In Kyoto, Geisha are actually referred to as geiko and maiko (apprentice geiko). With four hanamachi (‘flower town’) geiko/maiko districts and a larger population of them than anywhere else, geiko and maiko are the living face of Kyoto and in many ways represent the traditional culture and arts of the city itself. The Gion district, made famous internationally by such books as Memoirs of a Geisha and the film version, is the largest and most well known district in Japan. However, there are also lesser-known areas, such as Pontocho (parallel to the Kamogawa river between Sanjo and Shijo streets), Miyagawa Cho (south of Gion) and Kamishichiken (next to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in the city’s west).
Though these districts remain primarily exclusive and closed-off to drop-in visitors, they have increasingly opened to outsiders. This process actually began more than 100 years ago, in order to avoid the decline of such districts when the nation’s capital was officially moved to Tokyo. From this time dance performances were held in each district in spring, and are still one of the best ways to get a glimpse of their culture. These are held in the Kaburenjo theatre of each district (mostly in April). You can also try wearing the costume of a geiko or maiko and walking around a traditional quarter of Kyoto for half a day or so.
Kamishichiken Area: One of the best places to experience the culture of the geiko and maiko in Kyoto, is in the Kamishichiken district. The oldest of the currently active hanamachi in Kyoto, it began in the 15th and 16th centuries, apparently being built using wood from the nearby Kitano Tenmangu shrine. The history of the district is inseparable from this shrine, known by locals as ‘Kitano-san’. It was set up in 947 to appease the spirit of Michizane Sugawara, who died after being exiled to Kyushu and whose angered spirit was thought to have caused a series of disasters in Kyoto. Michizane was known for his great learning, therefore this shrine has become the head shrine of a series of Kitano shrines across the country, visited by hard working and hopeful students in order to pray for success in their studies. You too can pray or buy an amulet for your own or family members’ success in study. In addition to its fame, as the shrine of scholarship, Kitano is also the most popular place to see plum blossom (late February, early March), the garden of 2,000 of which are said to have been planted as they were loved by Michizane. Kitano shrine also has one of the two biggest monthly flea and antique markets in Kyoto (the other in Toji temple on the 21st) on the 25th of each month.
In addition to having the tea houses of geiko and maiko, as well as Kinato shrine, the Kamishichiken area has a number of interesting cafes, restaurants, cake and Japanese sweet shows, and even a Thai massage clinic near the east gate to rejuvenate you after a long day sightseeing. The recent work on the main street to put telephone lines underground has also allowed for a clear, unspoilt view of the trees and hills behind the shrine.
Kamishichiken Theatre: Another main attraction of the district, however, is the Kaburenjo theatre, arguably the most atmospheric and beautiful in Kyoto. As you enter, its walkways seem to float above the massive pond and gardens inside. It was updated with state of the art lighting and sound about 3 years ago, but has still not lost any of its grandeur and beautiful wooden structure. Not only can you see the dances in spring, but you can also have lunch at their very reasonably priced restaurant (about 1,000Y).
For a closer experience with the geiko and maiko however, the summer beer garden can’t be beaten! You start with a beer and snacks set (1,800Y), after which you can continue to order beer, food and other drinks. The geiko and maiko will come to your table to talk with you, giving you a perfect opportunity to ask questions, check out their amazing clothing, make-up and hair, and of course take photos with them. Though this event has had some negative comments from visitors, it seemed to me that the staff were going out of their way to make foreign visitors feel welcome. At a reasonable price, this has to be the ultimate geisha (or should I say geiko and maiko!) experience in Kyoto!
Directions: To Kamishichiken take bus 50 from Kyoto Station and get off at Kitano Tenmangumae bus stop. Gion and Pontocho can be found on any city tourism map.