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

What Does a Golden Temple and a Zen Rock Garden Have in Common: The Two Most Popular Places for Contemplation and Reflection in Kyoto

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The two most popular temple sites in Kyoto seem to be opposites:  stunning versus serene, flashy versus quiet introspection.  The Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple and the famous Rock Garden at the Ryoanji Temple are just a few bus stops away from each other, located on the North West side of Kyoto. They are seemingly worlds apart, but in some ways these two temples have much in common. Both temples make your mind and thoughts pause to contemplate the beauty in nature. Both temples are Unesco World Heritage sites.

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion is both flashy and serene, located at a small reflection lake, surrounded by beautiful pine trees and poetically placed rocks. The Zen-Buddhist Temple was originally built as a retirement villa in 1393 for Shogun Ashiraga, who lived in abundant luxury while Kyoto’s people suffered from famine, earthquakes and plague. His son turned the pavilion into a Zen temple. Oddly, each floor features a different style of architecture: first floor contrasts the upper gilded floors by featuring the Shinden-Zukuri style architecture with solid black treated timber frame and white plaster. Second floor is gold leaf finished in Bukke style, similar to Samurai residences, whereas the third level features a Chinese Zen style gilded inside out. Sadly, the original temple was burned down by a disenchanted monk in 1950, but was rebuilt a few years later.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto
Temple grounds at the Golden Pavilion, featuring pine trees trimmed to perfection

The Golden Pavilion cannot be visited inside, but the mesmerizing golden reflections of the pavilion in the  lake makes this a very poetic place worth visiting, although it gets a lot of visitors. Expect to take turns to photograph this poetic scenery and try to avoid selfie sticks. Walk around the reflection lake to admire the temple and its stunning reflections in the lake, but do not expect a contemplative spiritual experience. A path leads through the temple garden to an Edo period teahouse and small shrine near the exit.

Address: Kinkakuji Temple1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361. Tel: +81 75-461-0013. Admission: 400 Yen, open from 9am to 5pm.

The backside of the Golden Pavilion

On the other hand, the most famous of all Zen rock gardens at Ryoanji Temple, built in late 15th century, features a small, carefully composed miniature landscape of rocks arranged in gravel, which is raked to perfection by monks daily. It represent the endless ocean and ripples in water. Renowned for its simplicity and purity, this is the most abstract of all Zen Gardens. The garden is small, about the size of a tennis court, enclosed by ochre walls, and can only be seen from the raised deck of the temple. Visitors are seated on long steps facing the rock garden, lending a perfect space for meditation and introspection.

Zen Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Fifteen rocks are meticulously placed in five islands surrounded by carefully raked gravel

The fifteen rocks of different sizes and shapes are meticulously placed in five different islands in such a way that you cannot see can see all rocks from any place. In this way they will always leaving room for improvement, as an aid to incite meditation about the true meaning of life.

Meditation and introspection at the steps facing the Rock Garden

The white gravel symbolizes water, purity, self-discipline and emptiness and is used to stimulate meditation by reducing nature to abstract form. A landscape seemingly suspended in time. A powerful abstract garden which is meant to induce a deep state of meditation which evokes thoughts of peace and beauty.

Meditation and reception hall facing the Rock Garden featuring tatami mats and decorated sliding screen walls

The meditation and reception halls facing the rock garden are very minimalist with their tatami mats and beautiful simply decorated sliding screens.

Address: 13 Ryoanji-Goryo-no-Sita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City. Tel.: +81-(0)75-463-2216. Open Year Round: Winter (December1-End of February) 8:30-16:30, (March 1-November 30) 8:00-17:00. Admission: Adult 500 Yen

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Explore the Old Pleasure District of Asakusa in Tokyo: Where Old World Charm meets Serenity

Springtime in Japan
Shopping street leading to the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

A place of old world charm, spectacular temple grounds and great food, Asakusa is a vibrant oasis to visit and stay in Tokyo. Traditions are alive and the area oozes of ambiance. What used to be an area filled with gangsters, samurais, writers, artists, geishas and courtesans is now mainly a safe leisure and spiritual area, anchored by the Senso-Ji Temple founded in 628.

Senso-Ji Temple on a busy Sunday. Thousands of people visiting the shrine every day

The large Thunder God Gate is vibrant and impressive, and creates a powerful spiritual transition between the bustling life of Tokyo and the old world charm. A long shopping street leads to the temple, offering the best souvenirs of Tokyo as well as delightful mouthwatering street food. It is extremely crowded during the day with temple visitors. Take the side streets if you want to move faster, or savor the experience of being carried away by the crowds. Large gates with huge lanterns create the transition between the shopping arcade and the temple grounds.

Large lanterns at the temple gate

The temple architecture is impressive, with its layers of red roof structures, lanterns and shrines. Incense burning adds a sensory delight, but is overshadowed by the many young women in their bold patterned kimonos. I was delighted seeing the traditions are kept alive. Several smaller shrines and Japanese gardens dot the large temple grounds, making it a perfect weekend excursion for Tokyo’s residents and tourists alike.

Traditions are alive in Asakusa, where families arrive at the temple dressed in kimonos

Several quaint shopping arcades lead to the temple grounds from the side streets and offer some of the freshest sushi I have ever tasted, due to its proximity to the fish market. Old ramen houses and Izakaya restaurants are lining the side streets in the neighborhood. During the day the food stalls are competing for your attention, offering an array of freshly grilled seafood and beef skewers.

Street food stalls offer fresh seafood and many other delights

If your passion is the samurai history you will find several shops that can cater to your alter-ego whims, -or you will find numerous kimono rental places that will transfer you into a feminine seductive goddess or a stunning traditional couple.

Night life in Asakusa: charming young women

At night time the neighborhood slows down to a provincial old town charm and offers a very different ambiance and experience.

Shopping street in Asakusa turn into a samurai/geisha gallery at night

The local food will tantalize your taste buds, or you can walk around the old samurai district with the possibility to meet one of the remaining 40 Geishas.

Dine with the locals in Asakusa, even on cold evenings you can enjoy the street ambiance

Visiting the temple ground at night is a much more serene experience of calmness and devotion.

Temple grounds at night

I highly recommend staying at the Richmond Premier Hotel, which offers views over the temple grounds and is just steps away from delightful local restaurants and the charming shopping arcades leading into the Senso-Ji Temple. The guestrooms are very comfortable, and spacious and the staff is very helpful. Richmond Premier Hotel,  2-7-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tel; +81-3-5806-3155

View from our hotel room over the temple grounds with the Skytree in the distance

Traditional Ryokans are also available in the area. Asakusa is easily reached by the Ginza metro line at Asakusa Station.

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Writing and photography by Zia Hansen

Destination Vietnam: Surrender to the Charm of Ancient Hoi An

Imagine a place where time seemingly stands still and ambiance invades all your senses. Tranquility, beauty, poetic romance and friendly welcoming local people. Not only is Hoi An one of the most charming old towns I have ever visited, the colors of the ancient buildings’ architecture ageing poetically is a visual feast that will remain a fond highlight on your mind’s hard drive, but the local food is a sensory delight as well. Hoi An is now a designated Unesco World Heritage site, saving the ancient town for the future generations.

intriguing ornamentation on temple roofs
Hoi An temple roof ornamentation

The drive from Hue to Hoi An along the scenic route was long, but certainly offered some beautiful views and historic sites of previous horrid war events. We arrived at Hoi An just before sunset, perfect timing, just when the various shades of ocher old buildings glow intensely.  The Unesco World Heritage designated city is even more alluring than I remembered from a previous visit. Our small gem of a villa hotel, Villa Hoi Su An – or endearingly and appropriately named Villa Frangipani – at the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a lazy river, was an unexpected and very charming location. Only 8 large villa rooms facing a koi pond with a central old wooden pavilion surrounded by the heavy scent of blossoming frangipani trees.

Tranquility at Villa Frangipani

No time to unpack yet, as we wanted to get into the old town before sunset. The old town is a pedestrian zone where only bicycle rickshaws are allowed. The ocher colored old houses are incredibly charming.

Ocher colored ancient houses line the narrow cobble stoned streets

Most buildings are around 200 years old, many were and are still owned by Japanese or Chinese merchants. Some merchant houses are open to visit if you buy a reasonably priced coupon book. It is fascinating to see how families still live here and especially still cook multiple meals here in the very primitive kitchens.

Old Japanese merchant houses
Entrance to old Japanese merchant house

The sun is now setting along the river and the restaurants in the quaint houses along the river and the small narrow streets are starting to get busy.  Some old fishermen are sitting on primitive wooden scaffoldings pedaling the huge fishing nets up from the bottom of the river, while old smiling women are sitting in their old rowing boats with their Vietnamese straw hats, begging you to take a sunset river ride, or at least pay them for letting you take their photo.

Fishermen pedaling from their bamboo shacks to raise their fishing nets from the river
Take a sunset boat ride on the river

The bicycle rickshaw guys are relaxing, chatting and eating or taking a nap on a street corner, waiting for business to pick up.

The next morning we bicycle into old town again, parking the bicycles in from of the old market building. Strolling down the cobble stoned old streets we discover old shop houses, stunning old Chinese Buddhist temples, wonderful cafes, galleries and tailors. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before. Check out the quality carefully before you order, as I learned by sad experience that the quality and styles vary tremendously. Overnight you can have your suit, dresses or shirts made. I recommend going to one of the larger and recognized places as their designers and tailors are excellent, and I recommend that you bring images of what you like as some of the style books are quite dated.

Step into into the vibrant temples

The old Chinese Buddhist temples are colorful and wonderful with their extraordinary roof ornamentation, bright hues and spiral incense hanging from the ceiling. Most temples require a ticket to get in, which is a bit annoying, but it certainly is worth it as the temple interiors are so stunning.

Burning red incense coils add to the visual and olfactory experience

My absolute favorite experience is exploring the many charming narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the river. The moss over-grown ocher walls and old colorful metal gates offer glimpses into how life is still lived today, simple. Families sitting on the floor watching TV or families gathering for a shared meal. Mainly old people are gathering, while an old fan is blowing a welcome breeze during the very hot day. You can spend hours crisscrossing the alley ways while trying to depict the residential charm of the past. Beautiful old ceramic tiles adorn many floors.

Venture down the narrow alley ways to explore local living

One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese covered wood bridge. Other of my favorites are the old Japanese shop houses, still belonging to the same family with many generations  living under the same roof, and still relatively untouched.

Hoi An
Old Japanese bridge

Food is wonderful and generally inexpensive. Vietnamese beers are cheaper than water and great companions to the spicy, simple but very tasty noodle dishes which Hoi An is known for. You can order tasty fresh Vietnamese spring rolls if you prefer non spicy food. Relax during the heat of the day with a cold Vietnamese coffee with icecream in one of the many charming cafes.

Street vendors outside the market hall

I love exploring the market halls. Around noon many of the vendors are napping on the benches and metal tables. Great food is freshly cooked in and being shared in some of the stalls, while spices and fresh vegetables are piled up in photogenic piles. Outside the market you will meet many Vietnamese ladies with their double baskets over their shoulders or squatting barely above the ground. Lovely ladies, who love to chat and laugh. Along the river you will find fresh fish and crabs with their claws tied up with colorful rags of fabric. Although the crabs’ future is limited, the craftsmanship of tying the claws with colorful strands of fabric is poetic. Beware, the halls are primitive and the smelly slimy fishy water makes it so slippery. I almost took a nosedive into the river, much to the entertainment of the old ladies, who had warned me. An occasional rat running in-between my legs made the experience even more authentic. The photo opportunities made the experience double memorable.

Crabs at the market hall
Catch of the day outside the market hall

Life is slow and it is a wonderful experience to meander through the old city for some days, as charm and architecture is truly romantic and stunning, the town offers full immersion. Some years the river will flood the streets dramatically, best to check the weather report before planning a trip. Nearby beaches should be quite good, but I just cannot get enough of the old town which is such a visual treasure.

Wedding photo in the old town

Biking back to the small hotel and getting served freshly cooked food cooked by the receptionist, surrounded by the frangipani trees, was a welcome respite after a very hot day of leisure.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen