Going Toto in Kyoto

I know, I know: my punning is out of control. I’m the Joyce Grenfell of Puns. We arrived in Kyoto after a reviving couple of nights in Miyajima but still with the after-effects of what can only be described as a relentless and punishing schedule of travel and tourism. You could describe it another way, but it just wouldn’t be as accurate.

Because of it’s relentlessness and punishing-ness, we were all knackered, grouchy, fighty, acerbic, cutting, unreasonable, ragged around the edges and liable to find just about all but the simplest requests to be beyond the pale. Or at least I was. I had mentally consulted a divorce lawyer and found myself sleep-googling adoption services in the Southeast of England. Not only were my diamond shoes too tight, but my platinum pants were giving me camel-toe. This was the 11th hour for the Wandering Knights, make no mistake, and we all knew it.

But LO! KYOTO! This is simply the most perfect of Japanese cities. The Yanks avoided bombing it during the war, sweetly realising that it was full of cool shit like temples, tea-houses, cherry blossom-lined canals, pretty bridges and lots and lots of geikos.  Awwww. Just WHAT would they put on postcards from Japan if they bombed all of these unfeasibly repressed-yet-picturesque shuffling pan-stick adverts? I say shuffling, but the first one we spotted in the flesh was travelling at approximately 15kph, mainly to get away from people sticking their lenses in her face. She was moving so fast, she’s blurred.


The main geiko-spotting area (‘geiko’ by the way is what you call Kyoto ‘geishas’ as opposed to ones from Tokyo, or Milton Keynes) is Gion, made famous in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’*. It’s an absurdly atmospheric place to walk around as night, when the geikos emerge from their homes to go to their ‘appointments’.

They conduct ‘tea ceremonies’, escort rich and important men to fancy restaurants and are extremely highly trained in dance, music, etiquette and fan-work. They regularly practise their fan-work on those patrons that can afford their services, and if this is all sounding a bit… familiar… I’ll have you realise that geishas are not prostitutes, not even high-class ones. The fact that they dedicate their lives to flattering, entertaining and ultimately conceiving children for rich blokes makes them, well… WAGS I guess? Wives? Women?

My girls and I became geikos (geikoes / geikii) for a few hours. We now know there are about fifteen layers under those kimonos and a proper Japanese wig weighs a metric tonne. Jamie and Alice looked ‘kirei’ (amazeballs).

I, however, looked like Norman Bates’ mother. This is the only photo I permit to see the light of day, because the rest have been burned. Seriously, it was an unbelievable ego-boost to take the whole kit off at the end and discover I wasn’t actually a mummified Egyptian hooker. I’m still buzzing off not being a geiko TO THIS DAY.


If the twelve layers of brocade, padding, straps and cardboard that it takes to become a geisha don’t put you off, not to mention the ludicrous shoes, we then spotted one in the grounds of Nijo Castle, shuffling along with her entourage, who then had to cram herself and her many layers and her entourage into a small Datsun*, a star in a reasonably priced car, if you will. Oh the humanity. Surely it should’ve been a palanquin or at least a velvet-padded rickshaw. According to our (kickass) guide Mechiko (to the left of the group shot) geikos – like vampires and my brother – rarely come out in the daytime. It’s the human equivalent of spotting a gold-plated owl.

The Nijo Castle itself is actually quite something. It’s the Palace of the most powerful Shogun of old, he of the James Clavell novel (‘Shogun’) that everyone’s Dad read in the ’90s. It’s off limits to cameras inside but I can vouch for (Lawrence Llewllyn Bowen voice) the exquisite beauty of it’s panelling. A big draw is it’s squeaky corridor floorboards, which famously sound like ‘nightingales’. No, actually, they don’t, they sound like squeaky floorboards. And even if they did, flocks of nightingales in your ear at 3am is not my idea of zen paradise so I’d be surprised if lives weren’t lost and heads weren’t rolled, back in the 1600s in the hunt for the WD40. It’s amazing what you can flip into a tourist attraction.

Along with geiko dress-up and geiko spotting, we also learned to write a single Japanese character in a calligraphy lesson, an accomplishment that surely puts us on the very first rung to actual geiko-hood. Just to make sure, we stopped at the famous bridge where Sayuri met the Chairman in Memoirs of a Geisha (the movie) and I looked smouldering (pissed off) and sultry (knackered).

It’s not all handicrafts and culture though. Mon dieu no. Kyoto is completely amazing for shops. A most pleasant lunchtime was spent in the basement of the Takashimaya department store, the best food-hall on Planet Earth. It’s got more fish than Atlanta Aquarium except here, you’re meant to reach into the displays and eat them. We had a standup lunch, including spendy salads, smoothies and lots of deep-fried items of uncertain content and uniform deliciousness. Off the beaten track, I spent a small fortune on Hakuhodo makeup brushes, which are like little unicorns’ tails on red lacquer handles. Adam will appreciate them too, when he finishes paying off the Visa bill (maybe I’ll make a geisha after all). And speaking of soft, expensive things, we happened upon this puppy emporium. It shot straight into the top three things the girls have done so far. No buddha can compete with a 650,000 yen French Bulldog. They asked if we could swap one for John. Talks are ongoing.

And for the boys, more stinky monkeys. I honestly don’t care if I see another primate as long as I bloody well live but, well. KYOTO – MORNING: OUR HEROES CLIMB TO THE TOP OF A SMALL MOUNTAIN TO SEE SOME MORE EFFING MONKEYS. This was a ‘Monkey Park’, which differentiated itself from other Monkey Parks we’ve spent the whole of 2017 (the Year of the Effing Monkey) visiting by the novel concept of putting the humans in cages instead of the monkeys. We fed them from the inside, presumably so they couldn’t rip us limb from limb to get the snacks. I might consider doing this at home.

It was a Thanksgiving Bank Holiday in Japan (the Japanese love America and all things American, despite the – ahem – cough – A-Bomb thing) and the whole of Kyoto was trying to sightsee in the exact same maple/temple area that we were, which was as mental as it sounds. But Kyoto still glowed.

At this point in the trip, however, ‘temple fatigue’ has calcified into ‘temple phobia’. My kids would cross the street to avoid a temple. Hell, they’d cross continents to avoid them. And I’m personally so over trying to work out why Buddhists insist on hiding relics of Gautama Siddhartha in various structures when they’re NOT MEANT TO BE ABOUT THAT. But, like Mr Creosote, we packed one more in. The Golden Pavilion is Kyoto’s Taj Mahal. It’s a gold-plated vision. Except unlike the Taj M, which is basically solidified love, it’s just a very fancy box to house Buddha’s toenail, so it’s strangely unmoving to visit.

The Fushimi Inarii Shrine is another Kyoto stunner. Essentially another temple, but one where the designers fell asleep on the keyboard and typed out several hundred tori gate emojis by accident. The result is glorious and bonkers, kind of a perfect description of Japan itself. We ducked in on our last day, on the way out the city, littlest hobos in cheap Japanese puffa jackets. It was a magnificent send-off.


Not to get too heavy-assed about it, but going from Hiroshima to Kyoto provided balm for souls wounded by contemplating man’s inhumanity to man. Here the past doesn’t need to be forgotten but neither does history make an extravagant play to be remembered. Here the artworks walk the streets. It chilled us out and restored some balance, some DARE I SAY IT – some zen. The most crowd-phobic could move in a sea of Kyoto tourists and still feel utter privilege to be able to see this place before it disappears. And knowing that cities nearby actually did disappear makes this even more acute. We moved on from Kyoto with reluctance, arriving in Osaka as news broke that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

*It might have been another make of Japanese car. I didn’t present Top Gear. Nor do I really, actually, care.



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