The ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto, has hundreds of shrines and temples where you can feel a true historical atmosphere that takes you right back to the Edo period. There is also an entire district that has remained intact despite changes in the country and is unique in its style. Of course, we are talking about the Gion district.
Gion is the place where the famous geisha, the cultural symbol of Japan, are still doing their work every night. Geisha literally means ‘artist’, although in Kyoto they are called ‘geiko’ which means ‘woman of art’. This district was originally created to serve as a resting place for those who were going to pray at the Yasaka Shrine, which is in the same area. Little by little, this place evolved into a place for the entertainment of samurai, important people, and great businessmen. In Gion, there are two districts called Hanamachi, translated as ‘city of flowers’, which is where the Okiya (geisha houses) and the Ochaya (tea houses) are.
The Okiya is where many geisha live. Here they live in private rooms and it is where they prepare before going to work in the Ochaya. Ochaya literally means ‘tea shop’, and this is the place where customers go to eat, drink, and be entertained by geisha. Generally, the Okiya have a person who directs them, and this is usually an older geisha, already retired, who is usually called “Mother.” These days, there are variations of this tradition and it depends on the Okiya how to live and who directs it.
Meeting a Geisha
Having contact with a geisha is a luxury that only people with connections in the city or people with a good budget can enjoy. In the private rooms, the geisha entertain clients through dances, songs, board games, and interesting conversations. Geisha are a living work of art, and therefore must be respected as such. If you are a tourist on a regular budget, you can go to Gion Corner where you can see a show performed by true geishas. It is currently the easiest way to see a geisha up close if you go to Kyoto as a tourist. You can also catch a glimpse of them if you are lucky, as from time to time the geisha or maiko may appear fleetingly walking the streets of Gion on their way to work or home. A maiko is a geisha apprentice. Generally, her dress is more colorful and her hair has small ornaments that hang elegantly. Usually, a maiko becomes a geisha when she reaches the age of majority and meets the requirements demanded by the Okiya.
Being able to observe a geisha or maiko in this way is a really exciting experience. But as they are still just people on their way, they cannot be stopped to take a photo of them and they cannot be touched or approached improperly. If you see them by luck, you can take photos from a safe distance and be satisfied that you could have seen them. If you do some of the previously written things that go against the protocol you could end up being stopped by the police, so let’s admire the beauty of the geisha or maiko from a safe and respectful distance.
If you want to experience being a customer at a tea house and have geisha perform for you privately this is possible also when you are a tourist, but you will have to have a generous budget to afford this. If you are interested we can help you arrange this. Please contact us for more information.
Memoirs of a Geisha
The Gion district is protected by the government of Japan so that no construction is done that can destroy the traditional beauty of Gion. In Gion, there are many types of restaurants that serve traditional Japanese food, as well as elegant western food. If you visit this wonderful place, it is recommended to be dressed in kimono. Wearing a kimono in the Gion district gives you the possibility to take some spectacular photos that make it seem like you have time-traveled to the mystical old Japan.
Many foreign tourists flock to Gion because most of the story of the famous movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ takes place here. It should be clarified that the geishas do not provide sexual services of any kind, and have never done so. Unfortunately, foreign visitors often confuse geisha with the extravagant oiran. Oiran were the superstars of the Edo period, being high-class courtesans, while geisha were and are entertaining artists who take customers to a wonderful and secret world. At present, oiran no longer exist.
Visiting Kyoto and not visiting the Gion district is like not having gone to the original capital. A walk through Gion is unforgettable and recognized worldwide for a unique beauty and tradition.
From Gion bus stop or Gion-Shijo (Keihan Line) station