The ancient capital of Japan, beautiful Kyoto, has hundreds of shrines and temples where you can feel the true Japanese spirit that endures over time. In Kyoto there is also a whole district that has remained intact despite the changes in the country, and is unique in its style. This place is the Gion district.
Gion is the place where the famous Geishas come to life, a cultural symbol of the nation of the rising sun. Geisha means “Artist”, although in Kyoto they are not called this way, but instead use the term “Geiko” which means “Woman of art”.
This district was originally created to serve as a resting place for those who went to pray at the Yasaka Shrine, which is in the same area.
Little by little this place evolved into a place for the entertainment of samurai, important people and great businessmen. In Gion there are two districts called “Hanamachi” which literally means “city of flowers” and is where the “Okiya” and the “Ochaya”.
Okiya is the home of the geisha. Here they live in private rooms and it is where they prepare before going to work in the Ochaya. Usually the Okiyas have a person who leads them, and this is usually an older Geisha, already retired, who is usually called “Mother”. Today there are variations of this tradition and it depends on the Okiya how it should be lived and who runs it.
Ochaya literally means “Tea Shop”, and it is the place where customers go. Having contact with a Geisha is a luxury that only people with connections in the city or people on a good budget can enjoy.
In the private rooms, the Geishas entertain clients through dances, songs, board games and interesting conversations. Geishas are a living work of art, and therefore must be respected as such. In the Gion district there is also the “Gion Corner” or corner of Gion where you can see a musical show performed by real Geishas. It is currently the easiest way to see a Geisha up close if you are going as a tourist to Kyoto. As Geisha make life in Kyoto, from time to time Geisha or Maiko may appear fleetingly walking the streets of Gion on their way to work or home. Being able to observe a Geisha or Maiko in this way is a really exciting experience.
It must be clarified that if a Geisha or Maiko is seen in this way, they cannot be stopped to take a photo of them, they cannot be touched or approached improperly. If you are lucky enough to see them, you can take photos from a safe distance and be satisfied that you have seen them. If you do some of the previously written things that go against protocol you could end up being arrested by the police, so let’s admire the beauty of the Geisha or Maiko from a safe and respectful distance.
A Maiko is a Geisha apprentice. Generally their dress is more colorful and in their hair they have small ornaments that hang elegantly. Generally, a Maiko becomes a Geisha upon reaching the age of majority and fulfilling the requirements of the Okiya.
The Gion district is protected by the government of Japan so that no construction is made that could destroy the traditional beauty of Gion.
In Gion there are many types of restaurants serving traditional Japanese food, as well as fine western food. If you visit this wonderful place, it is recommended to wear a Kimono. Kimono is the original Japanese clothing and is a way of showing respect for the ancient culture of Kyoto. In addition, wearing a kimono in the Gion district gives the opportunity to take spectacular photos that make it seem that you have traveled back in time to magical ancient Japan.
Recently, the district of Gion attracts thousands of foreign tourists because almost the entire story of the famous movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” takes place here. It should be clarified that geishas do not provide sexual services of any kind, and they never have. Unfortunately foreign visitors mistake the Geishas for the flamboyant Oiran. The Oiran were the superstars of the Edo period, being high-class courtesans. While the Geishas are artists who entertain and take clients to a wonderful and secret world. Today the Oiran no longer exist, the Geishas do. Visiting Kyoto and not visiting the Gion district is like not having gone to the original capital. Gion is an unforgettable ride that is recognized worldwide for its unmatched beauty and tradition.