Looking for Geishas in the Gion and Pontocho, Kyoto
Geishas are very elusive and difficult to spot in Kyoto even though there is a larger percentage of them working in the various restaurants and establishments in the ‘geisha districts’ of Gion and Pontocho. The typical visitor is unlikely to see them entertaining in these exclusive establishments – catering specifically to business types and regulars with a very deep pockets. Despite these restrictions, visitors still flock to the Gion and Pontocho districts in Kyoto where the majority of these tea houses and restaurants are situated. It’s almost stifling with all the crowds of picture takers and gawkers standing everywhere in Gion egged-on from all the guidebooks and online sites and advising visitors to go to catch a glimpse of the geishas while they are in transit walking to the evenings engagement. It’s almost like everyone is there to stalk a celebrity and in this city – geishas are the stars of Pontocho and Gion.
Not having any luck seeing any geisha around town at any of the temples or obvious places of discovery, I followed the pack to Gion and at the magic timeframe (sunset) prior to dinner timeframe. Although, it seemed like many of the tourists I saw around the same temples in Kyoto were also on the hunt to snap a quick picture and maybe a poise with the geisha – Ha we wish!
Geishas are quite elusive and even when they are seen walking through the streets, they have a determined walk with no time to poise and chit-chat. Needless to say the encounters are very brief and quite candid. But fortunately, luck was on my side tonight when I was able to listen quickly to where the crowds were chirping out ‘ over here’ to their friends. Knowing that these are split second encounters – I almost flew to where the massive chirping was occurring and was able to finally see a geisha in all her resplendent finery. I wonder how they feel knowing that they are celebrities and tracked down to these areas every day, almost assaulted daily with cameras all over the place. I’m sure it’s not a pleasant experience, but at the same time it comes with the territory of being a public figure in the streets of Kyoto.
Having just read Geisha by Liza Dalby, I was intrigued to visit their environment in Gion and Pontocho and see the unique aspects of life within these districts. Unfortunately it is only these brief encounters that we can even get a hint of their beauty.
Having tired of waiting with a grumbling stomach, we decided to head out to the Pontocho district (another geisha hangout),which is area filled with varied dining options and more open to the public. It’s a very scenic alleyway facing the Kamo river with aging two-story wooden homes converted into little restaurants and shops. The restaurants with their red lanterns and delicious displays of food, just beckon you to come right in and sit. It’s fun looking at all the menus (with English translations) and peeking through the windows to get a sense of the interiors and activity. Also, it gave me a good look in deciding whether I really want to eat at a particular establishment. Being a fussy eater, I practically looked at every menu at Pontocho (it’s a lot of places, trust me) before deciding on the right dining spot.
Funny how good opportunities happen when you least expect it, a Maiko (Geisha apprentice) jots out the door of an establishment just in front of me and a few Japanese tourists kindly ask her to pose in front of this gorgeous lantern, and guess what, my camera was all ready to snap that picture! Just a few nice and short photos before she quickly smiled and disappeared to her next engagement. Ah, I was so grateful for this chance meeting and ready for the feast ahead, because I was famished and ready for a nice tall and cold glass of Asahi.
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