Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kyoto Diaries - In Search of Geishas

Once the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years, Kyoto continues to charm Japanese and foreigners alike with its architectural and cultural offerings. I love how my travels inspire me and change me as a person, and my recent visit to Kyoto taught me to appreciate life and treat every experience like a ritual.

Just like how the names are written and pronounced, Kyoto is the complete opposite of Tokyo. Kyoto takes on a slower pace of life as compared to its more popular and modern counterpart. However, it makes up for the lack of high-octane excitement with its heritage and cultural offerings. 

Most visitors to Japan will usually spend more time in Tokyo and merely stop over in Kyoto, perhaps with just a day trip or at most, a night’s stay or two. I hope this series of Kyoto Diaries will inspire you to spend a little more time to discover the beauty of Kyoto, one of the few Japanese cities that was spared from destruction during World War II. 

Top on the list of the must-do things in Kyoto is to take a walk down the geisha districts (known as hanamachi, which literally means flower street) in hope to spot geikos and maikos, which is one of the main reasons for most tourists to visit. 

The streets of Gion are lined with old wooden buildings, comprising okiyas, ochayas and exclusive Japanese restaurant and bars.


Walking through Gion is like wandering through old Japan, rather surreal and very tranquil. 

Geiko means geisha in the Kyoto dialect, and refers to professional entertainers who are well trained in various traditional Japanese arts, such as music and dance. Maiko is an apprentice geisha, and the girls are usually aged between 15 to 20 years old. 
A simple way to tell geisha and maiko apart is that less is more for geishas, while maikos wear more elaborate make up, hair accessories, kimonos and sandals with higher wooden wedges known as okobo. Check out this link for a detailed explanation.

Maiko on the left, geisha on the right. 

Geishas can be found in several cities across Japan, but Kyoto remains the most prestigious place with the best geishas. Perhaps a reason for this is that Kyoto is the only place where strict geisha apprenticeship still exists.  

Standing outside a geisha school. The board behind me shows the timetable of the lessons that maikos have to attend.

There are five geisha districts in Kyoto and taking an evening stroll at sunset down the popular Gion and Pontocho will be your best bet to catch a glimpse of geishas and maikos leaving the okiyas (special geisha housing) to make their way to work at the ochayas (teahouses).  

I spotted a maiko as I walked down Pontocho. Taking photos of these famous ladies are permitted, but do have the basic courtesy not to obstruct their way and refrain from acting like trigger-happy paparazzi. 

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