Gion and Pontocho

Today we left our apartment in Tokyo and took the shinkansen to Kyoto! It wasn’t one of the really fast ones though, it felt like it had a lot of stops on the way…

This time I managed to look out the window and see the scenery change. The landscape began very urban while we were leaving Tokyo and then Yokohama, then turned suburban, and at one point all I could see were ghastly factories surrounded by small houses spewing white smoke onto the sky. It made me think of a daytime version of FF7’s Midgar. I think it wasn’t until we were past Nagoya and getting close to Kyoto that the industrial areas gave way to forested mountains in beautiful autumn colours.
We arrived in Kyoto at around 14:00, so we headed up to Kyoto Station’s 11th floor to have a great tonkatsu lunch in one of the many restaurants there. Yeah, the 11th floor: like many Japanese stations, Kyoto’s is a behemoth of a building that houses an entire department store and a score of restaurants inside. It is also architecturally interesting, with a steel and glass canopy that covers the main hall where escalators progressively ascend through the different levels. I was also thrilled to discover that the station has a branch of Café du Monde, the New Orleans café famous for its beignets, which I went to last year! You can read about it on this very blog! Every travel informs all the next ones.

Once properly and abundantly fed, we walked across the river to our Kyoto apartment. It wasn’t quite what we had in mind; we had pretty much every creature comfort in Tokyo, and in this one the rooms are bare even by Japanese standards, plus one of the bedrooms can only be accessed by walking through the other one.
One thing I missed in the Tokyo apartment -which this one also doesn’t have- is any sort of English-language TV channel. I don’t understand Japanese anywhere near well enough to know what any TV anchor is saying, and Japanese TV is too thoroughly weird even for me. And I don’t even mean the crazy technicolor seizure-inducing game shows like the one in Lost in Translation, that at least can be entertaining; even a newscast litters the screen with text everywhere and can have presenters drawing cartoons or pasting stickers over a board to explain the US election. At one point during the weather forecast the screen turned into a glorified Excel sheet of temperature averages! I was prepared for Korean doramas, but not -actually, literally as I’m typing this, Takeshi Kitano just came on screen dressed as a janitor mopping the floor and now they’re making him watch a clip of a chimpanzee playing ping pong with a human. Uh, I’m good to go now, thanks.
So anyway!! After taking in the sparsity of our surroundings, we took off and headed to the old town. Our JR Passes are going to take a break while we’re in Kyoto, because the trains, subways and buses here are all private-owned and therefore not included in the pass. 
We took the train to Gion, the old quarter/geisha district of Kyoto. This was the home of the floating world, where tea houses would come alive at night with guests who ate, drank and partied in the company of maiko and geiko. Nowadays few tea houses remain and it’s very rare to see geisha on the streets, but they do continue to work.

We walked down Hanamikoji-dori, a beautiful street that runs along a canal and traditional Kyoto houses. Every few steps small bridges would connect the street with the restaurants and ryokan on the other side. It was beautiful to see the wispy willows and the reddening trees bending over the water. There must have been a wedding or something, because there were lots of men and women in kimonos taking and posing for pictures.

We arrived when there was still daylight and managed to take some pictures of the district by day. Soon enough the sun set and all the lights came on, the bars and restaurants opened and more Japanese people started walking the streets. We went to Pontocho, a long and narrow alley right across the river from Gion. The restaurants here have their lantern-lit entrances on the alley side, and have verandas and balconies that give out to the river side. Both sides are extremely photogenic at night. Pontocho also used to be a smaller geisha district, and walking down the narrow alley, looking at the old wooden two-storey houses, it’s easy to imagine geiko, samurai and merchants walking in and out of the establishments.

Since we had walked all the way up Pontocho and come out on the north side, we took the chance to quickly peek into Teramachi, the massive shopping arcade in central Kyoto, to check out the Kyoto Kyukyodo and also to get some supplies for dinner. We walked into a supermarket that had a whole second floor dedicated to imported “world food” items, which was amusing because their “world food” was just “food” for us: crisps, pasta, biscuits… They had the same actual brands as in our supermarkets back home, except of course at imported prices.
I was delighted to come across a bakery, because Japanese bakeries are such an experience. This one was no exception: it had European items like baguettes and croissant, but also curry bread, green bean toast, and a bun that proudly advertised five different types of beans! Bread with cheese and raisins! They had melon pan, which I like partly because there was an entire story arc about it in this one manga I used to read. They also sold tiny, individual madeleines of varying colours, each one wrapped in its own tiny plastic wrapper. No fish bread in this one though…
Once properly resupplied, we called it a day. Not bad for just one afternoon!

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