Looking for Geishas in the Gion and Pontocho neighborhoods of Kyoto (updated 2023)
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.
Typically, you will see them in between appointments visiting the various night clubs, bars and restaurants in these areas that services local businessmen and visitors alike that want to have this experience.
Why visit the areas of Gion and Pontocho in Kyoto?
Not only are these the historic and classic places where geisha gather to perform in the many clubs and bars of the district, but it is also a popular venue to check out the many small restaurants and bars to experience a fun Kyoto dinner or drinking experience. While visiting, you maybe able to spot geisha along the way or even haunt any of the places that you also may be having a nice dinner or drink in the area. In any case, these two popular venues are fun to hang out in after dark and when you are looking for fun places to explore around Kyoto at night time.
Where to find Geishas in Kyoto
Despite these restrictions with spotting Geisha around Kyoto, visitors still flock to the Gion, Kyoto and the Pontocho districts in Kyoto where the majority of these tea houses and restaurants are situated and where Geisha are known to frequent. Gion at night is busy in all the major street corners where many of the diner/bar venues are and it’s almost stifling with all the crowds of picture takers and gawkers standing everywhere looking for the geisha of 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.
Looking for Geisa in the Gion district
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!
Things to do in Kyoto at night
Geishas are quite elusive and even when they are seen walking through the streets of Kyoto’s red light district, they have a determined walk with no time to poise and chit-chat. This is where you will see geisha in Kyoto passing to their next bar/restaurant visit and needless to say the encounters are very brief and quite candid passing through the geisha district of Kyoto. 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 and ornate costumes.
Looking for Geisha in the Pontocho District
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. But if you’re not too fussy, there are plenty of good choices for dining in this scenic neighborhood of Kyoto.
Spotting Geisha in Kyoto
Funny how good opportunities happen when you least expect it, a Maiko (Geisha apprentice) jots out the door from a geisha show 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 with a Japanese geisha and was ready for a nice feast ahead, because I was famished and ready for a nice tall and cold glass of Asahi and some nice local Japanese sushi or appetizer dish.
Tips to spotting geisha in Kyoto area
Spotting geisha in the Kyoto area can be an enchanting experience. Here are some tips to increase your chances:
1. **Explore Gion and Pontocho**: These historic districts are prime geisha areas. Wander their narrow streets, especially in the early evening.
2. **Evening Strolls**: Geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) often appear between 5 PM and 8 PM as they make their way to appointments.
3. **Look for the Attire**: Geisha wear distinctive traditional clothing, including kimono, obi sashes, and wooden sandals called geta.
4. **Hairstyles and Accessories**: Notice their intricate hairstyles, adorned with kanzashi (hairpins). Geisha carry a distinctive accessory bag.
5. **Elegant Posture**: Geisha move gracefully and with poise. Look for their distinctive way of walking.
6. **Photography Etiquette**: If you wish to take photos, do so discreetly and without flash. Respect their privacy.
7. **Tea Houses**: Geisha often enter and exit tea houses, so keep an eye on these establishments.
8. **Attend Traditional Performances**: Book tickets for traditional tea ceremonies, geisha dances, or cultural shows where you’re likely to see geisha.
9. **Local Advice**: Ask locals or tour guides for tips. They may know the best places and times to spot geisha.
10. **Patience is Key**: Be patient; sightings are not guaranteed. Enjoy the ambiance and beauty of Kyoto while keeping an eye out.
11. **Learn About Geisha Culture**: Understanding the traditions and roles of geisha adds depth to your experience.
12. **Respectful Behavior**: If you do encounter geisha, maintain a respectful distance and refrain from interrupting their activities.
Remember, seeing a geisha is a special and culturally rich experience. Approach the quest with respect and appreciation for their artistry and the preservation of Japan’s traditional culture.
Local places to eat in Gion and Pontochoa districts
After you’ve spotted some Geisha in the neighborhoods, why not hang out and try some of the delicacies and local foods offered here? The Gion and Pontocho are renowned for their culinary offerings in Kyoto. Here are some local places to eat in these districts:
Gion District places to eat:
1. **Gion Kappa**: Known for its traditional Kyoto cuisine, including kaiseki (multi-course meal) and seasonal dishes.
2. **Gion Owatari**: Offers a variety of Japanese dishes, including tempura and grilled seafood, in a historic setting.
3. **Izutsu**: A classic teahouse where you can enjoy matcha tea and traditional Japanese sweets.
4. **Gion Suetomo**: Famous for its okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) and teppanyaki dishes, with a cozy atmosphere.
5. **Gion Maruyama**: A great spot for sushi and sashimi, featuring fresh ingredients from the region.
Pontocho District places to eat
1. **Pontocho Kappa**: Known for its riverside dining and options like yudofu (tofu hot pot) and sukiyaki.
2. **Pontocho Misogu**: Offers a mix of Kyoto-style dishes, including obanzai (home-style cooking), in a charming setting.
3. **Pontocho Yoshimura**: A hidden gem known for its Kyoto-style shabu-shabu (hot pot) and seasonal delicacies.
4. **Kyoto Pontocho Chikurin**: Specializes in kaiseki and offers stunning river views from its terrace.
5. **Izakayas**: Explore the narrow alleys of Pontocho for various izakayas (Japanese pubs) serving drinks and small dishes.
6. **Yuba Restaurants**: Try yuba (tofu skin) dishes, a local specialty, at one of the many restaurants in the area.
7. **Nagashi Somen**: Experience the fun of nagashi somen, where somen noodles flow down a bamboo slide for you to catch and eat.
These districts offer a wide range of dining experiences, from traditional Kyoto cuisine to modern twists on Japanese dishes. It’s a great opportunity to savor the local flavors of Kyoto while soaking in the historic and picturesque surroundings of Gion and Pontocho.
Please check out these other posts on visiting Kyoto, Japan
Conclusion to exploring the Gion and Pontocho districts of Kyoto at night
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