Dawn in the Japanese Alps

Inishi Inari

Light strobes through the partitions of the rice paper shutters. It’s a Baltic cold morning with my breath visible as I lie warm wrapped in my duvet. The stiff Tatami mats I have slept on overnight have tied knots into my spine and I reluctantly rise into the cold of the room, stretching to loosen my weary limbs. Shuffling forwards the first thing I do is to turn on the gas heater over in the corner which kicks into life with the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of the ignition and the blue, warm flames whirl into life. Still wrapped in my duvet I shuffle across the mats and open the partition to reveal the deep blue skies above. The tiled roof of the temple I am staying in is cloaked with a thin veil of frost, sparkling in the morning light.

I am walking a section of the ancient Nakasendo trail, once crowded with samurai, pilgrims and travellers and now a peaceful route dotted with old post towns through the Japanese Alps. It is 6am and I have forced myself out of my warm cocoon to rise early in time for a Buddhist ceremony. As I get ready, I don my issued Yukata – a synthetic kimono-esque gown – and squeeze on my tiny slippers which barely fit my size 11 feet, a daily theme throughout my trip in Japan. Walking along the lacquered wooden floors I flip-flap my way to the bathroom, stopping to look at the temple’s very typical interior garden. As I stand there I find myself mesmerised watching the bamboo Shishi Odoshi slowly fill with water, emptying its contents into a stone bowl below with a thud.

I spot a pair of slippers neatly left outside a room and see that as a sign of where I am meant to be. I slide the partition open and peer inside to see two others already kneeling with eyes closed and hands clasped. I shuffle in alongside them and take my place, mirroring exactly what they are doing. I feel completely out of place.

The priests soon come in with lit candles in their hands, dressed delicately in pastel coloured robes and bow to us before resting in lotus positions. The ceremony begins as I watch on wondering, with mystical chanting and the constant dong of tingsha bells. Before too long the blood supply in my legs begins to cease as I shuffle like a geriatric and settle myself in a part-crossed leg position. I look on as the ante of the ceremony rises higher, the flames from a cauldron burst in that dimly lit room as incense and oil is sprinkled on to the fire. Onwards still, I wonder.


My meeting with a Geisha

It may sound cheesy but I really did feel quite emotional at my evening with a Geisha in Kyoto. It was actually, a meeting with a Geiko as they are known in Kyoto or Maiko who are the younger Geiko in training and recognisable from a few differences, many of which are incredibly subtle.

The main difference is that a Maiko will wear an elaborate hair style fashioned from her own hair which is crafted once a week and after which they are expected to sleep on a wooden block pillow to preserve the style. However, a Geiko will wear a wig and surprisingly will also wear a far less elaborate kimono with shorter sleeves and much simpler hair accessories.

When a Maiko becomes a Geiko it is known as the changing of the collar, a first year Maiko will wear a red embroidered collar showing under her kimono and as their experience grows this collar will be slowly covered with white silk embroidery until after 5 years it is completely white.

Other more subtle differences lie in their makeup, with one Maiko who spent time with us having only her bottom lip painted red, signifying that she was only in her first year of training. With childlike excitement she told me that in one month she would be able to paint her top lip too but she was also scared of the expectation and pressure this would bring.

A Maiko is generally aged between 15 & 20 years and are at some stage within their five years training to become a fully-fledged Geiko. These first years are spent living in an okiya with their ‘mother’, who will support them and loan then all their kimono, many of which have been handed down through generations and can cost tens of thousands of pounds.

During these years there are no mobile phones or computers allowed in their lives so it can be an incredibly lonely existence which when asked, the girls said they had got used to it, but they did miss their friends and family who they could only see during their two weeks annual holiday. After five years it is their decision if they wish to ‘graduate’ and become a Geiko. Destined for a life alone, this is a huge decision for a young girl to take as no boyfriends or husbands are allowed in the world of a Geisha. It is an all consuming and ancient trade that takes incredible dedication, strength of mind, and body.

It seems I was extremely privileged and had the chance to be entertained by a Maiko in her fourth year of training. Alongside her was a Jikata (older Geiko) who had a wicked laugh and naughty air about her, playing the shamisen, a traditional three stringed instrument. When they had to leave for a further engagement we were joined by a young Maiko in her first year of training. She spoke excellent English, having spent four years of her young life living in New Zealand before returning to her place of birth Kyoto to become a Geiko. We were also joined by a third generation okiya owner or ‘mother’ as they are known to the Maiko.

As we were shown to a room covered with the traditional tatami flooring the sense of occasion and anticipation was palpable, I was surprised by how nervous I felt.

Initially a very awkward and foreign situation, we sat surrounded by these three women, who served our food and poured our drinks for us. Slowly conversation began in fast babbling Japanese with stilted translation for me.

I asked the young Maiko if she enjoyed her job and would make the decision to become a Geiko at the end of her training. She was suitably coy and her mother said they hoped so as she was one of the best with wonderful skills.

‘’I enjoy dancing the most’’ she said.

This was shown later when two beautiful dances accompanied by the Jikata were performed. So graceful and fluid with such intricate and seamless use of the flowing kimono she wore made me realise how much  of a craft this really was. It was mesmerising.

Between courses of our wonderful Japanese meal – which I’m afraid to say was a little overlooked when surrounded by such beauty and culture- we were asked if we wished to engage in a drinking game. I had read about this and heard that the Geiko were notoriously hard to beat. The simple game involved two people sitting opposite each other and tapping an upturned beer holder with a flat hand, alternately and in time with the music. When one of you picked up the beer holder the other had to tap the empty table with a fist rather than a flat hand. You could pick up the beer holder three times in a row but not more and the first to tap incorrectly was the loser so would have to drink. The music and speed of the game increased as it went on. I am ridiculously proud to say that I beat the lovely Maiko twice and there was general disbelief that I had never played the game before.

Sadly as with many ancient traditions it seems that the Geisha world is also changing as there are now far fewer private clients willing to pay the hefty charges to be entertained by Geisha. As a result they are having to find new ways to make money, one of them being to entertain tourists. There are still some ochaya or tea houses where it is only possible to enter and spend time with the Geiko by invitation. However, many of the old traditional houses where Geisha would entertain have been forced to become restaurants too in order to make ends meet.

My experience is a world apart from some of the tourist shows one can now have, where tribes don their tribal regalia to greet the tourists, only to be back in their jeans and trainers an hour later. Life for a Maiko and Geiko is still truly a way of life so although a ‘tourist experience’, it is a truly authentic and magical one. Daily life for the girls is taken up with lessons and training, before being dressed in their kimono in the early evening and applying their makeup, heading out for their evening appointments.

There are currently around 60 Maiko in Kyoto and about 180 Geiko with the oldest being around 90 years of age and still entertaining. Although not a cheap addition to a holiday an evening like this really does offer a magical window into an ancient world.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Japan and the chance to spend time with a Geisha. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.


Cherry blossom in Japan


March-April: Although the timing is difficult to predict, each year during these months the famous cherry trees in Japan bloom for one spectacular week. The exact dates of the cherry trees peak throughout the country, with certain regions blossoming earlier than others. This year, forecasts predict the trees will open on March 26 or 27 in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and be at their best April 2-10.

Experience Japan in blossom with Steppes, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Why Tokyo is amongst my top 10 cities

I am not normally a ‘city’ person, preferring to head out to wilder and more scenic parts as soon as I touch down, but Tokyo seduced me.

It’s vast, I mean huge. It’s hot and bustling, as most capital cities are and yet there is a sense of calm and things seem orderly. A fusion of old fashioned genteel manners and modern, almost futuristic creative flare combine so beautifully. Glittering towers juxtapose with the old but still grand shrines and temples. It really does make for great exploring.

As a single female traveller I don’t think I have ever felt so safe. Within 3 hours of landing I was walking the streets, hopping on and off the bewilderingly efficient local transport networks and when I did get lost (often!) no one seemed too busy or to have too little English to try and help. The result is one of the most relaxed city explorations I have ever had, knowing if I did get lost, all would not be lost. Admittedly it was a Sunday, so I was fortunate enough to miss the normal commuter craziness of any city. Even on the following the following day, despite public transport being considerably busier people still had the time to smile.

A highlight, and some may say a strange one at that, is undoubtedly the Tsukiji fish market. Buzzing and atmospheric, it’s a thrive of activity even at 5am. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for the workers to go about their daily business surrounded by camera wielding tourists dodging the odd looking forklift trucks transporting the fish and desperately trying to capture the perfect shot. But they do, and so too with a smile and a gentle acknowledging nod of the head.

The tuna auction, where these huge fish can sell for up to $10,000 begins at around 5am daily, with the exception of Sundays and only small numbers are granted entry each day. Just 60 tickets are available and split into 2 tours at 5 & 530, not pre-bookable, it is just a case of an early rise and queuing with crossed fingers. The market is due to move but the latest news is that this won’t happen until 2020 or even 2026 when it will relocate to Toyosu, one of the artificial islands in the bay of Tokyo.

There can’t be many places in the world where one can see fish go to auction at 5 in the morning and be eating it in a world class sushi restaurant that very evening.

Add to this the plethora of eateries (both Michelin standard and street food), shops, sky scraping towers, enough temples and museums that could keep one busy for weeks, plus surprisingly pretty parks and waterways Tokyo is definitely in my top ten cities.


My first onsen

I had mastered the hammam after numerous visits to the Middle East so I was determined not to miss out on what is an ancient and beloved tradition for the Japanese, the onsen, a hot spring bath.

Staying in a traditional ryokan in the mountain resort of Takayama I had a choice of onsens, from the mixed sex one on the 7th floor – I think not- or the female only onsen in a small building some 100 years old located opposite the hotel.

I had been given some instruction with limited English as well as a face towel, socks (the ones suitable for flip flops) an onsen bag (to carry all of ones toiletries) and a yukata, a traditional Japanese dressing gown.

My first dilemma as I was going to be walking across the road was, did I take the yukata with me to put on after the onsen or would this be like walking across the high street in your pyjamas? I decided against taking it, my first mistake, albeit not a dramatic one.

Entering through a low doorway offering no indication of what was inside I was delighted to find a beautiful building of dark wood with low beamed ceilings.

A group of Japanese women were busy getting dressed and as I undressed and entered the onsen area through rice paper sliding doors. It appeared I had the place to myself. I had already read that the water in the pool is for soaking in, not for cleaning oneself so I showered and washed before entering the shockingly hot water of the onsen. I wasn’t expecting such heat and after about 3 minutes sat waist deep I bailed and sat on a rock with my legs dangling in. Pathetic, I know. I was the only westerner and it was fascinating watching seasoned onsen users come and go. One woman spent about 15minutes cleaning herself from head to toe, removing every last speck of dirt from her hair and skin before submerging herself up to her neck in the steaming water. After about 5 minutes she exited the onsen. It appears it was not an endurance test and certainly not one that I was willing to sustain.


Mount Fuji Becomes UNESCO World Heritage Site

Japan’s most sacred mountain has been added to the prestigious list of UNESCO World heritage sites, citing Mount Fuji for its contribution to Japanese culture, UNESCO stated the mountain has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries.”

Mount Fuji is 3,776 metres high, a now dormant volcano which last erupted in 1708 and is the highest peak in Japan. It is not surprising that the nearly perfectly shaped volcano has been worshipped as a sacred mountain and experienced huge popularity among artists and common people. Visibility of the mountain tends to be better during the colder seasons of the year rather than in summer and in the early morning and late evening hours. It is officially open for climbing during July and August using several different routes. Around 300,000 people climb Mt. Fuji every year and the overnight trek to watch the sunrise from the roof of Japan is one of the most popular trips out of Tokyo.

Mount Fuji really comes to life when visibility is good and the snow peaked mountain appears over the clouds, making it a photographers dream.