You’ve probably heard of Geishas. In Kyoto, they are called geiko/maiko.
In Japanese, geiko/maiko can be both singular or plural. Maiko are the young ones and geiko are the matured, and yes, they still exist.
Geishas (geiko/maiko) have been around for over four hundred years and they have always been kind of a closed community; they only meet with
clients by referral. Cross that, rich, local clients, by referral.
I’ve always had a special interest in the Geisha (geiko/maiko) culture and their private lives, so when I learned my trip was going to take place in Kyoto, Japan this time, I was eager to see one.
I wasn’t a local so I wouldn’t be too surprised if I didn’t get to meet a geisha personally. “Make it happen,” I demanded, anyway.
I get what I wish for, and I got what I wished for. Tomoko, a local friend who has personal connections with the geisha community, took us to explore four geiko & maiko districts, before welcoming us to a private dinner with our maiko for the night. Each area has its own beauty.
(each area has its own style of lantern)
The Gion area retains the Japanese old architecture and teahouses, where the geiko and maiko work. It is also home to Gion Corner & Gion Kaburenjo, Kyoto’s Traditional Museum & Theatre which features geiko/maiko shows and information for tourists.
Our first stop, Hanami-koji, Gion’s main street, is probably the most well-known street to spot a geisha. It is where tourists dress up in kimonos in hopes of snapping a photo with a real geiko/maiko far away in the background (they say you need to be lucky to see one). The street is lined with retailers that sell and rent out kimonos & okobo/wooden slippers to tourists (what a way to confuse first-timers), and teahouses, with the first one being Ichiriki Chaya, which is possibly the most famous historic teahouse in Kyoto.
Each pair of okobo is used for a different occasion. The black, tall ones below, for example, are for maiko to wear at a formal event. Some have bells inside the sole that ring when they walk; it is a symbol of young & amateur.
These pink slippers, obviously, are for the rainy days:
Next stop Shirakawa is an area built alongside the Shirakawa Canal. It starts with a beautiful little shrine and splits into two streets. Locals and visitors come here to snap Japanese-themed wedding photos.
We explored the Shirakawa Minami Dori, a street that is said to be the prettiest in town. The left side is lined with Japanese style restaurants, tea houses, and inns, one of them being Shiraume, a famous Japanese inn with traditional ryokan style rooms that require booking up to 1 year in advance (people really plan). On the right-hand side, sounds of swaying willow trees and colours of autumn maple leaves create a poetic scene. The left and right are connected by little wooden and stone bridges crossing the stream. Another good season to visit is when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
A short walk away is the Ponto-chō that centres around a long, narrow, alleyway lined with fine dining restaurants and lounges. The place has been known for its geisha teahouses, brothels, and other services since the 16th/17th century. It is also home to Pontocho Kaburenjo, a theatre where geiko and maiko train & perform.
Our last stop, Kamishichiken, is the only area that requires cabbing. It is located in the Northwest area of Kyoto and is around a 20-minute drive from Ponto-cho. The name Kamishichiken means “Seven Upper Houses” in Japanese. It refers to the seven teahouses in the area built from the leftover materials from the Kitano Shrine renovation during the Muromachi Period (1333 – 1573).
Kamishichiken is the oldest geiko/maiko district in Kyoto and is the least touristy one due to its inconvenient location. It is also where we finally get to meet Ichitaka, our private maiko for the night.
(photos by Tanya)
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