Bamboo blinds, with their close-knit horizontal slats that make them more like a flexible wall, hang over the windows concealing everything inside the houses, despite their open windows. The air is still, hot and suffocating; it is mid-July and this is summer in Kyoto. The only shade in the narrow lane in the heart of Gion, an area made famous by its geisha and maiko, is close in to the walls of the houses that edge the street. Few people are around. Now and then a maiko, bandaged in a simple kimono and carrying a paper and bamboo umbrella to shield her against the melting sunlight ventures into the street, as maiko have for centuries in these alleyways. Regardless of the summer heat, she must attend the classes that will eventually make her among the most skilled in the land in the ancient rituals of tea ceremonies, floating dances, singing and traditional instruments that are the stock in trade of these women.
As I shelter in the shade close by a wall, the haunting, melodic sounds of a shamisen drift down to the lane from an open upper floor window. I have heard these simple 3 stringed instruments played like a banjo by young men who would otherwise be in a rock band, with the lightning speed of a lead guitar soloist, fingers screaming up and down the fretboard. But this is different, this one is being played as its makers intended. The strings are being slapped slowly or in rhythmic sequences and each note clangs out into the street from a time that has long passed from most of Japan, and drifts off into the shimmering haze.
Kyoto is a very modern place. Walking up into the city from its glass vaulted station one day I was reminded of the wide backstreets of inner city Melbourne in Australia. But by the early evening, Gion, with its kimono clad, milk-white ghosts, teetering on wooden clogs, and wrapped tightly in a dress that can cost as much as a motor car, is home to an ancient tradition that remains mysterious, enticing and largely misunderstood.