A Brief Encounter With A Geisha At Gion, Kyoto

A Brief Encounter With A Geisha At Gion, Kyoto

“Look, look, there’s a geisha!”

“Where? Aren’t those three ladies just playing dress-up?”

“Well, if you had remembered what I said, you could easily distinguish a real geisha from a make-believe one. See the lady wearing the pink kimono on the right? She has her full make-up on, wearing a wig with a simple decorative comb and the big giveaway is the white collar, which separates a geisha from an apprentice. “

I was trying to match the description of a typical geisha with that lady’s characteristics as she slowly walked away from our view before my wife finished it off by saying, “I finally found what I came for.”

Yasaka Shrine

Kyoto has five hanamachi, or geisha districts, and we decided to visit the most recognizable hanamachi at Gion. We ventured out during the evening about an hour or so before sunset so that we could try to catch at least a glimpse of the elusive geiko (local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha apprentice). They can usually be spotted during dinner time when they will be criss-crossing many bars, restaurants and tea houses to serve and entertain their customers. 

Before testing our powers of observation, we visited Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto temple that worships Amaterasu-omikami and Susanoo-no-mikoto, deities residing in the heaven and on earth, respectively. The shrine hosts the 1,100-year old Gion Festival that started out in the year 869 as a means to appease the gods when the whole nation was ravaged with plague.

Yasaka Shrine’s layout is similar to Fushimi Inari Taisha, another well-known Shinto shrine.

The imposing romon gate is flanked by statues of koma-inu, lion-dogs, at the Shijo-dori entrance and we walked along a stone pathway that led us to a courtyard. On the left of the square is the worship hall and main deity shrine and across them is a water basin used for purification. The ceremonial stage is at the center of the complex, decorated with hundreds of lanterns and gloriously lights up during religious ceremonies and celebrations.

Hanamikoji Street

We backtracked to the main gate and walked a further two blocks to Hanamikoji-dori, an historically preserved street lined with traditional wooden townhouses called machiya. These houses, once occupied by merchants and craftsmen, has stood the test of time and have transformed into bars, restaurants and ochaya, tea houses of which geishas ply their trade.

The amber, beige and mahogany colors of the machiya paints a timeless sepia tint throughout the one kilometer stretch, as if we were transported back to the 17th century. The horde of springtime tourists thronging the street and signboards reminding visitors to be civil (No selfie sticks! Don’t touch the geisha!) brought us back to the present so we skipped into the side alleys for a bit of respite.

And then “the moment” happened.

While the three of us were playing around the backstreet, three ladies surreptitiously passed by us and while I was busy recording a video of our little one, my wife Ayumi was staring at them before she got all excited. I took my camera and quickly snapped photos of the geiko as they headed east towards the towering Shogunzuka Mound, the soft click-clacks of their geta fading away.

Naritaya & Shirakawa Canal

As the sun sets and temperature drops, we crossed the main avenue Shijo Dori for a heart-warming Japanese barbecue dinner. Naritaya started in 2014 with a halal ramen restaurant in Tokyo followed by two other shops in Kyoto and Miyagi. They decided to branch out to yakiniku (grilled meats) after getting a lot of demand from the ever increasing Muslim travelers in Japan.

Our hungry selves splurged on the Gion Set, consisting five beef parts, of which three are thinly-sliced yakishabu, followed by scallops, squid and roasted vegetables all for ¥3,800. We had fun grilling everything on our own and the aroma of the sizzling meat really whetted our appetites. I knew we were served with high quality beef as the juicy and tender slices easily melted in my mouth.

We finished off our evening in Gion with a short stroll along the less touristy Shirakawa Canal. It was already dark and the cobbled street was deserted save for a few locals passing by. Similar machiya are found along this route and we saw many of these townhouses facing the canal were turned into restaurants, with guests enjoying their multi-course kaiseki-ryori dinner by the soft gushing sounds of the Shirakawa River.

There are moments during my travels where expectations fall short of reality, like how I couldn’t take a panoramic shot of Aya Sofya’s interior because half of it is closed with scaffolding or how Los Angeles’ Hollywood Boulevard is dirty and smelly while the Walk of Fame is more “walk” than “fame.”

However, there are also moments of magic like our brief encounter with a geiko. We were only at Hanamikoji Street for about half an hour and amidst the hordes of yukata-wearing tourists, we were unbelievably lucky to catch a glimpse of a geisha making her way to work.

Kyoto has been amazing for us and this experience puts the icing on the cake.


Travel Tips:

  1. The nearest train stations to Gion are Gion-Shijo (Keihan Line) and Kawaramachi (Hankyu Line) followed by a 15 minute walk to Yasaka Shrine with Hanamikoji and Shirakawa located on either side of Shijo Dori.
  2. Yasaka Shrine is open 24 hours to the public. You can visit their website here for more information on Gion Matsuri and other events throughout the year.
  3. Naritaya Halal Yakiniku is open daily for lunch (11:30 am – 2:00 pm) and dinner (4:00 pm – 10:00 pm). Check out the menu on their website here and Facebook page here.

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