Chris Wilsson posted an interesting article today where he was given the rare opportunity to encounter both a Geisha and a Maiko by mere chance on the streets of Kyoto.
He even got some marvelous photos out of the experience, if I may say so myself, and it reminded me of one of my very own fondest memories of Japan.
It’s funny how these kinds of chance encounters can enrichen a trip. Oftentimes they are the ones you tend to remember the most.
They could be in the form of a festival you didn’t know of beforehand, an old man passing by when you’re in Nara who gives you seeds and nuts to feed the deer with (a story I’d love to share soon enough), or maybe it’s simply that vibrant butterfly whom accidentally lands on your shoulder.
It could be events that weren’t planned at all. Events that surprises you. Events that wouldn’t have been as extraordinary should you already know of them the moment you put your foot outside the door.
The event that Chris’s article reminded me of was when I was in Kyoto myself, nearly a year ago. I was travelling with my significant other and a couple of friends, and we had planned to stay roughly a week in Kyoto.
“A week?” you might say to yourself, chuckling, and you’d be right to.
Soon enough, as you can imagine, we realized a week was not nearly enough time.
Long story short, the Gion District had to, unfortunately, be cut from our schedule, successfully rendering our hope of encountering a Geisha (or Geiko, which is the local name) or Maiko to vaporize into thin air. But here’s where the story begins rather than ends.
One evening we were walking down the Kamo River (the smaller river that runs through the center of Kyoto, not to be mistaken with the Katsura River) looking for a bar, as we had yet to discover how a typical Japanese bar was like. We went up and down the streets, right and left, searching for that perfect one. That traditional, cozy yet classy place, a place we thought would capture the essence of Japanese culture.
Selective as we was, we spent at least an hour or two walking the streets of Kyoto, turning away from the riverbank, in order to find the perfect bar. Yet we never found a place we deemed worthy of our expectations. Our expectations, that at this point, was sky-high and in hind-sight, frankly quite unrealistic.
At one point we came to a conclusion and a mutual agreement was struck: we would never find the perfect place that could reach our combined expectations, and it was meaningless spending the whole night searching for the bar of our dreams.
We decided to just enter the next bar we stumbled upon, and go with it.
Soon we were standing outside a modern wooden house. The design was quite modest, simple, the entrance covered behind some trees and bushes, almost as if it was purposely hidden. The sign on the wall said one word: “Bar”. Nothing else.
Well, this is it then, we thought. It didn’t look like much to the world yet we had come to a decision. This would be the place, and we hesitantly entered.
And boy was I glad we did.
The bar had just opened; actually, it was their opening night. Its owner, together with what we later on learned was his apprentice were standing behind a small counter. And that was basically it, a bar counter with stools for maybe eight or nine individuals in a very narrow room. There were hangers for the coats on the wall behind the bar stools, and a window down the furthest end of the bar. Apart from this, there wasn’t much else. A couple of other guests were there, looking at us apprehensively.
The place was classy, mind you, a lot more classy than we had expected, and I can imagine we looked quite silly in our colorful shorts, sandals and loose t-shirts as we entered. Would we be thrown out? Even more importantly, had we insulted the bar owner? Luckily, it didn’t seem so, as he merely smiled at us.
After a moment’s hesitation, we nodded towards the owner and sat down beside the window. The owner’s apprentice offered us peanuts, and we ordered our drinks. We soon learned that both the owner as well as his apprentice was quite adept at English, and we ended up speaking for quite some time. After a while the guests struck conversation with us as well, and the evening that had gone towards disaster slowly morphed into a delightful experience.
Yet this wasn’t even the best part.
The best part was later that very same evening, at the very same bar, a Geiko walked in.
She wore the most beautiful kimono, carrying her own with a regal dignity, only moving with slow, controlled movements; her hair in a traditional shimada that could only be described as a true work of art.
You could feel the atmosphere in the room changing as she entered. It was mind-blowing, almost as if some long forgotten princess of old had entered the room. My companions and I was completely speechless, our jaws donning the floor.
Now mind you, this wasn’t a neighboring street to the Gion District, so the whole experience was unexpected to say the least of it. The Geiko had come specifically for this very bar.
Apparently, the bar owner was quite famous in Kyoto, owning multiple bars and restaurants, some of them in the Gion District. The Geiko was an old friend of his, and she was there to visit him on the opening of his new bar. While some of the owner’s attention shifted towards his new visitor, the apprentice kept talking to us, explaining the whole thing.
Midnight had passed hours ago when we finally, and reluctantly, decided to take our leave. The evening had been, and in fact, still was, magical, but every day arrives at its end at some point.
The owner thanked us before leaving, giving us his card and encouraging us to visit him again. We returned his appreciation, thanking him for everything before we bade farewell to the guests and the Geiko – and left.
Its funny how these kinds of chance encounters takes shape.
Had we found the perfect traditional Japanese bar we were looking for?
No, not at all, the bar honestly looked more Western than Asian.
Thinking of the initial quest we were embarking on, I’d say we failed miserably.
Yet somehow we’d met a local celebrity on the very opening night of his new bar, tasted some of the finest whiskeys I had in my life, got to meet a wonderous Geiko, and even exchanging stories and experiences with other locals.
We’d failed our plans and the evening was nothing like we’d hoped for – yet it turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of my life.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and please let me know of your own chance meetings or unexpected experiences!