Hands On Kyoto Gion Tour

Hands On Kyoto Gion Tour 祇園京都

Richard Donovan

You hear the elusive denizens of Gion before you see them: the clip-clop of the raised wooden sandals, or, as in this case, the faintest tinkling of the tiny bells housed inside them as the maiko makes her way along one of the near-deserted lanes of Miyagawa-cho, in the heart of Gion.

Wait a minute - is that a maiko or a geiko? What was the difference again? Greg Koch, my guide from Hands on Kyoto, has begun our tour of this quintessential Kyoto district by outlining the telltale differences in garb and accoutrements, providing an immediate way into a world that has fascinated and intimidated outsiders - Japanese and foreigner alike - for hundreds of years. To find out the vital distinction, join him on the next Gion Night Tour!

Hands On Kyoto's Gion Night Tour.
Hands On Kyoto's Gion Night Tour
Hands On Kyoto's Gion Night Tour.
Hands On Kyoto's Gion Night Tour

It's 5.30 on a Friday evening in Kyoto, and lanterns glow in the entranceways up and down the lane. For the past ten minutes Greg and I have been standing outside the school in Miyagawa-cho where maiko, apprentice geisha, spend much of their time when they are not at their assigned okiya, or boarding house. Greg is schooling me on the hanamachi, the 'flower town' that demarcates the geisha's entire world for as long as they live in it. These young women devote themselves to the study of the Japanese arts - gei - that denote the peak of traditional feminine refinement.

While geisha have their origins in the prostitution of the pleasure quarters that arose, ironically enough, to service pilgrims on their long journeys between temples, they gradually evolved towards a focus on high-class entertainment, requiring extensive knowledge of music and dance, and particularly the art of conversing wittily with their wealthy customers, who are, in fact, not exclusively men.

Assembly of geiko, Gion, Kyoto.
Assembly of geiko, Gion, Kyoto

Greg explains the changes that occurred after World War II, giving geiko more autonomy, but also a greater financial burden. After a Kyoto maiko graduates from her training, she is called a geiko, becoming independent of the okami-san, the mistress of the boarding house that has trained her, and working at the ochaya teahouses.

Suddenly she is responsible for renting or buying the kimonos, obi sashes, wigs, hair ornaments, and numerous other essentials that must be rotated with the seasons. Each major item costs hundreds of dollars a month to rent, but this is because it would run to some $100,000 to buy outright!

Becoming a geisha is thus as much a financial commitment as it is of one's time and energy, and is not for the faint-hearted. Yet Greg reports that the decline in the number of apprentices in recent years has now reversed, with many girls drawn to the idol-like status attached to the role, but just as many seeking an education in the traditional arts that seem like an antidote to the shallowness of modern-day life.

Stepping out in the hanamachi, Kyoto.
Stepping out in the hanamachi, Kyoto
Posters announce debut of new geiko, Kyoto.
Posters announce debut of new geiko, Kyoto

Greg has chosen our location carefully: geisha-watching is, itself, a subtle art. You don't want to be the disrespectful paparazzo who runs up to arriving taxis and starts clicking the shutter as the girl emerges, cringing under the photographic assault. From our vantage-point we discreetly observe the tiny elements as the young ladies pass - the silk raincoat and lacquered-paper umbrellas for the showers that have recently ended, the coquettish make-up on the nape of the neck - that Greg has just highlighted on his tablet.

A long-term resident with several years of running Hands On Kyoto under his belt, Greg has just received his own specialist training, being among the very few Westerners to graduate from the first cohort of Kyoto City-accredited tour guides. The six-month course has been rigorous in its own way, but he has thrived on the insights gained, and is keen to use them not just to inform his tours but, in the future, to help others become proficient guides themselves.

He runs his Gion tour in the evening because this is the best time to catch glimpses of geisha as they move between their residences and the teahouses where they perform. But by happy coincidence - surely not an uncommon experience in the intimate confines of the hanamachi - we also run into one of their drivers, whom Greg got to know when he worked at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto Hotel. He is off duty, and appears to be visiting one of the geisha Greg has just shown me a photo of. Greg smiles, another small piece of the puzzle falling into place.

Kenninji, the first Zen temple in Kyoto.
Kenninji, the first Zen temple in Kyoto

At the end of Hanamikoji Lane is Kenninji, our next destination. The first Zen temple in Kyoto, it was founded in 1202. Its large wooden structures loom up into the night sky, rising Venus peeking through the clouds above the tiled roof of one of the meditation halls. Kenninji's founder, Eisai, is said to have introduced matcha tea to Japan, as a cure for a shogun's hangover. Why are we visiting a temple? Well, Greg likes to use Gion as a prism through which to view wider Japanese culture - we can see how travelling monks partly gave rise to the attendant mizushobai, 'water business', of the pleasure industry. Then there are the Shinto shrines like Yasuikonpira-gu, our next stop, which is known for its power to initiate or end a relationship, something surely prized by both the geisha and their clients. Incongruous though it first appears, the gaudy love hotel sitting just outside its precincts it is again no coincidence!

Shaggy power stone, Yasuikonpira-gu, Gion, Kyoto.
Shaggy power stone, Yasuikonpira-gu, Gion, Kyoto

The shrine itself, which dates back to the seventh century, features a 'power stone' rare not only for its massiveness, at 1.5 metres high and three long, but also for its remarkable appearance. After buying the appropriate katashiro, or charm paper, for one's romantic or other requirements, one crawls through an aperture in the stone's nether regions and then affix the paper to the stone with the thoughtfully provided glue. The accretion of thousands of papers lends the rock the air of a shaggy dog, perhaps appropriate in more ways than one.

We end the tour on Shirakawa Street, alongside the narrow river that gives it its name. Across the gently flowing water, numerous restaurants stand softly illumined from within, hosting well-heeled customers who are enjoying a Friday-night tipple and perhaps a multi-course dinner. On this chilly December night the warm light is reflecting as much on the rain-soaked cobbles as the river surface. It has a completely different character in April, when each cherry tree has its own illumination, the entire lane flooded with a pink effulgence.

You will leave your Hands on Kyoto Gion Night Tour feeling that you have at least peered beneath the surface of the enigmatic heart of the ancient capital of Japan and caught an authentic glimpse of the highly constrained, yet endlessly detailed, world of the geisha.

Greg Koch, founder of Hands On Kyoto, offers a number of insightful tours of the city. Check out the Break of Dawn Tour to escape the crowds. He can even tailor a private tour to your specific interests.

Photographs: Richard Donovan

Geisha images courtesy of Greg Koch

Gion by night, Kyoto.
Gion by night, Kyoto

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