If getting the ‘geisha experience’ is on your Japanese travel itinerary, then visiting the spectacular city of Kyoto is a huge must. Sure there are some districts in Tokyo and Kanazawa, which are great places for seeing geisha, but they are nowhere else as prevalent as they are in Kyoto. After all, the old capital is from where they originated. Here we will reveal the four geisha districts of Kyoto.
- The Gion District
- The Kamishichiken District
- The Miyagawacho District
- The Pontocho District
The Gion District
Gion has a reputation for being the best geisha district in not only Kyoto but also in all of Japan. And only once you have been here, will you understand why. Much of the original, centuries-old Edo-style architecture remains and consists of spectacular wooden shops, machiya (townhouses), restaurants, and the famous ochaya (teahouses – from where most geisha entertain their clients). Also, Gion is not one large geisha district; instead, it consists of two. There is the large Gion Kobu area, which takes up most of Gion, and then the smaller Gion Higashi, which is located in the northeast.
Spending time with one of these traditional hostesses is not easy – especially if you are a tourist. There are ways this can be done, but it’s very costly. Alternatively, there are numerous annual events held in Gion by geisha and maiko’s that are targeted specifically at tourists.
The Kamishichiken District
Kamishichiken (Translation: ‘Seven Upper Houses’) is home to the oldest geisha district in Japan, and for some reason, it is the least visited. Most probably because it’s located a lot further from the other Kyoto geisha districts, which are much more centralized.
The history of the district is fascinating. Centuries ago, the Kitano Shrine had to be rebuilt after most of it had burned down. There were considerable amounts of leftover building material, so a local warlord named Hideyoshi Toyotomi decided to construct seven teahouses nearby for a large tea party he wanted to host – and the district was born. Today, it’s a great place to visit for those who want to spot these Japanese hostesses in a quieter and more peaceful setting.
The Miyagawacho District
To the southwest of Gion sits the Miyagawacho district, and the name translates to ‘Shrine River.’ Many centuries ago, when Kabuki performances started becoming popular in Japan, several such theaters were built along the river bank. Shortly after that, townhouses got erected to accommodate the influx of theatergoers and then the ochaya’s (teahouses).
Miyagawacho is not where they work, although there are some izakaya and ochaya’s where they do. Instead, for most of them, it’s an area where they live and train. Most of the geisha in Miyagawacho work in nearby Gion.
The Pontocho District
In addition to being a highly popular Kyoto geisha district, Pontocho is also extremely famous for its food. However, if you are heading here to spot geisha, then Pontocho Alley is where you want to be.
According to many, it’s the most beautiful street in Kyoto, especially during the evenings when the place is lit up with Japanese lanterns. The narrow alley is lined with old traditional wooden Edo structures, which are mostly restaurants of all types and shops.
Things to keep in mind
Many places within the Kyoto geisha districts allow tourists to dress up like them, and therefore most of the ones you see walking around are not real. You will often see them posing for photos and walking around at all times of the day. Real geisha never stop to pose for photos and most only come out at 6 pm when they make their way to their appointments.
Many geisha have complained over the years about tourists harassing them. Some will ask them to pose for photo’s and some even tug at their sleeves and block their way. Such behavior is strictly forbidden, and street signs are stating so. Never block their path or even ask them to pose for photographs because they won’t.