The Japanese people adore flowers. Here in Kyoto, people plant beautiful flowers and bonsai at the doors of every household and shop front, while neat flower beds line every street and road. No idle fallen leaf can be found on the ground. The local news always includes a section on flowers in bloom, and after sakura of April, there are a lot more May flowers to come.
Many Japanese girls are named after flowers, and they are very popular as kimono patterns. The tea houses where geishas work are called hanamachi (flower street), the most popular among tourists being Hanamikoji in Gion. These flowers are transient, and it takes much luck to see one. When they emerge from the alleys, head bowed, bearing their furoshiki, though surrounded by crowds with all kinds of cameras and smartphones extended towards them, nobody dares to come too near or to touch them, for fear of hurting the precious flower.
In spring, the five hanamachi of Kyoto (Kamishichiken, Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Ponto-cho, Miyagawa-cho) take turns to put out Geisha’s dance performances, and among which the “Miyako odori" by Gion Kobu is the most famous. One day in late April, I started off from my home in Kiyomizu Gojo, walked up Yamotooji-dori, through Kennin-ji and passed through its north gate, and there I was at Hanamikoji. I got myself a third class ticket at Gion Kobu Kaburenjo (Gion Kobu Rehearsal Hall), and had a dream-like one-hour. Sakura in their hair, the lovely imagery of geishas in bright cerulean, stood out among the many fantastic floral scenes in Kyoto.
According to the website, “Miyako Odori" originated as a cultural reform programme, when the people of Kyoto feared least the ancient city should lose the economic and cultural advantage as the capital when the capital moved to Tokyo during the Meiji era. As a result, the geisha was successfully transformed from a popular sex industry to become the symbol of traditional Japanese culture nowadays, not only invigorating the ancient city’s tourism, but also escaped from the fate of fading into the past.
Not far from Gion Kobu, there lies Miyagawa-cho. During “Kyo Odori", the sakura along Kamogawa is at full bloom, forming a road of white flowers that leads to Miyagawa-cho Kaburenjo. It is magical at night, when the “Kyo Odori" lanterns under the sakura trees were lighted up. Without the hubbub of Hanamikoji, almost not a single tourist in sight, the quietude and inconspicuousness of Miyagawa-cho is even more enchanting. The weather of Kyoto in April fluctuates, and after one night’s rain, the road was covered with sakura petals. A breeze came by, and the road of white flowers snowed white petals. By the road a tea house’s wooden door slid open, an elegant lady in kimono stepped out, plucked a few red camellias from the bush at the door front, and disappeared behind the wooden door behind the curtain again, leaving me wondering the floral scene within which I shall probably never see.
Recently I often take the road through Miyagawa-cho. When the lanterns with Miyagawa-cho’s symbol are lighted up, I would fall into a time slip, and find myself walking backwards in the miyako in Edo era. Suddenly a woman’s voice rings at my ear, and when I look up, a geisha with a pretty face is standing at the door of a tea house, talking to a smartphone in ordinary, modern Japanese. And it is at this time that I am roused from my revelries, and remember once again where I am.