We are pleased to present a new Solo Travel Destination Post from Melissa, a member of the Solo Travel Society on Facebook. Melissa is from the United States and submitted the following report about Kyoto. Do you have a solo travel destination that you would like to recommend? Submit your description here, along with a few photos, and share it with fellow travelers!
Solo travel rating: 2 (1 is easiest, 3 is most difficult. Please see chart below)
Languages spoken: Japanese
Reasons to Visit Kyoto
Kyoto, heart of Japan’s geisha culture, was a highlight of my Geisha and Gourmet self-guided adventure with InsideJapan Tours. Arranged through their UK office, my custom itinerary followed a passion ignited by Arthur Golden’s 1997 bestseller, Memoirs of a Geisha. On my March 2015 trip, I indulged it in Kyoto’s Gion District, where some 200 geishas and maiko (geishas in training) still practice the ancient arts of the Japanese tea ceremony, flower arranging, and entertaining wealthy men.
Designed around my interests, timing, and budget, my self-guided trip allowed me to travel solo, with ample guidance and support from InsideJapan Tours. Before departure, Hattie, my cheery counselor made sure I had my Info-Pac with transport details, Japanese Rail Pass, Hakone Free Pass, portable Wi-Fi device, and vouchers for accommodations, transfers, and special excursions.
After spending a week in Tokyo and Hakone, I boarded a shinkansen (bullet train) bound for the city that had mesmerized me since devouring Golden’s novel. Unlike his heroine, contemporary geishas choose their lifestyle rather than being forced into it. At 15, girls so inclined apply for residency in an ochaya and begin a five-year course designed to transform them into full-fledged geishas.
I met my Gion guide at the elaborate Kagetsu Theater, where geishas perform spectacular dances each spring. She escorted me through back alleyways glowing with dim lantern light, where it didn’t take long to observe limos carrying wealthy gentlemen and their geisha companions to exclusive supper clubs. Spotting a maiko enroute to work on foot, I quickly pressed my shutter button as she smiled shyly and looked down to evade my lens.
The following day, I watched a demure maiko in her final year of training perform a ceremonial tea service and dance at Ochaya Tomikuku on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa River. Run by the third generation of the Tomimori family, the 80-year-old establishment opened in the Shōwa era or Period of Radiant Japan, during Emperor Hirohito’s 20th century reign.
In a stunning kimono with flowing sleeves, opaque white makeup, red lips, and a complex up-do accessorized with silk flowers, the 19-year-old floated ghost-like into the room, landing on a tatami mat before a golden screen. Eyes downcast at her high wooden sandals, she radiated bashful deference, like a torchbearer for a disappearing heritage. After dancing, she played a rock-paper-scissors game with me. When I repeatedly lost and downed shot after shot of sake as a consequence, she grinned and made eye contact at last. I never told her why I considered myself the winner.
Solo Travel Destination Rating System
Safety – 1 (1 very safe, 2 safe in most areas, 3 be cautious at all times.)
Language – 3 (1 English is first language, 2 English speakers easy to find, 3 English speakers rare)
Navigation – 1 (1 easy to navigate by transit or car, 2 poor transit, car necessary, 3 not easy to get around)
Culture – 3 (1 Similar to North America or Western Europe, 2 Different from above but relaxed and easy, 3 Challenging)
Average Rating – 2 (1 is easiest, 3 is most difficult)