Gion: Kyoto’s Oldest Geisha District

During the 17th century, the Japanese shogun established special districts, called hanamachi, in which geisha (“geiko” in Kyoto dialect) were ordered to live and work. (A note: although many Westernizations use the term “geishas” as the plural form, I prefer to stick with “geisha” in the plural, because it more closely parallels Japanese.) 

Kyoto has five such districts, of which Gion is the oldest and most famous. (Pontocho, which features in several of my Hiro Hattori novels, is a close second.)

As an official “historic preservation district,” Gion remains, in many ways, an eighteenth century town. Traditional two-story houses, called machiya, line the narrow streets. In Japan, medieval property taxes were calculated based on frontage (the amount of the house that fronted on the street), so most machiya have narrow fronts and small entrances, but inside stretch deep into the heart of the block. Many also have two stories, further enhancing the living space within that narrow footprint:

16D11 Gion street view

In addition to geisha houses, the restaurants and teahouses where geisha met with customers were also located within the hanamachi. Many of these remain today, and yes, they’re operational, but don’t expect to simply walk in and ask for reservations. Quite a few of Gion’s teahouses and restaurants display only minimal signage, usually in the form of a noren (traditional cloth panel signs that hang over the entrance when the shop is open)

 16D11 Gion Noren

Others display no signage at all:

16D11 Gion nondescript entrance

At establishments open to the public (and not many are, in historic Gion) dinner with a geisha starts around $1000 per person. At the ones without noren? Reservations are by invitation only–and to get on the list, in many cases, your family has to have been on the list for at least 100 years. These businesses are so exclusive that customers don’t receive a bill at the time of service–the establishment debits the costs (which can exceed $10,000 per person–and yes, that’s Ten Thousand Dollars, per person, for a single evening) directly from the client’s bank account.

Since the medieval era, dining in the company of geisha has been considered a highly exclusive, expensive, and prestigious form of entertainment. (As I’ve mentioned previously, geisha were not prostitutes. The “dinner and entertainment” in question is literally that–a meal, some singing or musical performances by the geisha, and conversation.)

16D03 Maiko (dress)

 Outside the exclusive restaurants and teahouses, however, most of Gion is open to the public (and quite popular with tourists). Each April, the geiko and maiko (apprentices) perform a series of public dances, which serve to celebrate spring and also as a public debut for the year’s new maiko.

Each evening, around 5:45 pm, Gion’s geiko and maiko leave the houses where they live and walk through the streets (or ride, by taxi, if the walk is long) to the teahouses and restaurants where they have appointments for the evening. Many tourists head to Gion at this time of day in hopes of seeing a geisha (and many times, they do)

16D11 geisha house

Westerners sometimes find the geisha’s enduring existence difficult to understand, particularly those who see the heavy makeup and elaborate costumes as objectifying. However, geisha have an important role in Japanese cultural history, and to the Japanese they represent the pinnacle of traditional aesthetics and refinement. It takes decades of training in many different arts to become a geisha, and these women enjoy a celebrated status in Japanese society. To this day, their names are displayed on plaques outside the houses where they live.

16D03 Gion Nameplates

Even during the medieval era, geisha stood higher on the social ladder than many other women. They owned businesses, lived independently, and generally were not subject to the whims of a controlling father or husband. Though they often look submissive and objectified to Western eyes, the reality of a geisha’s life was actually quite complex.