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Exploring the geisha districts of Kyoto

Planning to see geisha in Kyoto?  Head into the areas where they live and entertain.  These geisha districts are known as hanamachi and there are 5 in Kyoto.

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The city of Kyoto is a dream for anyone with an interest in Japanese history.  It’s a fantastic city to wander around, it’s flat, there is something to look at every few metres and it’s overflowing with opportunities to learn more about Japanese culture.  Add to that that the abundance of good food to eat along the way and there’s something for everyone.

For me nothing could surpass my first walk through the historic hanamachi, the geisha communities of this fascinating city.  It was like a story book had come alive right in front of my eyes.

Hanamachi translates to ‘flower district’ and is the area where the geisha live, entertain and perform.  In Kyoto the global term of geisha (performing artist) isn’t used as a title but rather geiko (woman of the arts) when they are qualified and maiko (child of the arts) for an appretice geiko who will normally be under the age of 20.

Four of the geisha districts of Kyoto are located in close proximity and centred around Shijo Dori, a central shopping street in Kyoto.  The 5th hanamachi is further away in northern Kyoto.  It’s closer to the famous temple attractions of Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji.

Gion Kobu and Gion Hagashi

Gion is the largest and most famous of the geisha districts.  It is now recognised as two distinct communities, the original Gion Kobu and the smaller Gion Hagashi.    The theatre of Gion Kobu is the Gion Kaburenjo Theatre, this is where we watched the maiko and geiko perform in the Miyako Odori Spring Dance.  The geisha of Gion Hagashi have their own dance hall and perform at the Gion Kaikan theatre, their annual dance is called the Gion Odori and takes place in early November.

Gion Kaburenjo Theatre

The beautiful Shirakawa canal is in the Gion hanamachi, if you were a fan of the novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ you might recall references to this area.  It’s particularly beautiful during the cherry blossoms when we were there and on the 8th November you have the chance to spot a local geisha or two during Kanikakuni Sai in memory of the poet Yoshii Isamu who wrote about his love for Gion.

Shirakawa Canal in Gion

Shirakawa Canal in Gion

Gion appears the largest and most prestigeous of the hanamachi.  It’s clearly had more recent renovations while retaining it’s traditional character and has embraced the tourism market if not into it’s inner operations and entertainment then at least into its district and public performances.

gion-1

Pontocho

Pontocho is ranked second among the geisha districts and has existed in that area since the 16th century.  Pontocho is mostly Pontocho Alley which runs the distance between Shijo Dori and Sanjo Dori.  The eastern side of the alley backs onto the Kamogawa river with several of the establishments having outdoor seating.  The performance for this hanamachi take place in Kaburenjo theatre which is located at the Sanjo end.  The main performance called the Kamogawa Odori has been performed since the 1870’s and takes place in May.

Pontocho hanamachi

Looking back across the Kamogawa river through the sakura to the Pontocho restaurants.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Pontocho having had the chance to see two of their very beautiful maiko perform in Yasaka shrine at a public Setsubun festival.

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[column]Pontocho hanamachi[/column]
[column]Ayana of Pontocho hanamachi[/column]
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Migagawa-cho

The Miyagawacho geiko and maiko perform their Kyo Odori dances in the first two weeks of April at the Miyagawacho Kaburenjo theatre .  The hanamachi is located in the streets around it.  The maiko (apprentice geisha) also make their way to the theatre each morning for their music and dance training.

Miyagawacho

Migagawa-cho has a sizable entertainment district along the banks of the Kamo river.  An indicator of a hanamachi area, although not totally reliable as they are sometimes used as decoration, is the display of round red lanterns outside the establishments and houses.  You will be able to see it on several of the street views on this page.

Miyagawacho

Kamishichiken

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The fifth geisha district isn’t grouped with the others.  It’s located in northern Kyoto closer to the famous temples of Ryoan-ji, Kinkaku-ji and their local shrine, Kitano Tenmangu.

It’s the oldest of the Kyoto hanamachi districts with its original 7 tea houses being built from the materials left over from the rebuild of Kitano shrine during the Muromachi era between 1333-1573.  Today around 25 geiko and maiko remain in the district working in the 12 operational tea houses.

There are a couple of opportunities during the year for the public to see the geisha of Kamishichiken.

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[column]The Geisha of Kamichishiken[/column]
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On the 3rd February at 1.30pm there is an event to celebrate Setsubun in the Kagura-den hall at Kitano Tenmangu shrine.  As part of this festival the geisha will performance dances and participate in the scattering of lucky beans.

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

If you’re lucky enough to be in town on the 25th February and love matcha like I do then you need to make your way to the shrine for Baikasai, the plum blossom festival where the local geiko and maiko perform an outdoor tea service with matcha and wagashi.  Then there is the Kitano Odori, the dance performance each year that takes place in their local theatre in late March and early April.

The hanamachi is located in the Nishijin area of Kyoto known for centuries for its traditional hand woven textiles.  You might want to see the Nishijin textile centre and kimono parade while you’re out this side of the city.

The Geisha of Kamichishiken

Have you explored the geisha districts of Kyoto?  Or been lucky enough to see the geiko and maiko on their evening rounds or at an event?  Please add your own experiences in the comments below and if this post has been useful please consider sharing it on social media.  Thank you!

 

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Ryan Biddulph

Thursday 14th of September 2017

Hi Toni,

I have never been to Japan but find the geisha culture fascinating.

My wife told me about it after she spent 9 months in Hiroshima, teaching English. It is well known, but so secretive and private too, like many aspects of Japanese culture.

Ryan

Paul van der Veer

Wednesday 1st of March 2017

I graduated last year for my photography course with my project on the Kyoto and Nara hanamachi. Been very lucky to have been able to shoot a geisha and maiko in Nara inside their okiya. Going back this year to further the project. Last year I missed the Heian shrine maiko dance so this year I decided to skip the hanami and travel a bit later so that I will be able to see that. Also booked my ticket to the Miyako Odori dances already. The Pontocho are only going on sale 5 days before the start of the festival – while I am in Kyoto, so fingers crossed that I can also attend that one since it starts on May 1st, and that will will be my last day there. The Kitano Odori in Kamishichiken is not held late April (as you mentioned in another blog post) but late March early April (I'm gonna miss it this year, but saw it last year).

2 Aussie Travellers

Friday 3rd of March 2017

Thanks Paul, I'll recheck this years dates for the geisha dance at Kitano Odori and update, that was based on our visit a couple of years ago. What a fabulous experience you had to visit and photograph inside the hanamachi, that is very special.

Lia

Tuesday 12th of July 2016

I was just in Kyoto! I loved Gion hagashi and Pontocho. I went to watch the Miyako Odori too. Absolutely loved it!

2 Aussie Travellers

Tuesday 12th of July 2016

Oh wow, wish I was back there now. Isn't it just the most wonderful city to visit, I can't wait to get back.

Sarah Chirstie

Thursday 21st of April 2016

Oh wow I have only just finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha, I know so late to the party! But it is just like I imagined it in my mind, and wow all that cherry blossom is just stunning. So sad that all those young children were brought here against their will its was such a beautiful story, great post this is somewhere to would love to visit.

Maya

Sunday 15th of November 2015

Such a unique experience. I've seen so many movies about geishas that I would love to see them perform live. Your pictures are beautiful!

2 Aussie Travellers

Sunday 15th of November 2015

Thanks Maya. We've been lucky enough to see them dance a couple of times both in the theatre for the spring dance and in a shrine, if you have the chance it's well worth trying to fit it into a visit to Kyoto.

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