Geisha spotting in Gion

IT WAS the end of the Day 4 visit in Kyoto. The blue of the sky was diving into its deeper hue and the horizon was dressed in vermilion.

Officially I was in the Gion upon stepping on the grounds of Yasaki-jinja (formerly called the Gion Shrine) coming from the Higashiyama ward. I couldn't let a tour of the temple pass so I made a quick round before making my way to the famous street in the district.

While the Yasaki-jinja or Gion shrine is the most famous in the area developed in the Middle Ages, there are the smaller shrines and temples like the Meyami Jizo dedicated to Jizo, who is a “legendary super-hero and faith healer”, Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine, which features a “power stone”; Kennin-ji Temple, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto; and the Ebisu-jinja Shrine, which is dedicated to Ebisu, the god of good fortune and prosperity.

There’s also the 1610-founded Minamiza Kabuki Theater, one of the seven officially licensed Kabuki theaters built in the early Edo period. The current building was built in 1929 and is a Registered Tangible Cultural Property; and the 1873-founded Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater, which hosts a Geisha performance called the Miyako Odori every April.

Daytime could have been a good time to visit Gion and see its attractions, but I made it to the place very late in the day. Suffice to say, I missed out on what the ward has to boast of.

But to walk the “streets of Edo” was the original plan and I made it happen at the most famous street in the district—the Hanamikoji (Hanami-koji translates to “blossom viewing lane”).

I was in the area for another kind of viewing. I know I’m one of the tourists (with fingers crossed) along the street wishing to get a glimpse of the “woman of art” and nightfall was a good time for the plan. Evenings yield a high chance of spotting a geisha scurrying to an appointment. That would be quite a sight.

Hanamikoji is a well-preserved strolling lane in Gion flanked with traditional teahouses called “ochaya”, restaurants and specialty shops.

The narrower side streets revealed a few more dining places, a sake shop and a chef choosing ingredients from a delivery truck from a restaurant’s backdoor, a street sign illustrating the “don’ts”, which included do not touch the geisha you see on the street. I even “trespassed” an old style Japanese house (called “machiya”). Its open gate displayed a charming landscaped path and apparently the structure at the end of it is a private residence.

Luck was on my side. I spotted two geisha. I wasn’t quick enough to draw my camera so I captured only their backs as they hurried back to their residence.

I have a confession. It wasn’t the first time I caught sight of a geisha. The first one was during daytime at some reception of a gallery. No, I wasn’t invited. I was walking by the gate when I saw her.

But the Gion sighting was different. It had a more genuine old world aura to it.

If you’re planning to visit Hanamikoji, take notice of the structure with a red wall as you enter the street from Shijo Dori. It’s a 300–year old teahouse called Ichiriki Chaya, one of the exclusive and high-end establishments in the district offering geisha entertainment to the most influential people who get invited.

Does “The Tale of the 47 Ronin” ring a bell? The Ichiriki teahouse played a major part in the legendary samurai vendetta in the 18th century.

That’s another entry off the bucket list.

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