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  • Shelley Dark

9. we meet a maiko

Today was truly the epitome of chi-go ichi-e (once in a lifetime). I can't wait to tell you all about it! Get a cup of coffee. It's a long one!

We set off in a taxi from the hotel at 9am with our guide Kana for Fushimi Inari Taisha. She was waiting in the lobby for us, petite and pretty with an animated face. And, we were to find out, a head full of knowledge which she was incredibly generous in sharing.

There are over 30,000 Inari shrines in Japan but Fushimi Inari is the head shrine, the one whose iconic photo you may remember as a series of orange Japanese torii 'gates'. It's set on Mount Inari, criss-crossed with trails in the south-east of the city.

Most of what I'll tell you about today is my version of what Kana told us. So my apologies if I misquote or misinterpret what she said. Mea culpa! Here goes!

First we visited Tofukuji, a 500 year old Zen Buddhist temple where monks trained for centuries. This is its main 'gate'. The symmetry of design and the craftsmanship of the architectural work is simply breath-taking. All of the original buildings have been destroyed in one way or another and replaced over time. Few nails are used in these cypress wood temples, because that improves their chance of surviving an earthquake. The dragon god of rain and water is only seen at Zen temples to guard the buildings against fire.

Both of these symbols help protect the building against fire: a fish tail on the left, and 3 rain clouds on the roof tile on the right.

Immaculately trimmed pine trees like this have their needles individually removed by hand to create their unique shape. Can you believe it?

This is the angry fierce manifestation of Buddha, called myoō. There are three other more benevolent types. With flames behind him, this buddha has a sword to cut off the excessive attachments we all develop in life, the cause of all our problems. The rope is to save us from drowning in a sea of them. John was nodding vigorously as Kana explained this: yes yes yes, he was saying, I know what Buddha means! He was thinking of material attachments, a message for me! I think John's a Zen Buddhist from way back.

These are tiny azaleas trimmed around the rocks. They're in full bud and will look stunning when they're out soon.

A student of Zen studying his notes perhaps? It's a happy fact that Buddhism co-exists with the much older Japanese Shinto religion, which is based on the worship of the spirits or gods or kami which take the form of wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers. Humans become kami after they die. The emperor of Japan is head of the Shinto religion.

Most people approach Fushimi Inari from the main shrine side and climb many many steps up to the top, but Kana took us this very quiet back way.

We walked through a bamboo grove and climbed the hill along sloping dirt paths.

Past a group of mossy shrines, where local people come to pray.

Fushimi Inari was established in 711, as a place for people to pray for bountiful rice harvests.

The fox is the friend of the farmer because it kills the rabbits which eat the crops, so this is the emblem associated with the rice harvest and Inari. The fox is the messenger. You ask him to intercede with the deity on your behalf.

Over time people have begun to pray here for business prosperity too, the safety of their home and family and the fulfilment of all kinds of other wishes. Donors buy the orange gates, which are replaced every twenty years, as by then the wood has begun to rot. On the right is printed the year of the donation, on the left, the name of the donor.

Before you enter a Shinto shrine there is a prescribed purification ritual. Firstly, fill the ladle. Holding your hand over the drain outside the tub (not over the tub!), tip some water on to your left hand to wash it, then change hands and tip water over your right hand. Then tip some into the left hand again to rinse your mouth. Spit out the water in the drain around the tub. Then with the water remaining, tip the ladle up so that the water drains down the handle to clean it for the next person!

When you visit a shrine, you can have your fortune told. First you shake a wooden box with sticks in it, then tip it over and allow one stick to drop out of the hole in the base. It has a number on it, and you pay for the corresponding forecast, printed on a slip of paper. If you like it, you keep it in your wallet. If you don't like it, you tie it like this at the shrine!

When Kana saw mine, she squealed with delight. That's the best one, she said. Those two kanji top left mean twice times good. That's simply the best there is! She was so happy for me. We both jumped up and down on the spot.

You can see what a beautiful person Kana is, inside and out.

We walked along pathways seeing few people until we reached the top where we could look over the city. Here there were hordes of people, most having climbed the hard way up the steps from way way below.

On our way down we passed shrines dedicated to all sorts of things: eyesight and the ability to see opportunity and one for backs and knees. John and I needed one which did the whole body.

This is fortune telling for pessimists.

A single rhododenron along the path.

The shrine for match-making was fun to see. People buy these little fox statues: a matchmaker in the middle, a girl on the left and a boy on the right. You take your statue home and pray that you will be successful in finding your mate. When you do, you bring it back to the shrine and put it here. So these all represent happy marriages! Sigh.

We stopped to speak to this darling tiny old lady, who couldn't believe it when Kana told her that we have come all the way from Australia. Surely not possible, she is saying.

We wanted to take her home with us.

We reached the main red gate at the bottom of the hill.

The roof on the right is above the building for worshippers, so it's only made of copper. The roof on the left is the building for the deities.

The deity roof is made in the most expensive way: thatch, composed of layer upon layer of cypress bark pressed together, perhaps hundreds of layers as you can see, fixed together with bamboo nails. It's a dying art.

Everywhere there are tourists dressed in kimonos, taking selfies. These girls were checking their photos.

The smell of the street food along the nearby street was making us very hungry. John had Japanese fried chicken from the girl with the mask above.

Kana and I had octopus dumplings. Kana loves them, but despite their yummy appearance they're not going to be high on my list of must-eats!

Kana delivered us right on time to our next guide, Hideo in the photo above, who escorted us to our private maiko meeting in Gion, the famous geisha suburb. Pronounced HID-AY-OH. We both thought this might be a rather stiff formal event. It was anything but.

Our charming hostess and our maiko Fukune greeted us very warmly at the door and asked us to sit on the other side of the table - one of those tables that look as if you have to kneel but actually have a long rectangular hole underneath where you put your legs.

Fukune is a natural beauty, demure yet open, poised and elegant, dignified yet warm.

She poured matcha tea for us, and we ate small lollies. We were able to take photos, and ask her questions. I'm sorry it was rather dark in the room which is reflected in the quality of the photos.

She has been training for three of the necessary five years to become a geisha and lives in a boarding house with five other maikos. She is indentured to that boarding house for one year after she graduates.

Maikos may not marry, but geiko may. Once they do, however, they are no longer geisha or geiko. Fukune takes forty minutes to put on her makeup, and she misses her parents a little. Her sleeves are longer than those of a geiko, her hair is fancier, her sash or obi is wider, she wears more ornaments, and her shoes are higher. Isn't it a lovely notion that as you become more qualified your appearance becomes more restrained?

You can see the elaborate hair style, and the interesting way that the makeup finishes at the neck.

After we had chatted over tea, Fukune performed a graceful dance for us.

Next our hostess and Fukune demonstrated a game, singing as they played. It was a simplified version of paper, rock, scissors but this was only rock and paper. You must put a flat hand on the tin, or a fist on the bare cloth. Either player can remove the tin at any time. John has great reflexes and I could see that he was watching with anticipation, itching to begin. Watching them play was one of the highlights of my day. I think it will make you laugh. There's a video below!


She lost so charmingly didn't she? I think she plays a lot! How lucky were we to have such a wonderful experience?

Being back on the street was a little like coming out of a movie in the daytime. Surreal.

Hideo walked us along some of the streets of Gion, where we saw this hot pink mini-maiko with colour-coordinated drinking cup.

And this handsome smiling couple who had just been married.

Isn't this an unusual and very pretty hydrangea?

Our next stop was Maruyama Park which sounded idyllic. Except all the tourists in the city were sitting on bright blue plastic sheets with scarcely enough room for a cigarette paper between them, picnicking in the sun, juvenile cherry trees nearby putting on a valiant display. We immediately decided that the day had been perfect already, so Hideo kindly took us back to Kyoto Railway Station.

What a station! This building is one of the most amazing I have ever seen.

There's a huge void inside, with shops, rail and metro underneath, offices and restaurants on either side, escalators at both ends rising to the very top where a sky walk offers fabulous views of Kyoto Tower and the city.

It was great to arrive back at the hotel after such a wonderful, wonderful day. We were so tuckered out that we had room service for dinner, served by this darling girl. John is sleeping like a baby, and I've loved reliving every step of the way with you.

Tomorrow we go again with Kana. Don't you love her? I'm so looking forward to her company again. How lucky were we to find her?

Until tomorrow travelling buddies, I wait you impatiently!

shelley dark, writer 

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