Explore the Charm of Old Geisha Districts: Visit the Historical Streets in Kyoto

When in Kyoto, follow in the footsteps of Geikos and Maikos down the narrow, charming cobblestoned streets. Take a walk through the pleasure districts, where teahouses, restaurants and bars, as well as Geisha residences line the historic districts of Kyoto. Red paper lanterns indicate you are in one of the four remaining Geisha areas.

Red lanterns of Pontocho-dori Street

Wood blocks with calligraphy names hanging above or to the side of doors indicate this is a geisha residence, featuring the names of the residing Maikos.

Geisha House: Maiko name tags indicating who lives in this household

You will spot Geikos and Maikos rushing down the cobbled streets as they run between appointments to entertain wealthy business men or foreign dignitaries. During the day Maikos are dashing down the streets for cultural lessons in song, music, dance and tea ceremonies. You have to be a member of clubs to enjoy Geisha entertainment.

Geikos are in high esteem: In Kyoto Geishas are referring to themselves as Geikos, meaning ”women of art”, while the apprentices are called Maiko. A Maiko starts her training to become Geikos at a very early age, around 12, and is living as an apprentice at a Geisha house for about 5 years, receiving training in the art of entertaining and traditional culture, musical instruments and dance. A Maiko can be recognized by her elaborate hairstyle, hair ornaments, white painted face and neck with scalloped patterns.

Spotting a Maiko: note her exquisite kimono and hairdo, hair ornamentation and white painted face

A Geiko has finished this apprentice training (and has paid off her debt to the Geisha residence owner). She can now use a wig instead of getting her hair done for hours weekly, and do not need to paint her face white. Each Geisha district features their own Geisha households, tea houses and clubs and have their own rankings of lineage, such as names, kimonos and dances. Competitive Geisha cultural events are taking place during the cherry blossom festivals in April, where the Geisha districts compete in the art of entertainment. At other times you can visit one of the Kabuki Theaters to see traditional performances.

The pictoresque Geisha District in Gion offers great street photography opportunities. This is not a Geiko or Maiko, but many young Japanese will be wearing their charming kimonos and generally love being photographed.

Gion is the most famous district, which is now a Unesco Cultural Heritage site, featuring a large amount of renovated historical townhouses. The most famous geisha districts can be found on either side of the Kameo River, and are great to visit both during the day and night, changing ambiance like a chameleon:

Night scene at Pontocho-dori Street
  1. The six block long narrow Pontocho Street is packed with teahouses, restaurants and bars, and during the warm months some of the restaurants feature decks facing the river. Traditional architecture is maintained throughout the street. Kimono clad customers enrich the cultural ambiance of the narrow alleyway. Pontocho has been a geisha district since the 16th century.
  2. Across the river you will find Miyagawacho south of Shijo: a large geisha and entertainment district with Kabuki theaters where performances are held all year.

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    Geisha District in Gion late at night
  3. The most picturesque area is along the Shirakawa Canal with its traditional houses and is a popular setting for traditional weddings and selfies by kimono clad young Japanese. Shinbashi-dori is considered the most beautiful street in Japan.

    Charming old architecture along the canal in Gion
The perfect romantic setting for a wedding proposal

You will find an array of antique shops just a couple of streets away, with museum quality art and artifacts, along Nawate-dori Street, Shinmonzen  Street and Furumonzen Street; many are housed in old traditional wooden townhouses which have been in the same family for generations. Tatami mats are used for both seating and display, often overlooking small Zen gardens.

The antique district in Gion offers delightful insight into Japanse culture and traditions, with their tatami mats and Zen gardens. Often inherited through generations

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen