As we descended from the charming speakeasy in Gion, a quintessentially filmic, Kyoto scene unfurled. Through the mist and drizzle on the lantern-lit, cobbled streets, a lone, demure geisha in a beautiful kimono tottered home to her Okiya from a gig. I’m told it’s not often that a foreigner sees a geisha on her own – when she’s accompanied by her minder, it’s for the benefit of tourists. She walks off into the night as many have done before her over 400 years. As beautiful a scene as it was, I felt a little forlorn. I wondered how I would feel in her place, living a life full of rules and expectation.
Kyoto conjures up a thousand images – the ancient and imperial Japanese capital until 1868, it was seen by many (and to some degree is still lauded) as a perfect city, a showcase for all of Japan’s best achievements, a dream of humankind – the link that ties together heaven and earth. It has all the ideal hallmarks – over a millennium of civilization – timeless, modern, serene, sophisticated – a city that’s ultimately spiritual, but incredibly human, signifying all there is to love about life. It addresses a symbiotic balance between the wild and the cultured, a great place to live, an endless moment of fantasy, a source of inexplicable magic. Perhaps that ethereal power is why Kyoto has never, in its existence, been invaded – and in more recent, turbulent history, rumour has it that Kyoto was spared from the atom bomb by Harry Truman himself, as he couldn’t bring himself to destroy it, having been warned not to in a dream.
Kyoto’s physicality is a work of art, but also the result of some very strict rules. Built according to Feng Shui (the Chinese geomantic principles that laid out the spatial and directional relationship between heaven and earth) there was really no way that Kyoto could fail, in the minds of its ancient architects. The city is surrounded on three sides by an undulating ridge of hills, bisected by two large rivers and guarded by a high mountain at its ‘Devil’s Gate’ – where negative energy is most likely to enter. The rivers’ water gives a flow of positive energy, providing vitality and spiritual power. Its buildings, temples, shrines and gardens were strategically placed – everything had its position, its reason, according to ancient rules, both mystical and practical.
Up until today, the conformist structures of rule-making and adherence are still apparent. The residents of Kyoto have a very set way of doing things. Despite what must be millions of tourists that old habits die hard. From ensuring my shoes were off and perfectly lined-up outside restaurants, to interacting with what seemed like an incredibly hierarchical and sexist society, where age and gender do matter, to my strict mealtimes and curfews in ryokans (traditional inns), to being told not to dance in a bar – there seems to be an unending list of ‘do-nots’ here.
I’ve never actually experienced a culture where rules and regulations are so revered. Sure, England may come close, but your average Brit would be in awe of how Kyoto-ites conduct themselves. And this comes from the top down – the municipal tourist board has issued a set of rules (and they’re called rules, not guidelines) on how best to behave as a tourist. It starts with the line “Kyoto-ites are fastidious,” and goes on to explain the word Akimahen, meaning ‘do not’ in the Kyoto dialect – followed by a list of rules and regulations in infographic format. These include refraining from taking selfies and subsequently the use of selfie-sticks, ensuring you say ‘thank you’ as often as possible, not grabbing Maiko by their sleeves, and being quiet in sacred complexes. All basic manners you may think, but clearly there are groups of tourists who don’t comply and the rules require reinforcement – sadly, we all know who they are.
In challenging locals on the subject – yes, by being a gaijin (foreigner) I can shake the beehive a little – it seems the rules have not been posted to be bloody-minded, but more because Japanese people who may be upset at tourists’ misconduct wouldn’t actually say so. It’s against cultural norms, particularly in Kyoto, to be confrontational. Which would go some way to explain why a Japanese-American friend of mine, when staying at a Kyoto ryokan, had the lights turned off on him in the middle of a conference call, without a word of explanation. 10.30pm was lights-out, and that meant 10.30pm – passive-aggressive, at its funniest. This passive-aggression has in the past been powerful in disabling governments, so the tourist board’s exercise is more about keeping locals happy than educating visitors.
The same friend divulged that on another trip, an old lady randomly leant over from the next table in a café and interrupted his phone conversation to tell him that he had a voice like the Emperor Akihito himself. Resisting to accept the compliment and thank the lady, which would be the American way, he instead replied with the modest and socially correct retort, “Oh, I have a lot to learn before I can be as great a man as the Emperor,” in the local dialect. He then immediately brought his phone call to an end, understanding that what the lady really meant was for him to be quieter when talking on his mobile phone.
Ryo, the person who shared these humourous culture-clash anecdotes is second-generation American. His parents had escaped Kyoto for Seattle because they just couldn’t conform. Despite reaching the land of the free, they still instilled some strong Kyoto values in their children and Ryo remembers his childhood as far more ordered than that of his American friends. After over 30 years in Seattle, Ryo’s parents returned to Kyoto for a much more tranquil, rule-abiding existence as retirees. Everyone I have met who comes from the city or those, who like Ryo’s parents, have chosen to come here to live, does so for a calmer and quieter existence. People tell stories of how they have lived in Tokyo, or abroad, and decided that Kyoto was a better city for them. Ryo’s father summed it up nicely, “we thought the streets were paved with gold elsewhere, but forgot that Kyoto has been home to the Golden Pavilion for six hundred years.”
Kyoto is where introspection and anonymity can be perfectly lived out. Kyoto-ites tend to leave others alone and do not involve themselves in the matters of their neighbours. Perhaps this offers a reason as to why same-gender Japanese weddings and blessings can happen at one of Kyoto’s most sacred temples. When the rest of Japan (even Tokyo) is slow to react, monk Zenryu Kawakami, the deputy chief priest at the historic 400-year-old Shunkoin temple has been doing so for over five years. When I asked why he was open to ‘breaking the rules’ his response was simple – that he didn’t feel he was. There is nothing in Buddhism that prohibits same-gender couples from being joined in union, and considering the grounding philosophy is that every living creature has potential to attain Buddhahood, translated to every person having the right to pursue happiness, Zenryu decided to embrace the diversity of humankind in his own path towards enlightenment. The ceremonies for gay people at Shunkoin are identical to those of heterosexual couples. Couples exchange cups of sake and wedding rings in the ritual. The monk then tells the couple that everything in the world is transient, including life. In order to achieve a lasting commitment to each other, each partner must accept changes in the order they come. In other words, we must break our own rules.
At time of writing, there has yet to be a gay couple from Kyoto married at Shunkoin. Perhaps old habits do die hard – and being unable to conform, but unwilling to rebel, is a tough quandary. There is a old Japanese saying – “Deru kui wa utareru,” meaning, ‘the nail that sticks out is hammered down’. I hope that what’s happening at Shunkoin will do something to open the discussion on gay rights for the gay people of Kyoto and break some old expectations. Somehow, I believe that even if the nail comes completely loose, the temple won’t fall down.
Uwern was a guest of the magnificent and luxurious Ritz Carlton, Kyoto – easily Tokyo’s most exclusive hotel.
Shunkoin temple partners with the Granvia Kyoto Hotel to offer gay wedding packages for those who want the experience of a traditional Japanese wedding.
- There is no tipping culture in Kyoto. In fact it is frowned upon as it means you’re not treating your server as an equal. A respectful ‘Okini,’ (Kyoto dialect for thank you) will be much appreciated.
- Whenever going indoors in Kyoto, take your shoes off. It’s not compulsary in all places, but it’s respectful to do so unless told otherwise.
- Japanese taxis have automatic doors that open and close on their own, so watch that they don’t hit you when getting in and don’t slam them when leaving.
- Restaurants tend to be small, family run establishments. So if you make a booking, don’t cancel, as they will never pass your table on in respect to you.
- Don’t expect that all maiko and geisha will want to pose with you in a picture. Imagine if a thousand people a day stopped you for pictures on your way to work.
- When visiting a shrine, always pass through the ‘torii’ gate. ‘Purify’ your hands and face at the water pavilion. To say a prayer, clap twice, bow, pray, then bow again to complete the process.
The inside track
Shiho-san was previously the International Sales Director for the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, the first hotel in Japan to offer traditional Japanese wedding packages to same-gender couples. www.granviakyoto.com
Yorozu Enraku – it’s not easy to find, but once you do you’re rewarded by delicious Kyoto cuisine in a truly authentic setting in old-world Gion.
Gion Yata – an old machiya, this is a restaurant townhouse on a traditional street in Gion. Upstairs, there’s a speakeasy type bar that serves meticulously poured drinks for those in the know.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most important Shinto shrines, with beautiful, bright red pillars flanking a long stairwell to the top. To get the best pictures, keep walking up as most tourists will only venture so far.