A few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Kyoto and took the chance to explore one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world – the Kyoto Gion districts. Despite this being one of the foremost tourist spots in the world it is still possible to get some fairly quiet moments on these narrow streets, as you’ll see in these photos. It’s always baffled my why other Japanese cities, many of whom used to have areas more or less similar to the Kyoto Gion, don’t try and recreate them, if for nothing else than the tourism. These photos are from the narrow, less traditional streets of Tominagacho, which might technically be outside of the proper Gion district, but still part of the same spirit and the same sort of traditional tiny restaurants and drinking holes. It’s is also where many of Japan’s last remaining geisha houses are located, and it is not rare to see the tiny maiko girls hurry off to their appointments, as in the first picture. Note the make up of her neck, isn’t it fantastic? Some day in a few years she will be fully trained geisha.
The entrances to the restaurants are often covered in beautiful printed cloth, I tried to catch a few of them but the low light made it difficult. I particularly love the tiny allies, such as the one in the second to last photo. Can you spot the warning sign saying “この路地は通り通りぬけはできまへん”? Meaning, this alley is a cul de sac, in perfect Kyoto dialect.
Gion is the place to go if you ever want to see a real geisha (or geiko, as they are called in Gion). It’s one of the more beautiful districts of Kyoto and few tourists miss taking a stroll in this area. Most of the houses are either Ochaya (tea houses) or Machiya (town houses) where you can enjoy traditional Japanese entertainment and food. It is not, in any way, easily accessible or cheap. I was lucky enough to be taken to a visit once several years ago through work, and met my first and maybe last, geisha. She also brought a few retired geisha with her to provide musical entertainments, as well as a geisha in training, a maiko. New as I was in Japan at the time, I was horrified when the maiko expertly drank a rather large cup of sake! She was only 15 years old! But everyone there assured me it was ok and part of her job. The maiko-san in question didn’t speak at all though, which was also part of her job. The geiko, a 25 year old beauty was much more talkative and obviously incredibly charming. She whispered to me that although things might look very traditional she enjoyed surfing the Internet and taking short trips abroad on her holidays. She knew Paris better than I did! At the end of our visit we got their “name cards”, small stickers to collect in our geisha books, apparently geisha are known by these stickers and in case you forget her name (considering the amount of alcohol you consume at those parties it is rarer to actually remember their names!) you can just point to the sticker and someone will know how to contact her. I could just imagine geiko sticking their name tags onto the foreheads of drunk-sleeping businessmen and sending them home in their taxis.
I just had to compare and show these two views of the Kyoto skyline, taken within hours of each other, the modern and the ancient. Kyoto as it used to be and Kyoto as it perhaps should be. Balancing the old with the new is a difficult art but some people and places do it better than others, in Japan there is Kyoto, Kamakura, Nara, Honkawagoe and a handful of other places that take a great pride in keeping and preserving the Japan that was before concrete.
In the modern skyline you can see Kyoto tower (all cities in Japan have one it seems) in front of the rather fantastic Kyoto station building, with Atom Boy on top of the sign post (Atom Boy because his creator Osamu Tetsuka lived in nearby Takarazuka). Leo, the lion king character (that Disney stole – copyright only applies to American corporations?) is a bit further away from this scene.