Kyoto Guide: Pontocho
Kyoto Area Guide: Pontocho 先斗町
Kyoto's Pontocho is a magical street in central Kyoto just west of the Kamo River and south of Kiyamachi.
Pontocho runs north to south from Shijo Dori to Sanjo Dori. Pontocho is best known as one of the licensed geisha areas in Kyoto, but for the average tourist it is well worth a visit.
You can stroll the Pontocho area in 30 minutes and take in the tea houses and other traditional architecture.
The tea houses are beautiful wooden buildings with no sign out front (they do have a small hand written sign with the name of the house). Tourists will not get into a tea house. They are the preserve of the well-heeled, the connected, and most important--those already known to the establishment. You cannot walk in off of the street and expect to get any service in a Pontocho teahouse.
Pontocho is however narrow and exotic and dripping with atmosphere.
Within the geisha (or geiko) hierarchy, Pontocho is the number two area, following Gion which is the top-ranked area.
To spot one of the painted ladies--for example, Ichiraku, who is pictured at right--your best bet is to go around 5 or 6 pm and wait.
At that time of the evening, maiko and geisha are often on their way to an appointment at one of the houses.
Geisha have worked on Pontocho since the 1500s. What you will find today is a beautiful street decorated with lanterns at night that features a variety of restaurants. They range from very, very expensive to quite reasonable.
In the summer, these restaurants add outdoor decks (called yuka), creating Japan's only under the stars dining experience.
At the northern end of Pontocho, just south of Sanjo Dori, is the Pontocho Kaburenjo Theater.
This theater is where the maiko and geisha practice and, twice a year in spring and fall, perform the Kamogawa Odori, or Kamogawa river dancing. At these times of year, Pontocho is decorated with red lanterns with a plover motif, the flower being the symbol of Pontocho's geisha.
The dance performances are open to the public and combine traditional dance, Japanese theater, singing and the playing of the three-stringed shamisen.
Beyond camera-wielding tourists--at peak times of the year, the area can take on the feel of a safari: Japanese and non-Japanese visitors alike in search of an elusive species--Pontocho is also a place ordinary Kyotoites go to drink and dine.
Pontocho seen from the Kamo River, Kyoto, Japan
From the Shijo-Kawaramachi intersection, walk east one block to Kiyamachi Street (it has a small beautiful canal) toward the Kamo River. Keep walking towards Shijo Ohashi (bridge). Before you get to the bridge, there will be a narrow street on your left. This is it.
On the Hankyu Railways Kyoto line, get off at the final stop, Kawaramachi. Walk to the exit for Kiyamachi, and take the left passageway for the north side. Walk straight towards the river. On your left.
On the Keihan Railways Kyoto line, get off at Shijo or Sanjo Station. From Shijo, exit for Shijo Ohashi. Walk across the bridge towards the center of town. You should be on the north side of the bridge (the mountains in the distance will be on your right). After you have crossed the bridge, you will pass a police box. Pontocho is just after that. From Sanjo Station, cross the Sanjo Ohashi (bridge) on the south side. As soon as you have crossed, turn left. Head about 100 meters and then turn right--you have no other choice--and then take your first left.
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