Travel: Kyoto, Japan

Gardens, temples, shrines, palaces, a geisha quarter - Kyoto is one of Japan's treasure chests of culture and, fortunately for visitors, is easy to get around and relatively compact.

Tokyo, the city that took the status of capital away from Kyoto, is a sprawling mass of 35 million residents. Kyoto, capital from the 8th century until 1868, has a population of only 1.5 million and is a more manageable size.

The bulk of the city's temples and shrines are in the surrounding hills but all are easy to access by taxi or public transport.

The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) started life as a private home in 1397, later becoming a Zen temple. It was reconstructed in 1955 after being destroyed in an arson attack by a monk, and in 1987 a new layer of gold leaf, five times thicker, was applied.

The garden is in the classic style and pleasant to wander but at nearby Ryoanji Temple is a very different sort of garden, one of the most celebrated in Japan.

It is believed that the first rock garden on the site was created from about 1619 but after a fire in 1797 it was filled in and new one made on top, although there are no records as to what the creator had in mind with his arrangement.

The 25m-long 10m-wide rock garden is designated a national treasure, as is the earth wall surrounding it. Arriving at opening time seems to be the only way of beating the crowds.

The raked gravel garden contains 15 rocks arranged so one is always out of sight but there's only one plant, moss at the base of the rocks.

In the northeast of the city is the stunning sand garden at Ginkakuji Temple, a completely unexpected alternative to the stone gardens. The heavy, grey-white sand forms a sinuous platform with the surface featuring alternate broad bands of raked and smooth sand. At one end is a 2m-high, flat-topped large cone. Again, no one really knows about the when and why of the garden, except that it may date from the 16th century, but the effect is oddly modern.

The nearby Heian Shrine was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto becoming the country's capital. As well as the buildings painted red and white with green tile roofs, there is also a series of connected gardens, some of which were completed in the 20th century.

In spring crowds flock here to feast their eyes on the many cherry blossom trees and many also take the Philosopher's Path, a pleasant 2km stroll beside a canal, between Ginkakuji and Nanzenji temples. The cherry trees form a canopy over the water and there are plenty of tea houses along the way.

Cherry blossom season is celebrated with illuminated night viewings, special menus in restaurants and picnics under the trees. There is also the Miyako Odori (Spring Dance) which is performed four times daily in the old Gion quarter by geisha (called geiko in Kyoto) and maiko, trainee geisha, during April.

The music may take some getting used to for Western ears, but the real pleasure is in the beautiful kimono, clever theatre and being part of something loved by the locals.

Gion is the home of the geiko and wandering the narrow streets is a chance to see ancient and modern Japan collide - young women these days choose to learn to become a professional entertainer and hostess and must compete for a place in a training house.

Contrary to what many in the West believe, geiko have never been prostitutes and Gion has never been a red-light area. Rather, it is a centre of traditional entertainment with clear boundaries for entertainers and customers.

Our tour group met a 17-year-old maiko during our final dinner in Kyoto, just one of a number of appointments that would see her working into early the next day.

She attends classes, such as singing, dancing and comportment, six days a week, has her hair done once a week and, with the help of a dresser, takes just 10 minutes to put on the many layers of a kimono.

After performing a song and dance for us, answering our questions and posing for photographs, the maiko and the older geiko gracefully exited, heading into the night and their next appointment.

- Hamilton News

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