Article written for Whistler Pique Newsmagazine Sept.3, 2015
The rickshaw turned dangerously down the lane and from out of the corner of my eye I could barely make out the delicate flutter of a blue silk kimono sleeve and the elegantly powdered white face of its passenger. The narrow streets of Kyoto's Gion district could at any moment reveal the secret world of the Geisha and during my recent trip there I wanted to find out more. A woman who worked in a teahouse explained to me that, "If you want to see a real Geisha you have to go out just before sunset when they are on their way to work, and if you want a photo you must ask for one. Be polite and do not chase them." The Gion district of Kyoto is one of the best places to immerse oneself in the mysterious Geisha world, but they are elusive so the task requires much luck. The history of the mysterious Geisha goes back many centuries but they still do exist. There used to be over 80,000 Geisha but now only about 2,000 remain in all of Japan. When WWII hit all young women had to work in factories to support the war effort and there were far fewer men around to frequent the teahouses, so their numbers dwindled. The translation of the word Geisha literally means "person of art," and today they are professional entertainers trained in many traditional Japanese cultural practices like singing, dance, tea ceremonies, calligraphy and hospitality. By upholding these traditions, they help keep the old ways alive. Earlier we had been thrilled when we saw a large group of kimono-clad young women walking across the intersection of a busy street and we ran to catch up with them and request a photo. The girls giggled and said that they were not "real Geisha," but just enjoyed dressing up in the traditional clothing style because they liked the fashion. Camera-wielding tourists can be annoying, but we decided to switch things up and offer to take group photos of the faux-Geishas. It was a great way to enjoy the afternoon and get to meet some young Japanese. "The white makeup is a good way to tell if someone is a true Geisha or Maiko (apprentice Geisha)" one of the young women explained. So with a renewed sense of determination I clapped my hand onto my camera and marched up the road to find the real thing. While we strolled the streets of the city in the late afternoon we were happy to find out that it was Hanatoro or "flower and light road" festival time. We were in awe of the blossoming cherry and plum trees resplendent in their flamboyant pinks and creamy whites — their strong sweet fragrance filling the air with the scent of spring. The grounds of the magnificent Kiyamizodera Temple were buzzing with food vendors and families posing for group photos around the entrance gates. The vendors specialties ranged from the traditional sweet bean paste desserts to mouth-watering veggie rolls and hot sauce. The front of the temple gates were lit up with large, elaborate, glowing paper lanterns, and ornate flower displays gave a feeling that something special was about to happen. As we wandered the temple grounds we stumbled upon a large collection of rocks wearing colourful bibs... known as Jizo Buddhas, protector of travellers, women and children. I hoped that at that moment the Jizo Buddhas heard my wishes to see a Geisha! A few minutes later as we walked down the path, a rickshaw unexpectedly zoomed out into the street with two passengers. My heart racing, I ran along behind them fearing my legs would give out, but instead the rickshaw did a full 180-degree turn. I found myself staring face to face with two gloriously dressed female passengers and both of them had the full Geisha make-up, hair and kimonos. The look of astonishment on my face must have been evident as I felt one Geisha understood my wish in that fleeting moment. She flashed her shy smile and gave me a graceful wave of her hand and the rickshaw disappeared down the street leaving no trace behind but a beautiful memory.
Taking a giant leap onto the already overcrowded commuter boat, I was able to grab onto a rope which swayed wildly as the boat's motors roared into action. Then we careened full speed ahead into the narrow canal also known as Khlong (canal) Saen Saeb. The boat's well-dressed passengers seemed happily oblivious to the danger factor as they calmly sat looking out over the water. Sometimes referred to as the Venice of the East, Bangkok's watery ways are more like a high-speed version and although the canals are not used as much as they were historically, they cover hundreds of kilometres and are well travelled by locals and tourists alike. In this particular boat there were only a handful of tourists, and every few minutes, people hopped on and off the boats. During rush hour, the canals are only for well-coordinated locals and not slow-paced, camera-toting tourists such as myself. It was hard to see as the water sprayed up from both sides of the boat, and I had to feel my way along the boat's edge with the rope as a guide hoping that a space would reveal itself closer to the back of the boat. Looking all around me I noticed that nobody made room for me... then it occurred to me that I just had to do what the Thai people do. So I released my Canadian "polite personal space hang-up" and slid over to the nearest bench and proceeded to sit down even though the bench was full. Miraculously everyone pushed over and space was made for me somehow, for which I will always be eternally grateful. As we sped along, large walls of hanging bougainvillea cascaded down onto the narrow walkways and brightly coloured pots of flowers decorated the old-timber-frame homes on stilts. Busy canal markets displayed their clothing and wares with hanging bits of rope and metal rods like a never ending multi-coloured curtain on the stage. For me, the canals are a perfect blend of past and present in the steamy beautiful chaos of Bangkok. The rich vibrant colour and culture of the canals tells the story of Bangkok and mesmerizes you with its people, beauty and gritty edges. Suddenly everybody seated in the boat put their heads between their legs or ducked down... I automatically did the same thing and the whole boat roof lowered instantly just over our heads as the boat went under an extremely low-ceiling bridge. Apparently everybody knows when and where to do this, so pay attention otherwise you might end up going for an unexpected swim in the canal! After the boat roof flipped back up, a boat worker came over and held out her had for payment — luckily I had exact change, as the only thing keeping her from falling off the boat was her vice-like grip on the rope rail as she moved expertly up and down the boat sides remembering who had and hadn't paid. One thing you never have to worry about while navigating the Bangkok canals is food. Countless vendors with curbside barbecues are an integral part of city life, and you only have to walk five minutes in any direction to have your choice of delicious Thai food served fresh daily from the markets. Everything tastes superb. Until 1851 the canals were used as the main way of getting around the city. That is why there are so many temples, markets and cafes, as well as fascinating architecture, along the way. If you are very lucky you will see enormous monitor lizards up close and personal, as they sun themselves casually on the quieter canal routes. Thais believe these water monitors to be bad luck and the word for them in Thai is an insult (used in a similar way as a particular vulgar term in English that literally means an anal orifice). Local archeology shows that the city has been using canals throughout history with prehistoric crisscross grids going back some five thousand years. Many of the canals have been filled in as road transportation, but there are still a wonderful variety of boat choices and tours ranging from decadent dining to floating markets. So for those that want to ride the amazing waterways of the ancient kingdom of Siam, be brave, make sure to wear sensible shoes and don't fall in!