24 July 2009

Kyoto Day 1, Sannen-zaka street

Part of the Kiyomizu Temple complex

My husband and I had the opportunity to spend five days in Kyoto in May, 2009. This blog post is the second of my attempts to share some of that journey. We took all the photos, which are just our snapshots, minimally processed.

After we departed from the Hillwalker group (kindly see previous post) we used our map to steer ourselves uphill to the Kiyomizu Temple. We somehow missed the recommended route, up a pedestrian-only street, and ended up on another thoroughfare, but going in the correct general direction, at least. Our route was lined with shops selling wonderful pottery, which I understand is called kiyomizu ware; I really couldn't discern a particular style, but admired many wonderful glazes and incised designs. Wish we'd carted some home; one only regrets one's economies, as a wise woman once said on her deathbed.

We didn't explore the Kiyomizu area much, partly because if there was a map or guide in English, we didn't find it, partly because we wanted to continue on to Sannen-zaka street. A terraced, stone-paved pedestrian path lined with shops, it was a delightful descent from the Kiyomizu hill.

My Reef flip-flops, with my tabi socks - there's a small bird on a branch, under the strap

I bought some tabi, or toe socks, for gifts (and for me), for about $5 each.

The Sannen-zaka way was just charming; we saw many small shops, and even a very gracious geisha carefully making her way along the uneven stones in her geta, or platform shoes.

Click on photo for larger view
Note the sculpted white make-up at the nape of the neck

I think the height added by the geta is one reason geisha look so pretty - the kimono is a linear garment, so anything that accentuates the verticality adds to the effect.

The dangles of her delightful hair ornament move gently as she walks

The elegant lady kindly posed whenever a visitor with a camera aimed in her direction

For Westerners, geisha are probably one of the most loaded cultural symbols in Japan, as Westerners project their own orientalist ideas onto this tradition, which itself is then re-packaged for consumption as part of a new narrative, as in that book Memoirs of a Geisha, which I found almost unreadable. And of course, the kimono is the uniform of the geisha.

However, as Carol Gluck points out in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, unlike the Scottish kilt, more or less invented as a symbol of the Scottish highlands during the Victorian era, the kimono is not a commodified memory, but part of an authentic tradition. The Makioka Sisters, a wonderful novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, follows the activities of four sisters in post-war Osaka, and the author describes in detail their activities and dress. For example, while the sisters wear Western-style dresses most of the time, they all wear kimono to view cherry-blossoms in Kyoto.

Western feminists, and I include myself, may draw parallels between garments perceived as restrictive, equating the obi, the sash of the kimono, with the corset, for example; thus the codified costume is seen as symbol of feminine passivity and submission. However, our tour guide Mr. Hillwalker had another view of the geisha outfit. To him, the fact that, made up as a geisha, any woman could be beautiful was equalizing - no need to depend on the deposition of gifts from nature. Uniforms, which are everywhere in Japan, may blur individual identity, but they also signal full acceptance into a cohort, and the geisha are the cohort of loveliness.

So, the application of the stylized make-up, hair, exquisite kimono and obi, and specialized accessories, ensures a level playing field for all women. Moreover, if the geisha turn-out becomes a special uniform for beauty, then how much easier to meet everyday expectations of appearance - let the uniformed geisha do the work of being elegant and graceful, the rest of us can just get on with our lives.

We continued on our route past Maruyama Park. A perfectly posed heron made for a nice bit of nature.

We saw a cleric outside of the Chion-in temple area talking animatedly on his cellphone. I made the mistake of asking, with hand gestures, if I could take his picture, and he put away his phone and posed rather stiffly. You'll just have to imagine the contrast of traditionally-attired cleric and modern technology.

Dried legumes for sale at a small store

We wandered, exhausted by this time, to the Higashiyama subway station, used the 2-day transit passes we'd bought that morning at Kyoto station, and went back to our hotel. My husband went out to a business dinner, and I collapsed with one of the energy bars we'd brought from home and watched Japanese TV.