Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Experience Japan: the Historic Higashiyama District of Kyoto

Ninen-zaka Steps of Kyoto's Higashiyama District
It was a short scamper from the Super Hotel along Shijo Street, through quaint Gion to the main entrance of Yasaka Shrine on Higashiyama Street. Within minutes I was trotting through the shrine grounds and associated Maruyama Park, along the scenic lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains.

In search of “Old Kyoto”, I left the shrine grounds by the side gate and immediately plunged into a warren of winding narrow lanes and steps, wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops. I was in the heart of the Higashiyama District, strolling toward Kiyomizudera Temple through one of the city’s best-preserved historic districts.

Filled with visions of the old capital city, I negotiated the milling crowd of Ninen-zaka slope. I strolled past quaint tiny shops, cafés and restaurants in traditional design that had been serving pilgrims for centuries. I gazed with huge glassy eyes and felt my nose twitch at the colorful local specialties: Kiyomizu-yaki pottery; pickles from all kinds of things and Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets): like green tea cake, Sakuramochi (rice cake filled with red bean paste), Hanabiramochi, Karukan (made from rice flour, sugar and Japanese yam), Uiro (Japanese steam cakes), Mitarashi Dango (Japanese dumplings on sticks), Monaka (sweet red bean paste inside a crisp mochi wafer), Yokan (jelly dessert of red bean paste, agar and sugar), and one of my favorites, Warabimochi (a jelly-like confection made from bracken starch and dipped in kinako, sweet toasted soybean flour), Kuzumochi (mochi made with starch powder from the root of the kudzu plant), Kusa Mochi (made with powder from Japanese mugword plant leaves), Gohei-mochi on a stick, and another favorite, Yatsuhashi (a specialty of Kyoto, soft mochi with soft read bean paste filling and cinnamon). says it this way about Yatsuhashi: “If you ever liked pinching raw cookie dough behind your parents’ back, or would even have preferred eating the Christmas cookies raw than baked, eating yatsuhashi will feel like a childhood dream come true.” Thanks to my Japanese friend, Tomonori, I brought back a box of these to Canada!

View down Ninen-zaka slope
Merchants, left and right, called out their wares and offered free samples of many lovely though questionable foods. One happy merchant offered me a free sample of hot soup. Another gave me some Yatsuhashi (mochi with bean curd and cinnamon), which I savored with twitching whiskers. I browsed craft shops, incense stores, had a green tea ice cream and introduced myself to Hello Kitty in a big way (giant smile).
All this happy rambling made me hungry!

Tummy rumbling with thoughts of noodles (the ice cream wasn’t enough; Japan makes you hungry), I spotted a noodle place, obvious by its wooden sign. The Omen is a traditional Japanese noodle restaurant that gives you the chance to design your own meal experience. The friendly waiter provided me with the noodles in a broth to which I could then add any number of ingredients and condiments, most of which I had no idea what they were. I blithely and faithfully added almost everything I saw into the complex noodle mixture, let it steep for a bit, then sipped and slurped a sensual dish of exquisite taste and texture. Highly recommended!

At the foot of the Ninen-zaka Steps, I stopped in at the Café Garakuta, known as the three umbrellas. Its gallery upstairs features artwork about the district. I sipped an exquisite café crème on their patio and watched an unending stream of tourists and exotic “Geishas” pour down the steps.

A while ago some smart merchants (actual maiko houses and studios) introduced the concept of being a geisha for a day. Soon houses and studios opened their doors to tourists everywhere in the district, offering young tourist girls an authentic apprentice geisha (Maiko) experience for 9,000 yen (~$90). The process takes five hours and consists of a full transformation. This includes getting made-up with the white face and red lipstick, red and black accents around the eyes and brows, and the traditional kimono with heavy dangling obi and pocketed sleeves called furi. The geishas all featured the traditional shimada hairstyle with high chignon, decorated by elaborate hair combs and hairpins (kanzashi) and tottered raised wooden clogs, called geta or okobo. Who ever came up with that idea was a real smarty-pants. The young tourist experienced Old Kyoto from the perspective of a real geisha while adorning the district with her exotic beauty.  

Coffee finished, I scampered up the Ninen-zaka steps with renewed vigor and strolled along the incline of Sannen-zaka lane. Ninen-zaka" means "slope of two years", and "Sannen-zaka" means "slope of three years".
The saying is that you would die within two years if you fell on Ninen-zaka and you would die within three years if you fell down on Sannen-zaka. I wondered if that too had been a clever tourist device to tame potential unruliness; no one hurries on the lanes or stone steps. The kanji characters of Sannen-zaka also mean "slope to pray for a safe delivery". Young pilgrims have walked this lane for hundreds of years hoping to be blessed with good fortune and love at the Kiyomizudera Temple.

At the Sannen-zaka Steps I met a young student who was celebrating her birthday that day; one of her gifts was to come to Higashiyama and dress up as a Geisha for the day. Honoka had just come home from Australia and spoke in a lilting Japanese English accent spiced with Australian twang. My little stuffed heart went pitter-patter as she tenderly took me into her hand for a picture. Meow! :-3

The two kilometers between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizudera Temple can be walked in half an hour; it took me the better part of an afternoon to fully experience the district.

Sannen-zaka Steps
The shops and restaurants in the area typically open around nine or ten in the morning and close relatively early around five or six in the evening, except during the ten day long Hanatoro in March when thousands of lanterns line the streets of Higashiyama and many of the area's temples, shrines and businesses offer extended hours.
If you enjoy walking like I do, I recommend hiking from the Yasaka Shrine past Chionin and Shorenin Temples to Heian Shrine and Nanzenji and the Philosopher Path to Ginkakuji Temple. If you time it right, you can catch the area during the cherry blossom festival (in mid- to late-March) when the trees riot in explosive bloom and pale pink petals flutter to the ground like confetti at a wedding.

History of Kyoto and the Higashiyama District:

Toulouse with his new friend in Kyoto
The Higashiyama District represents the culmination of several restorations over Kyoto’s turbulent history, mainly during the Taisho Period between 1912 and 1926.
Kyoto was actually destroyed during in the 1860s, particularly during the Hamaguri rebellion in 1864. The rolling hills of Higashiyama, east of the Higashi-oji-dori River, feature narrow winding roads and lanes that mimic the old capital of feudal times. While the townscape did not in fact originate during feudal times, its architecture was designed in the authentic traditional style using traditional materials.  Most Japanese associate Kyoto with these narrow alleys, particularly the view of Yasaka-no-to (Yasaka pagoda) seen from Yasaka-dori.

The Gion District of Kyoto was originally developed in the Middle Ages, in front of Yasaka Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved into one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in Japan.

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