Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Kyōto Walking Tour: Pontochō, Gion and Miyagawachō geisha districts (Part 2)

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.

You can find Part 1 here.

Part 2: Gion

Walk past the turn to Yamato Oji-dori until you come to Hanamikoji-dori. Turn right then left to continue walking east. Take the next left to enter the Gion area, just after the turn, on the right is Yanagi Ochaya.

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Photo: Google Maps
6. Yanagi Ochaya was built in 1922 on the former site of the Yanagi no Gosho (Willow Palace) from which it takes its name. This palace was the home of Emperor Sutoku's (1119-64) favourite concubine, Awa no Naishi.

7. Gion is Kyōto's largest, most famous and most fashionable hanamachi and covers roughly the area from Shirakawa Minami-dori in the north to the streets surrounding Hanamikoji-dori in the south. Though both Gion and Pontochō are considered to be 'high class' hanamachi, Gion is generally thought to be the best. The teahouses of Gion originate from the taverns or mizu-jaya that opened to serve tea to the pilgrims that visited Gion Shrine, now named Yasaka Shrine, and from which the area takes its name. Gion is actually seperated into two hanamachi: Gion Kōbu and Gion Higashi. Gion Higashi or Gion East is situated north of Shijō-dori, between Hanamikoji-dori and Higashi Oji-dori. Gion Kōbu occupies the remainder of the Gion area. Eight linked dango or rice dumplings feature on the crest of both districts representing the mitarashi dango that were served at the original taverns.

As you continue north, on the left,  you will pass the impressive Gion Kaburenjo that occupies a large complex between here and Hanamikoji-dori.

Photo: ericlty
8. Gion Kaburenjo is by far the largest of the three that we have seen on this walk. Along with the usual theatre, classrooms and offices this Kaburenjo also houses Gion Corner, a sort of visitor centre where tourists can watch performances by local maiko as well as demonstrations of other traditional arts such as tea ceremony, bungaku puppet theatre and ikebana flower arranging.

Continue walking north, take the next left then the 4th right to turn onto Hanamikoji-dori.

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Photo: Japan Guide
9. Hanamikoji-dori is at the heart of the Gion running from Kennin-ji temple to Sanjō-dori. The section of the street from the temple to Shijō-dori is lined with expensive kaiseki-ryōri restaurants and picturesque wooden buildings. On the corner where it meets Shijō-dori stands the Ichiriki-tei, the most famous teahouse in Japan. 

Photo: Itsumo Japan
10. Ichiriki-tei teahouse is famous across Japan because legend says that Ōishi Kuransuke, the leader of the 47 Ronin, pretended to live a life of debauchery here while he secretly plotted to avenge his masters death. Today tourists and geisha fans often wait outside with their cameras hoping to snap the geiko and maiko as they come and go. It is said that a customer of the prestigious Ichiriki-tei is welcome, without introduction, at any of Kyōto's teahouses.

From Ichiriki-tei turn right onto Shijō-dori and walk east. At the end of the street is the entrance to Yasaka-jinja.

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Photo: Japan Guide
11. Yasaka-jinja (Yasaka Shrine) is one of Kyōto's most famous shrines and was previously known as Gion-jinja. During the Setsubun celebrations in February, where roasted soya beans are thrown to cast out evil spirits and welcome good fortune, geisha from the local hanamachi perform special dances on the shrine's open air stage. After the dancing the geisha throw packets of roasted soya beans to the audience who keep them as good luck charms. Yasaka-jinja is also famous for its Gion Matsuri held in July.

After visiting Yasaka-jinja return west along Shijō-dori. Along the right side of this street there are several shops selling traditional items that cater for the geisha of Gion.

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Photo: lmaga.jp
12. The shops of Shijō-dori
Kazura-sei started life as a hairdresser for actors and dancers in 1865 but now makes and sells beautiful kanzashi hair ornaments. Natural woods, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl inlays and lacquers are used to make the delicate combs and ornaments. The shop also sells traditional hair products made from camellia oil.

Photo: My Favorite Kansai
Kasagen is the oldest umbrella shop in Kyōto and has been selling handmade oiled-paper umbrellas since 1861. In the old days, before the city was as built-up as it is now, newly-made umbrellas would be set out to dry in the fields around Yasaka-jinja.

Photo: kyoto-wel.com
Miura Shōmei sells traditional and modern paper lanterns that are all handmade by craftsmen exclusively for the shop.

After browsing the shops take the last right before Hanamikoji-dori to turn into a narrow alley where, about halfway along, you will find the Kanshindo cake shop.

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Photo: Lau_chan
13. Kanshindo will be a familiar name to anyone that has read Lesley Downer's book Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World. While trying to gain access to the closed world of Kyōto geisha the Kanshindo cake shop was recommended as the place to buy mizu yokan, slabs of a jelly-like paste made from red azuki beans. The shop was described as difficult to find and known only to Gion people so, with a small, hand-drawn map in hand, she set off to find it. Needless to say the writer found the shop and greatly impressed with her gift of Kanshindo mizu yokan.

At the end of the alleyway turn left, walk west then take the 4th right to turn onto Nawate-dori. After walking north cross the Shirakawa canal then turn right onto Shirakawa Minami-dori.

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Photo: Japan Guide
14. Shirakawa, the area of Gion which runs along the Shirakawa canal, is very pretty and is lined with willow trees, expensive restaurants and ochaya. Many of the restaurants and teahouses have rooms which overlook the water. A little way along the street is the Shiraume Ryokan.

Photo: meganbabaganoush
15. Shiraume Ryokan stands on the bank of the Shirakawa canal. The bridge at its entrance is flanked by two 100-year-old plum trees in keeping with the hotel's name which means 'white plum'. From the late Edo period (1600 - 1868) the building was an ochaya named Oyagi until it was changed to an inn in 1949. You can view the ryokan's website here.

At the end of Shirakawa Minami-dori turn left onto Hanamikoji-dori and walk north. At the first corner you will find the Shinmonso Ryokan.

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Photo: Shinmonso Ryokan
16. Shinmonso Ryokan is an excellent hotel which also offers the chance to meet local maiko. As part of a special reservation you can enjoy a traditional dinner at the hotel's rooftop beer garden where a young maiko will chat with you briefly before performing a traditional dance and posing for photos. I stayed here during my 2006 trip to Kyōto and enjoyed the experience greatly, it was wonderful to see a maiko perform in real-life. You can see the ryokan's website, including details of the reservation plan, here.

From Hanamikoji-dori turn left onto Shinmonzen-dori to walk west. At the end of this street turn right onto the upper section of Yamato Oji-dori. This area is known as Ohto Antiques Town.

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17. Ohto Antiques Town is the area around Shinmonzen-dori, Furonmenzon-dori and Yamato Oji-dori. Each of the streets is lined with shops selling ancient paintings and writings, curios and antiques including the following two that sell antique clothes and textiles:

Photo: Ohto Antique Art Assoc.
Konjaku Nishimura specialises in antique kimono and obi that date from the Edo era to the beginning of the Showa era.

Photo: Ohto Antique Art Assoc.
Nakamura Chingireya sells antique fabric and textiles from the Edo and Meiji periods.

At the top of Yamato Oji-dori turn left then right to walk along Kawabata-dori and return to Sanjō Station.

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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.


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