Kyoto Step by Step: The Geisha District

Maiko in Kyoto | Pass the Ham

I apologize for my lack of posts about Japan. Once I got back to Madrid, I was so very excited to talk about my trip, and I did talk about it a lot.

However, when it came time to writing about it, I just couldn’t find the time.

Sure, I started out strong with my fabulous visit to the Tuna Auction at Tsukiji Market and even had time to explain in my own sarcastically gracious way how glorious the 2020 Tokyo Games will be.

But, when it comes to Kyoto, I’m really stuck. Sure, I’ve got ten thousand photos, but just the idea of trying to explain even ten percent of Kyoto is overwhelming.

The problem is that once we made it to Kyoto, we we’re just slack-jawed like yokels amazed at everything this traditional Japanese city has to offer. As the Japanese capital for over a millennium, the remaining cultural aspects of that time are just staggering. There are literally thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto. And our hotel was right next to the Geisha district, Gion, which is just incredible.

Despite the searing August heat and humidity that attacked us relentlessly each and every day, we did our best to explore every aspect of this enchanting area. But, when I try to sit down and convey what I enjoyed most about Kyoto, the part of my somewhat intelligent and fairly creative mind used for writing just drifts  back to Kyoto’s incredible wealth of visuality.

In fact, the last time I sat down to commit myself to writing about Kyoto, I was so word stunted that I started a poem:

I don’t know where to begin with Kyoto,
but I do have many a photo,
The quintessential Japan,
its way big on traditionaaan.

Master poet, heh?

As you can tell, poetry is not my forte. So as a way to get going, I’ve decided to start a step-by-step guide of the city to keep my thoughts somewhat organized and show you how we began to explore this exquisite city.

Ahem, ready class? Let’s get started:

First Step: The Gion District

Arriving to Kyoto, we headed almost immediately to Gion, the traditional geisha district. Although we learned that the preferable term in Kyoto is geiko or maikos, which are geikos in training. I’m not really going to go into the geiko theme too much here. Only to say that we saw a few maikos and yes, they really can stop you in your tracks and they really do move with an incredible agility. One moment you hear the sandy click-clock of their getas and just as you turn around to get a look at these incredible women, poof, they’re gone.

I should tell you what is repeated to tourists over and over again in Kyoto: these beautiful enigmatic women are a little sick and tired of being stalked by curious onlookers and it’s best to not suffocate them like paparazzi if you see them walking down the street. I tried to be as respectfully discreet as possible.

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Hanami-koji and Gion Corner

To start exploring the geiko district, you’ll probably want to walk down Gion’s main street, Hanami-koji, and ohh and ahh accordingly at the wooden houses and many ochaya (teahouses) lining the street. Hanami-koji in KyotoOn the corner, you’ll see taxi drivers lined up in front of a large red building. This is the Ichiriki Chaya and it’s one of Kyoto’s oldest tea houses.

And for you wanderers out there, this is where you want to toss the map. Strolling through the main street is wonderful, but it’s even better to take off on your own and get lost meandering along the narrow side streets. Even for the most cynical traveler, Gion will have you romantically drifing back to another era.

If you continue all the way down Hanami-koji, you’ll come to Gion Corner, where for a very reasonable fee, you’ll be able to catch a nice show about the important aspects of Kyoto tradition. Is it for tourists? Certainly, but it’s well worth it. For about an hour, you’ll be introduced to some of Kyoto’s traditional customs that you’ll be hearing about as you explore more of the city. The performance is broken up into seven performances: the koto-zither (a six-string instrument), chado (tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), bunraku (puppet theater), kyogen (comic plays) and Gagaku, (traditional music played for the royal court), and kyo-mai, (traditional maiko dance).

Kyogen theater_ Gion Corner, Kyoto

Gion Corner, Kyoto

koto-zither _ Gion Corner, Kyoto

Gagaku dance | Gion Corner Kyoto

I loved this little introduction to Kyoto and highly recommend it. My favorite part was the kyo-mai, the traditional maiko dance:

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Second Step: Shirakawa

Once you finish exploring the main area of Gion, it’s imperative that you make your way to the Shirakawa area. Adjacent to Kyoto’s Kamo River, this was probably my favorite part of the city. Strolling under the weeping willow trees, passing by the traditional wooden ochaya and listening to the babbling Shirakawa Canal, this area gives new meaning to the term, “ethereal beauty.”

And I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but once again, this area really makes you feel as if  you’ve stepped back into another time. In fact, most visitors probably feel as if they’ve stepped into a scene straight out of Memoirs of a Geisha, which is appropriate considering they filmed a large part of the movie here.

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Geisha District, Kyoto

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So, as always, these photos and my words don’t really do Gion much justice. Gion, along with most of Kyoto, is one of those places in the world that is so uniquely special and exploring it is likely to leave you speechless, in a good way. Words, as they often do, fail me when it comes to describing indescribable beauty, but I’ll leave you with this quote about Kyoto to make up for my ineptness:

“I loved the quiet places in Kyoto, the places that held the world within a windless moment. Inside the temples, Nature held her breath. All longing was put to sleep in the stillness, and all was distilled into a clean simplicity.” ― Pico Iyer, novelist

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One Response to Kyoto Step by Step: The Geisha District

  1. Pingback: Kyoto Step by Step: Day Trip to Nara » Pass the Ham

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