Kyoto Geisha Districts
If getting the ‘geisha experience’ is at the top of your Japanese travel itinerary then visiting the spectacular ancient city of Kyoto is a huge must. Sure there are a number of districts within Tokyo and Kanazawa which are great for seeing geisha’s 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
Gion has a reputation for being the best geisha district in not only Kyoto, but also in Japan. And once you have been here you will understand why. Much of the original, centuries old Edo architecture remains and consists of spectacular wooden shops, machiya (townhouses), restaurants and the famous ochaya (teahouses – from where most geisha’s entertain their clients).
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. Luckily, there are numerous annual events held in Gion by geisha’s and maiko’s specifically targeted 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 due to the lack of tourist crowds.
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, a number of such theaters were built along the river bank. Shortly thereafter, townhouses got erected to accommodate the influx of theater goers and then the ochaya’s (teahouses).
Miyagawacho is not really a place where they work, although there are some izakaya’s 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 mainly consisting of restaurants of all types and shops.
Things to keep in mind
- Many places within the Kyoto geisha districts allow tourists to dress up as them and therefore most of the ones you see walking around are not real. You will often see them posing for photo’s and walking around during all times of day. Real geisha’s never stop to pose for photo’s and most only come out at 6pm when they make their way to their appointments.
- A number of geisha’s 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 there are street signs stating so. Never block their way or even ask them to pose for photographs because they won’t.