane about the pumpkin and chestnut icecreams we’d just bought, we realised that coming down a side street were a couple of geishas, in broad daylight—no dimly-lit floating world mysteriousness this time. And when we reached Daiun-in Temple at the end of the street, three more (maybe apprentices—they looked younger) were posing for photographs, while rickshaw pullers nearby waited for a fare. Any more old-world Japan and everyone would have needed blackened teeth.

Even seeing regular people going out to dinner or a temple in their kimonos was special; there’d been none of that in Tokyo. Apart from the punks, babydolls and neo-Vickies of Harajuku, Tokyo was full of suited salarymen and Western-dressed women, all purposefully heading somewhere to make money. The traditional dress around Kyoto gave the impression of different priorities and a more human pace of life.

It was getting late in the day. We lingered a while in a nearby park, admiring Kyoto’s oldest cherry tree (which needed a good pruning) before walking past a bunch more temples that were now closed. At the end of the street was the giant orange torii of Heian Jingu shrine; a good place to stop before we went in search of a restaurant from the guidebook. Which turned out to be closed on Sundays.


Kyoto was my favourite place in Japan in 1985, and I’d always wanted to go back. Now, after twenty years, we had only 48 hours to explore it. But it was enough to see some highlights and remind me what the city feels like. We got up early on our last day to see as much as possible before catching a 5.30 Shinkansen back to Tokyo and Narita.

We started with the Imperial Palace, a sprawling complex surrounded by sloping stone walls and a park. The tours are free, but you have to front up early and present your passports at the main office, then wait. During the wait, we went for a walk around the outer walls and ended up doing a complete circuit.

Once inside, we followed the herd from building to building as our diminutive guide explained what we were seeing. It was hard to remember much of what she said, because her accent was so strange: she sounded like a Russian actor played at the wrong speed, telling us about the emperor’s “beautifurr birrrds” and their “sin-ging”. I guess there’s not actually much chance to improve your ear as a tour guide: you don’t speak with native English-speakers so much as at them. (By contrast, the people at the help desk at Tokyo Station spoke perfect English.)

The palace had some imposing wooden buildings throughout, most of them rebuilt more than once. Rebuilding was a constant motif of the temples and palaces we saw in Japan; most of them had burnt down multiples times in the past few centuries, as a result of war, earthquake, or general inflammability. In Europe this would no doubt make them less “authentic” and less popular as tourist attractions, but we came to realise that what mattered in Japan was the cultural blueprint, the “essence of temple or palace” carried forward every time one was rebuilt. It didn’t matter if a palace was only a hundred years old when it was just the latest link in a chain going back to the shoguns.

The next palace was genuinely a few centuries old, though. I remembered Nijo Castle from last time; or rather, remembered a place with dark corridors and squeaky floors, and when we visited Nijo realised this was it. The floors are in Ninomaru Palace, where you walk through corridors screened from the outside by rice-paper panels on floorboards designed to be ninja-proof. These “nightingale floors” have nails inserted underneath in just the right way as to squeak every time you move on them, sounding exactly like a hundred beautiful birds sin-ging.

Of course, with all those rice-paper panels the wise ninja would just skip the creeping along corridors and crash through its walls with nunchaku and shuriken blazing.

Nijo Castle was a definite highlight. The outer walls are a fine sight, too, with their seemingly random arrangement of stones all fitted together seamlessly. There was barely a gap left for the tiny whipsnake we saw slithering across one of them.


Counting down the hours, there was time for one last visit to a convenience store and to catch a bus out to Kinkakuji, Kyoto’s “Golden Temple”. I hadn’t seen this one last time—the monks were on strike, and we’d made do with Ryoanji’s rock garden instead. Kinkakuji is on the northern outskirts of the city, and was surprisingly just as busy on a Monday as Kiyomizu on a Sunday.

The pavilion stands on an island in a lake, and is entirely covered in gold leaf, looking as clean and shiny as the day it was made. This isn’t that surprising, because the day it was made was in 1955; a fanatical monk had so loved the original fourteenth-century building that he’d burned it to the ground a few years earlier. They only finished the gold-leafing in 1987.

As we watched turtles and carp scrabble for food at the lake’s edge, we realised why the place was so packed. Most of the people around us were under the age of fifteen—and soon they started coming up and introducing themselves.

What do you do if you’ve got a bunch of schoolkids learning English and live in the most popular tourist city in the country? Take ’em to the big temples, of course, and send them up to the nearest tall and gangly gaijin. Kim and I are both tall, so we were obvious targets. It was fun, though, listening patiently to their questions, all of them a little different from group to group, because they were dozens of classes there, and they were going up to every European tourist in sight. They asked where we were from, what we had seen in Kyoto and Japan, and if we would write a message for their school in their exercise books. I figured it would be more exotic to ignore the fact that I’ve lived out of the state for years and tell them I’m from Tasmania. “My home island is very beautiful,” I wrote. “Please come and visit one day.” Tourism Tasmania, I’ll happily take a small commission...

The best aspect was that I’d been telling Jane and Kim that one thing was different this trip from my last visit to Japan: last time round, my brother and I were treated like rockstars, with schoolkids throughout the country asking us to pose for photos with them. Not just out in the sticks, either, but in Tokyo itself. That hadn’t happened this time, and I wasn’t surprised—it’s twenty years later, and everyone’s seen a lot of tourists.

But after they asked us their questions and got us to sign their books, the schoolkids at Kinkakuji all wanted us to pose for photos. Their teachers took them on disposable cameras, and everyone thanked us profusely. Our own little taste of stardom on the very last day of the trip.


As we were waiting for the bus back to the station, a couple came up to the stop who had me wishing I had a camera hidden in my glasses, and not in my bag where it would be really obvious if I took it out and pointed it at them. They were both in traditional dress, not just the young woman. Her husband looked like someone who thought the Meiji Restoration was a bad idea. (Apart from the fact that he was smoking. Did samurai smoke?) Buses came and went, and then ours arrived—and they got on with us, sitting in the seats right in front of us. I tried not to stare at the elaborate clips holding her hair so immaculately in place.

Japan was the first country I’d ever visited that seemed truly a place apart; I’d been to Fiji, but that was where Dad grew up, and America was like visiting cousins. In a way, it was my first taste of culture shock, but everything’s so efficient and easy in Japan that it’s not so much shocking as hypnotic. And even though I’d seen places just as “apart” in the years since—Tonga, Thailand, Madagascar—Japan still retained its power to hypnotise. Pachinko, bonito, wheat tea, manga, high-pitched women and deep-voiced men: Japan feels like a vast parallel culture that outsiders can only ever catch glimpses of. All these cities, all these stories, all these 120 million people, and all this history—and here it all was, sitting in front of us on the bus in a red kimono.


At the stop where the couple got off a crush of schoolkids got on, squeezing into every available space and squashing us into the corner of the back seat. A few moments later, we realised that some of them were looking furtively at us.

“They’re going to start asking us questions,” said Jane, “Just you wait.”

Sure enough, after some deliberation the girls in the seat in front of us turned around.

“Hello!” Hello, hello, hello.

“May we ask you a question,” one read.

“Sure,” said Kim. Yes, yes.

“What are your names.”

We told them. The quiet girl with glasses wrote them carefully in her exercise book while her friend smiled at us. We’d barely exchanged a few words in a common language, but you could read their personalities like a book: the studious one, the happy one, the too-cool-for-school one watching from the aisle.

“Where are you from.” Australia. (And elsewhere, but let’s keep it simple.) “Oh! Australia!” More writing.

“Could you please write something.” They handed us their books and pens.

“We’re saving this one’s neck,” whispered Jane, “There’s nothing in her book yet.”

“I like those,” said Kim to their schoolmate in the aisle, pointing to the tiny stuffed toys that every kid here has attached to the outside of their schoolbag. “What are they?”

“Disney,” said the cool girl. “Donaldu Ducku.”

“Please,” said the lively one. “May we take your picture?”

We squashed together to pose for the disposable camera. Some of their friends leaned into shot as we made the Japanese V for victory sign. Click.

“Thank you,” said the girl. “Special memories!”

We’d reached their stop. “Goodbye,” the smiley one said.

Goodbye, Goodbye. “Have a pleasant afternoon,” said Kim, messing with their vocabularies.

“You bastard,” I teased him afterwards. “‘The fondest of salutations to you and your companions, my child!’”

Special memories. Hai.


28 July 2006 · Travel

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