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Rediscovering Kyoto with Gold Guide

How a high end guide can make all the difference

As a travel industry veteran, a regular traveler in my own time and of course someone who now writes about Japan for a living, my feelings about using a private guide have evolved considerably over time. Whether backpacking through Asia or experiencing Osaka for the first time in my 20s, travel was typically a solo affair and more often than not on a fairly tight budget - why would anyone want to spend their money bringing someone else along?

Of course, it turns out there are very good reasons - not everyone has the confidence to drop into a completely new city and start figuring things out for themselves, while others may be balancing their own to-do lists with the needs of small children. The vast majority have only a limited window to take in the country, and naturally want to pack in the best experiences possible. In my case, the most compelling reason was realizing just how much I had missed out on in earlier trips - from anecdotes or interactions that would have heightened my sense of place and immersion, to specific points of interest that I never got to see.

With all this in mind, I was excited and intrigued to spend a day revisiting some of my favorite locations in Kyoto, this time together with a member of West Japan Marketing Communications Inc.iJR WEST GROUP)'s new premium service, known as Gold Guide.

My day began at a hotel just a short distance from Kyoto Station. Making my way down to the lobby a few minutes ahead of our meeting time, I was surprised to find my guide Rumiko-san already waiting for me. After a cheerful introduction, we got straight down to business - pouring over a tourist map of the city while she outlined the day's itinerary and various arrangements from transport to where and when to eat.

In addition to the specifics of the day ahead came a few tactful pointers on etiquette - an extremely relevant issue in the city today - and a good deal of questions: where did my interest in Japan stem from? What sort of things did I especially want to see, experience or learn about? This would prove to be time well spent, as it not only gave me the sense of being well cared for, but gave my guide all sorts of pointers on what kind of information I wanted and how best to tailor it to me.

Leaving the hotel behind, we set off in the direction of Kyoto Station to find a taxi. In the two minutes or so it took us to get there, I had already received a thorough orientation with regard to the city's major landmarks, a potted history of Kyoto Station itself and a few things not to miss inside during the course of my trip.

Once inside the car and threading our way through the morning traffic for our first stop of the day at Kiyomizu-dera Temple, my guide somehow managed to squeeze a primer on Japanese culture and history into a quick 10 minute ride, beginning with the differences between Buddhism and Shinto and the latter's multitude of deities, large and small. We also somehow struck up a fun conversation with our taxi driver - one of several impromptu interactions that would enliven our day and add to the feeling of immersion.

Located on Mount Otowa in Kyoto's eastern Higashiyama district, Kiyomizu-dera is generally accessed via a long, sloping street lined with shops selling all manner of traditional goods, souvenirs and sweets and - more often than not - packed almost wall to wall with other sightseers. Undeterred, we got out about halfway up and did our best to slip through the crowds for the last hundred meters or so to the temple's bright red Niomon Gate, but before we made our way inside, my guide had another fascinating but often neglected spot to show me outside.

This turned out to be a little statue of Jizo - an important being in the Buddhist pantheon, dedicated to the protection of children and a common sight on country roads - placed atop a wooden plinth beside a smaller temple building, wearing a brightly covered woven hat and bib. Known as Kubifuri Jizo, or neck turning Jizo, this little figure is said to be especially handy in matters of love - to enlist his help, just say a short prayer and turn his little head to face the direction of your intended, before returning it to its original angle.

Stepping between the two towering guardian statues of the Niomon Gate and into the temple precinct, Rumiko-san continued to point out more points of interest while smoothly summing up the basic facts; the temple's founding in 778, that it's beautiful main hall is a registered national treasure while 15 of its 30 buildings have also been named important cultural properties, its sometimes turbulent history that has seen many of those same buildings burned down on up to 10 occasions yet rebuilt every time.

So far so good, but what impressed me was my guide's ability to always go that little bit further - with every historical or mythological footnote explored in some depth, illustrated with subtle yet absorbing details and in many cases woven into a bigger and more connected story of the city as a whole.

Leaving Kiyomizu-dera behind, we began to thread our way northwest towards our final destination of Gion. Located just a couple of minute's walk from the temple, our next two spots were Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka - two beautifully preserved streets with timber framed shops and cafes lining their gently sloping flagstone steps.

Although initially known as Sanneizaka or "safe childbirth slope" due to the many women who came to Kiyomizu-dera's Koyasudo Pagoda to pray for just that, at some point - perhaps out of concern for pregnant women climbing such a steep and slippery flight of steps - it came to be said that a fall on the way up would shorten one's life by three years, hence the name Sannenzaka or "three year slope", with the two other nearby slopes becoming Ichinenzaka ("one year slope") and Ninenzaka ("two year slope") respectively.

Today, the area is frequently one of the busiest in the whole city, but despite the crowds we took a few minutes to check out some of the more interesting stores, from the infamous Machiya-style Starbucks to little shops selling antiques and accessories.

Not far from the two slopes, we arrived at another popular local landmark - the five storied Yasaka Pagoda. Standing 46 meters tall with graceful, sloping roofs, the structure is just perfectly placed to create an elegant view when approaching uphill along Yasaka-dori.

Said to have been personally designed by Shotoku Taishi - a near legendary prince from Japan's Asuka Period (592-710) and a foundational figure in Japanese governance, poetry and Buddhism - the pagoda is also notable for the small but intriguing window it opens on the history of Kyoto's temples and their often turbulent relationships, as it was burned down in the course of a violent dispute between Kiyomizu-dera and the nearby Gion Shrine in 1179.

Just across the street from the Yasaka Pagoda is another popular spot, the colorful Yasaka Koshindo. Tucked into a small space between houses, this little temple is decorated with countless strings of talismans known as kukurizaru or hanging monkeys, representing the individual's own playful or desire-led self.

From here, we continued north for a few minutes, stopping just short of nearby Kodaiji Temple for an interesting shortcut through the Ishibe-koji - a historic alleyway, popular among photographers for its refined and unspoilt appearance. Connecting Shimogawa-dori to Nene-no-michi (another reference to Hideyoshi's wife), its name is derived from the simple wood and stone walls lining both sides.

My guide revealed that the alley is home to several high end teahouses and restaurants that regularly hosted geisha entertainment for well-to-do customers - although the signposts for each of these were so discreet that one could easily pass by and never know it.

By now we were both getting hungry, so we made our way due west to Hanamikoji, an attractively preserved street running from Shijo to nearby Kenninji Temple, and the center of Gion's historic geisha district. Much like Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, the street is lined with neat wooden merchant houses called machiya and free of the tangle of overhead cables seen on so many of Japan's urban streets, giving it a uniquely unspoilt feel.

The buildings here however - many of them high end restaurants and teahouses known as chaya - have a much more refined and understated look, reflecting complex local traditions and the exclusivity of their clientele.

Most exclusive of all is the Ichiriki Ochaya, a large red walled building on the northeast corner of Hanamikoji and Shijo. With a history spanning 300 years, the Ichiriki has hosted samurai revolutionaries, company presidents and world leaders, and a night of geisha entertainment can easily run into many thousands of dollars - for the select few granted the privilege.

But how does one become a customer, and what does that look like? As Rumiko-san explained, it all begins with a connection: you need to be introduced by a member in the form of a letter, which will be carefully scrutinized. From this point, you may be allowed to book entertainment for yourself and guests, but you will also be expected to observe the rules of taste and decorum, many of which are unwritten. Institutions like the Ichiriki for example tend to guard their customers quite jealously, and will not forgive making appointments with rivals.

Forming a relationship with such a place can take many years but can come with significant privileges - with one call from an honored client, an experienced gmotherh can organize an entire evening's entertainment, carefully tailoring everything to match the taste of the client and their guests.

For lunch, we dropped into Gion Kirara, located in a typically simple and refined building towards the southern end of Hanamikoji. Here the speciality is obanzai, a cuisine firmly rooted in Kyoto culture and based around the kind of simple dishes one might cook for one's family at home.

Despite this apparent simplicity - and being one of the cheaper options my guide suggested - my meal was delicious and beautifully presented: a mix of tempura, salad leaves, various kinds of tofu and colorful pickles, served with rice and a rich, warming miso soup.

Drinking down a last cup of roasted green tea or hojicha, we said our goodbyes to the restaurant staff and took a short walk over to our next stop, Kenninji Temple. Founded in 1202, it is said to be the oldest of Kyoto's five most important Zen temples, known collectively as the gozan or "five mountains". Its founder - a monk known as Eisai - is especially celebrated for introducing both Zen Buddhism and tea to Japan, surely two of Kyoto's most important cultural pillars.

Stepping inside the temple's main building, we found ourselves in an enchanting space dominated by beautifully furnished tatami rooms and polished wooden verandas looking onto a series of enclosed gardens. Here, my guide was absolutely in her element - always with something thought provoking to say about an artwork that caught my eye, or the best possible angle to view a garden for maximum effect.

One of the day's most enjoyable moments came while doing just that - taking in a long, narrow strip of moss, rock and raked gravel known as Choontei. In answer to a question I had asked about the use of symbolism in Japanese gardening, Rumiko-san shared something her own gardening teacher had told her: that while such gardens were often made according to set patterns and rules, the only thing necessary for us to appreciate them is to take our time looking at them and consider how it makes us feel.

Although Kenninji is especially well known for the spectacular large scale painting of writhing twin dragons on the ceiling of its lecture hall or hatto, with my guide's help I was able to find a whole series of fascinating spots - several of which I must have walked past many times before without so much as a thought.

Of these, two of my favorites were the kubizuka (a special kind of tombstone for decapitated heads) of Ankokuji Ekei - a samurai of Japan's warring states period who lost his head at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and the temple's Chokushimon Gate - a special entrance reserved for messengers of the imperial household, dating to the Kamakura Period and still bearing the scars of arrows fired during the Onin War (1467-1477).

By now we were approaching the end of our day of sightseeing, but with a little time to spare before sunset, we made a brief circuit of Gion's streets up to the east bank of the Kamo River, on the way covering such topics as the origins of kabuki theater, the changing face of the geisha entertainment industry and the neighborhood stores where one might catch a maiko shopping for makeup.

At last, the sun began to dip behind the rooftops and after a last couple of photos, it was time to say our goodbyes. It had been a terrific day, packed with new discoveries and fun conversation, and as always I couldn't wait for my next visit.

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