Monday, 25 July 2011

Kyōto Walking Tour: Pontochō, Gion and Miyagawachō geisha districts (Part 1)

I first planned this walking tour of Kyōto's three main geisha districts in 2006. I was about to visit Japan and wanted to track down some of the sites and locations that I had read about in books like Liza Dalby's Geisha and Lesley Downer's Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World So, notebook and map in hand, I set off to walk along the back streets of the three hanamachi. (Hanamachi is the Japanese word for the areas in which geisha live and work and means 'flower town'.) My walk was a success and I was able to see some of the teahouses of Kyotō's renowned geisha districts including the famous Ichiriki-tei. I was even lucky enough to see a group of young maiko (apprentice geisha) in Miyagawawchō returning home after their lessons.
Now (with a little help from the wonderful Google Maps) I have been able to create a guide to this walk and include a few new locations. I hope that it will be useful to anyone who visits Kyōto and is interested in the traditional world of geisha.

Part 1: Pontochō and Miyagawachō

My walk starts and finishes at Sanjō Station. From here walk along Sanjō-dori and cross the river. Take the first left after the bridge, then right, then left again to enter the first of three hanamachi, Pontochō.  On the left, right at the top of the narrow alley that makes up the Pontochō district is the area's Kaburenjo. (Please click on the relevant map for a more detailed location of any of the places mentioned) A Kaburenjo is like the head office of the hanamachi where geisha and maiko attend dance, shamisen and drum lessons, annual performances are given and geisha association officials have their offices. It is the centre of the hanamachi community.

View Hanamachi Walk, Kyoto in a larger map

Photo: Direktion
1. Pontochō Kaburenjo, shown here from the Kamogawa river, was built in 1902 with money contributed by local geisha and ochaya or teahouses. It was originally built to provide the geisha of Pontochō with a venue for the Kamogawa Odori, grand performances of music and dance by the hanamachi's geisha held annually throughout May. Today the Kaburenjo is equipped with a theatre and dressing rooms on the ground floor for the performances as well as classrooms upstairs and offices in the basement. In around 1915, when western-style ballroom dancing became popular, the Pontochō Kaburenjo was the first place to offer dance classes in this style.

Continue south along the alley. This narrow street forms the main thoroughfare of the Pontochō hanamachi and it is not uncommon to see geisha here in the evening, flitting between engagements in their elaborate kimono and porcelain-white make-up.

Photo: John Weiss
2. Pontochō is the second largest hanamachi  in Kyōto and, in 2007, was home to 41 geiko (the Kyōto word for geisha), 10 maiko and 32 ochaya. The name Pontochō is thought to come from a Portuguese word ponto (bridge) brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the late 16th century as the area is defined by two bridges, the Sanjō bridge to the north and the Shijō bridge to the south. Each hanamachi has its own crest and Pontochō's is the plover or chidori, a bird which used to live in the waters nearby. The crest can be seen on red paper lanterns hanging outside ochaya and provides one way of spotting the teahouses amongst the other traditional buildings. You can also look for the kanji for ochaya on small wooden signs near the entrance. (See notes below)

Photo: Uzuki
Though the closed, private world of geisha is available only to those who are introduced by an existing patron, along Pontochō alley there are two restaurants, Uzuki and Yamatomi, that used to be teahouses and are open to everyone. When Liza Dalby (author of Geisha, Kimono and The Tale of Murasaki) visited them she described Yamatomi as a friendly and inexpensive family restaurant but noted that Uzuki had retained some of the elegance of its previous incarnation.  Uzuki is located on the left around a third of the way along the alley, Yamatomi is also on the left but further towards Shijō bridge.

View Hanamachi Walk, Kyoto in a larger map

After leaving Pontochō turn left and walk along Shijō-dori. Immediately after crossing the river, on the right, you will see Minami-za, Gion's famous theatre.

View Hanamachi Walk, Kyoto in a larger map

Photo: Shochiku
3. Minami-za is the most prestigious kabuki theatre in Kyōto. In December, on the 4th and 5th days of the special, all-star Kaomise-soken performances, local geisha come to watch the new cast of the coming year in colourful, formal crested kimono. Maiko wear special kanzashi hair ornaments which include two plaques similar to the sign boards displayed outside of the theatre. The maiko chose their two favourite actors and ask them to sign their names onto the small plaques.

Continue along Shijō-dori and take the first right onto Yamato Oji-dori. This street forms the western border of the Gion hanamachi and towards the southern end it is possible to see shops selling traditional Japanese shoes and jewellery.

View Hanamachi Walk, Kyoto in a larger map

Photo: Google Maps
4. The shops of Yamato Oji-dori
A shop selling traditional jewellery and hair ornaments.

Photo: Google Maps

This hairdressers has geisha hairstyles in its window. Could it be where the local maiko and geiko get their hair and wigs styled?

Photo: Google Maps

A shop selling geta, traditional wooden shoes worn with kimono and by geisha.

At the next crossroads turn right to walk back towards the river along Danguri-dori, then take the 3rd left and walk along Kawabata-dori. This road skirts between the Kamogawa and the western side of Miyagawachō, another of Kyōto's hanamachi. The name Miyagawachō means 'shrine river ward' and comes from the practice of washing the mikoshi (a small portable shrine) from Yasaka-jinja here every year during Gion Matsuri.

View Hanamachi Walk, Kyoto in a larger map

At the next crossroads turn left onto Matsubara-dori then turn left again to enter Miyagawachō-dori and the hanamachi.

View Hanamachi Walk, Kyoto in a larger map

Photo: Google Maps
5. Miyagawachō was granted a license for its first teahouse in 1751 and, in 2007, had 40 geiko, 27 maiko and 37 teahouses. The official crest of Miyagawachō is three, interlinked rings symbolising the joint sponsorship of the local geisha school by the shrines and temples, townsmen and the hanamachi itself. It can be seen displayed on red lanterns along the street. While Pontochō's annual dance performance is named Kamagawa Odori after the river, Miyagawachō geisha perform at Kyō Odori, named after the city itself. Just as in Pontochō the performance is given at the local Kaburenjo, a large grey stone building that looks like a school or council offices and can be found about a third of the way along Miyagawachō-dori. In the afternoon it is possible to see groups of young maiko in crisp yukata returning to their okiya (the home that geisha share with their geisha sisters and mother) after a day's lessons at the Kaburenjo.

At the top of Miyagawachō-dori turn left to return along Danguri-dori. This time continue walking past Yamato Oji-dori to enter Gion.

View Hanamachi Walk, Kyoto in a larger map

You can find Kyōto Walking Tour: Pontochō, Gion and Miyagawachō geisha districts (Part 2) here.

Hanamachi Crests:
Images: Immortal Geisha

Useful kanji:
お茶屋  ~ ochaya or teahouse
先斗町 ~ Pontochō
宮川町 ~ Miyagawachō
祇園甲部 ~ Gion Kōbu
祇園東 ~ Gion Higashi

Books and further reading:
I am heavily indebted to the following wonderful books that provided me with much of the information that I needed to create this walking tour as well as great inspiration:
Geisha by Liza Dalby
Geisha: A Living Tradition by Kyoko Aihara

The following websites were also very useful:
As I have mentioned above this walking tour was originally planned in 2006. I have tried to check all the present-day locations of the places mentioned as best I can but if you spot anything that has changed or you know of a place that you think should be included then please contact me and, of course, I would love to hear from you if you try my Kyōto Walking Tour.


Post a Comment