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