Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Stroll Through Miyagawa-cho

With October drawing to an end, I was determined to make a quick trek to Kyoto to secure tickets for Gion Odori, Gion Higashi's fall dance recital. I hadn't been to Kyoto since Gion Matsuri, and after three months I was itching for an excuse to get back.

Kyoto, like the rest of Japan, has been burried beneath a net of tangled electrical wires and encased in concrete. As I pulled into the station, staring out the smudged windows of the train, I wondered how I would have felt if this had been my first view of the old capital. Many foreigners must feel extrememly disappointed upon arriving in Kyoto, expecting to find old Japan, untouched by the rapid westernization consuming the world. Yet it is in the cracks and crevices of this seemingly cold, colorless, modern metropolis that the wonders of the ancient capital strive to survive, and wait to be discovered.

Kyoto has been my home away from home (away from home) since the first time I stumbled up the stairs of the Shijo Keihan subway station (after being stopped by a tiny little Buddhist nun who smiled and bowed and pinched my nose saying "Kawaii ne! Hana takai ne!" (Well aren't you cute? And your nose is so high!), and out onto the busy street, lined on one side by the Kamogawa River and the famous Minamiza Kabuki Theatre on the other. I know it better than the city I have been living in these past 2 and a half years, and probably know more about it than my hometown in the US. So as I weaved my way through the traffic of Japanese tourists filling crowded Kyoto station, I felt strangely enough as if I was home.

I walked along the Kamogawa River, wondering where the day would lead me. I always follow the river up to a certain point before loosing myself in the narrow lanes of Miyagawa-cho, one of Kyoto's five flower districts, where geiko live and entertain. I never expect to see much during the daytime-- perhaps a young maiko on the way to her lessons, casually dressed in a simple kimono-- but just walking through the quiet streets, lined with intricate wooden facades of ochayas (teahouses) and okiyas (where geiko live) is more than enough to make me happy. If I'm lucky, I'll hear an older geisha singing as she practices her shamisen, or see a maiko dressed for an appointment hurry into a taxi or down a narrow alleyway. These simple moments, when I am able to see my life in the light of a haiku, are what keep me madly in love with Kyoto.

The streets seemed quiet enough. It was still early, before noon, and little old women were washing down the concrete in front of their homes. The old man from the tiny little home-front market hurried back and forth across the street carrying big boxes of perssimons and apples, shouting out "Ookini!" to someone hidden in the shadows of his little shop. My eyes focused on the nameplates hung near the entrance of the okiyas, trying to decipher the kanji in the names of the maiko and geiko living there, until a sudden flash of intense color in the otherwise dull distance caught my eye. A maiko sliding out of her okiya and down the street, her long, trailing obi fluttering above her high wooden sandals, appeared like an apparition from another age. "What a great way to start the day," I thought as I watched her disappear into another teahouse, smiling to myself, happy to be "home".


Inge said...

What a wonderful depiction of the atmosphere in Kyoto :-). I totally agree with you, both on the first disappointing glimpse of the city & the excitement that comes from discovering a hidden world. You're so lucky to visit regularly!

Cherry said...

Hi Melissa- I adore your pictures and blog!
I just had a couple of questions.
What camera/lens do you usually use?
I'll be coming back to Japan in April and was wondering what you think is worthwhile in your area.Hikone, maybe? I'll be in the Aichi-ken/ Toyohashi-shi area for a couple of days but wondered if I should head into Gifu-ken.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ cherrythomas/

Melissa said...

Inge: I hope you have a chance to visit again! It seems impossible for me to express how I feel about Kyoto and why...Its something people have to experience for themselves (^_<)

Cherry: Thank you m(- -)m I finally bought a proper Digital SLR (canon) in June, and splurged on the 24-105 Canon L lens about a week ago (>.<) Before that I was using some generic lens someone gave me when I was in high school, but it was pretty crap-tacular. Thankfully it got stolen! I also have an awesome little Sony Cybershot, which I highly recommend.

I live in a tiny town called Ena, close to the borders of Aichi and Nagano. From Nagoya it takes an hour to get out here. about a 25 minutes drive from Ena, there are two beautifully preserved Edo period post towns on the old Nakasendo, the road that once connected the imperial capital of Kyoto with the shogunate power seat in Edo. I recommend them if you decide to head out hereand make an effort.

Further north are Takayama and Shirakawa-go, famous for its traditional A-frame houses with meter-thick thatched rooves. Its really bucolic and beautiful, and Takayama is a quaint little temple town often called "little Kyoto". I think you could hop on an express train from Nagoya and do it all in a day or two. I should mention Shirakawagou is a World Heritage site so its almost garaunteed coolness. And although there are always more than a few Japanese tourists, foreigners rarely make the trek that far off the beaten path. Highly recommended!

If you need more info or have any questions, let me know!

Anonymous said...

Que vas a hacer, chica, cuando te vuelvas para USA? :-)
Kyou, gambatte, ne! Let us shine like the ALTs we were destined to be! Let all of Ena's finest bask in our glory!

Lindizzy said...

natsukashiii!! I miss wandering through all the back alleyways of Kyoto. I miss u & keep checking your blog lately...I'm never disappointed! I'm glad you are able to get down to Kyoto so often, 'cuz it really is the best of Japan.
Hey, do you think you'll go to Thailand in Dec? My friend Jaime in San Diego is thinking of going again.

I on the other hand, really miss Japan, but can't afford another trip. Next, I'm thinking Turkey, Greece & Egypt?!!

Melissa said...

Lindz (^-^)/ Hisashiburi yo! I miss you, too. Whenever I go to Kyoto I'm like "Yosh! Text Lindz, tell her to call in sick and have an adventure with meeeeeee!" Alas, I am forced to wander the streets alone (ioi), or hang out with Shingo (^_<)

I really want to go to Thailand, but I might end up doing Northwestern Cambodia and Laos Do have any info on Free and Easy?...Turkey, Greece, and Egypt?!Uso!Maji de?! Wait for me! Isshouni ikou yo! (^o^)/

What's up in NY? We need to catch up!

Michaela said...

Melissa, I love reading your posts and description of your wandering afternoons in Kyoto. It's one of my favorite things to do when I travel; just get lost in the streets and alleyways. You will LOVE Laos for that, I promise. Thailand is interesting, but not as great. Stick with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam is also incredible. I've been dying to see Burma too.

Congrats on your L lens!! I have that exact lens and it never comes off my camera. Did you photograph all the geisha with it, or was that your old craptacular one ;o). We have got to meet up one of these days on our travels, I think we'd be awesome travel buddies.

Until then, keep shooting and dreaming :o). I'm off to Zanzibar in the morning!

Brittney said...

Hi Melissa- I love your pictures!!!(^-^). I wish I could go to Japan! It is so exciting. I think it is so colorful and also clean. I love the beauty of the language. Mary, Ed, Ed, Marina, Eddie, and I miss you. God Bless you('-')