A world of flowers and willows in Kyoto’s geisha districts

by Lesley Downer

I arrive at the inn where I am to stay in Kyoto and lug my bag up the steep stairs to my room. The inn was once a geisha house and the room is barely furnished, though it does have a tiny lacquered dressing table with a long narrow mirror. A balcony offers a view over the street, and the houses on the other side are nearly close enough to reach out and touch. The ghostly notes of a shamisen float up from nearby. Someone is practicing.

I’m in the Sawai ryōkan (traditional inn) in Miyagawa-cho, a backstreet in the maze of lanes behind the Minami-za kabuki theater, in the shadow of the Higashiyama hills. I lived in this very room for six months in 1999 when I was researching a book I wrote on geisha.

It’s thrilling to be back. I walk down the road, swept up once again in the magic of the place. It really is still old Japan — the dark wooden houses, none more than two stories high, with bamboo blinds shading the upper floors, round red lanterns outside each door and tiny lanes beetling off around dark corners.

There’s a smell of fresh-cut wood and new bamboo. Rough tarmac when I stayed here, the street is paved now, I notice, with rectangular paving stones, and quite a few houses have new facades of tawny wood, with shiny bamboo buttresses.

A couple of maiko (trainee geisha) patter by, with washed-clean faces and hair oiled in the split-peach style, like stiff wings on either side of their faces. They’re on their way to their morning classes. In the past, I would have known them; they would have bowed and peeped “Ohayō dosu” — “Good morning” — in their fluting little-girl voices. Those I knew well would have stopped for a chat. But this is a new generation. I am a stranger here now.

Geisha means “arts person,” though in Kyoto the preferred term is geiko, meaning “arts child.” They are custodians of Japanese traditional arts, as accomplished as Western ballet dancers or opera singers. Maiko spend five years studying music and dance. Some specialize in instruments such as the shamisen, akin to a banjo; others in singing or dancing.

There are different schools of dance practiced in the different geisha areas, and the last teacher of the Gion school was a designated living national treasure. Maiko also have to learn to chat beguilingly to customers — mainly rich and powerful men, hence usually a lot older than they.

Around a corner I come to the Kamo River, swirling along, low and brown. Runners jog along the towpath, houses crush together higgledy-piggledy on the opposite bank and a heron perches on a rock in the middle.

More than 500 years ago, in 1603, a dancer named Izumo no Okuni set up a stage on the dry river bed here and began to perform lively dances and outrageous comic skits. People flocked to see her and soon many other women joined in this profitable activity. As a new phenomenon, it needed a name — and was soon dubbed “kabuki,” which is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary” — so suggesting an “avant-garde” or “bizarre” form of performance. Meanwhile, in written form the word is spelled using the three kanji characters for “sing,” “dance” and “skill.” Whatever, it was the beginning of the now all-male classical kabuki theater.

At that time the Kamo River was like a wall through the city, dividing the everyday world of work and family to the west from the entertainment area bursting with sideshows and theaters and geisha to its east.

I walk up the river to Shijo (Fourth Bridge). Across it to the west is the great modern city of Kyoto, with its department stores, its streets full of shops, its subway system, its giant new concrete cube of a railway station, its shady temples and beautiful gardens. That western zone was where the bastions of power were — Nijo, the shogun’s castle, and the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor lived. Modern city offices are there still, and it’s where all the commerce, business and politics goes on.

But the eastern section, where I am, is still the home of entertainment and pleasure. I leave the river and walk along Shijo Street, the heart of the geisha district. Covered pavements lined with shops offering geisha paraphernalia — combs, hairpins, clogs, cakes — lead to the red gates of Yasaka Shrine. The Higashiyama hills, green and leafy, tower behind.

I pass the Minima-za Theater. Crowds jostle outside and colorful posters announce the current season of kabuki plays. Nothing much has changed there.

Shijo Street runs by three of the five Kyoto geisha districts, known as hanamachi (“flower towns”): Gion, Gion Higashi and Miyagawa-cho. The fourth district, Pontocho, is across the river, marked by the terraces stretching over the water where people dine outside in summer. The fifth, Kamishichiken, is a little separate from the others. The geisha there are said to be particularly adept at the geisha dances.

North of Shijo Street are a couple of others that tourists never seem to find. A stream — the Shirakawa — trickles along, lined with willows and cherry trees just coming into bloom during my visit. On the other side are teahouses, each connected to the street by a bridge. A large rock at the side of the stream is inscribed with a poem titled “Kanikakuni” that was written by the poet Isamu Yoshii early in the 20th century: “No matter what happens / I am in love with Gion. / Even when I sleep, / Beneath my pillow / The waters ripple.”

Back on Shijo Street, curtains flutter over the gate of Ichiriki-tei, the area’s most famous teahouse. It’s where Oishi Kuranosuke, leader of the 47 rōnin (masterless samurai), whiled away a few years among the geisha while plotting their revenge now fabled in countless “Chushingura” versions in print, on stage and in film. The teahouse occupies a corner of Hanami-koji, the main street of the grandest geisha district, Gion. Workmen are putting up arches announcing the Miyako Odori “cherry dances” that the Gion geiko and maiko perform in public every April.

For the most part, however, the geisha world is closed to outsiders. You can only attend a geisha party if you know the house mother, or by introduction — no matter who you are. The closest tourists can get is seeing geiko or maiko hurry by on their way from the geisha houses where they live to the teahouses where they entertain — or by going to see the cherry dances.

I walk down Hanami-koji and circle back to Miyagawa-cho. I’m eager to see if any of the people I knew are still around. I call on my old friend Koito. Geisha get up quite late, so you have to visit after 12 noon, but not too late in the afternoon because they have to get ready for their evening activities.

Koito used to be rather famous. She had her own website and her own house. Now she has given up being a geiko and is a full-time okami-san (house mother). She has three maiko living with her whom she is training. Tomorrow, she tells me, is the misedashi (coming-out ceremony) of 16-year-old Ko-ume, when she will commit to her geisha training for the next five years.

As 6 o’clock approaches, maiko in lavish kimonos, fully made up with white-painted faces and scarlet lips, appear on the street, long sleeves swishing, clopping by on high wooden geta (clogs) on their way to their first appointment of the evening.

Evening is the most magical time. The lanterns are lit and glow red along the street, though I’m surprised to see rickshaws — another novelty — plying up and down, carrying tourists. I go and see another old friend of mine. Manami was a famous Gion geiko. For 10 years she lived with her boyfriend, a chef, then they decided to marry. For geisha, getting married means you have to stop being a geisha. They now have a small exclusive restaurant, Kaji-sho, opposite one of the gates into Yasaka Shrine. Unmade-up, Manami has a perfect doll-like face, with huge eyes and a rosebud mouth. As we sit talking, a maiko comes in with a swish and bustle of her silk kimono, filling the room with color and laughter.

The next day I wait outside Koito’s house to see Ko-ume in all her splendor as she sets off around the geisha district after her misedashi. Photographers gather outside. Eventually she appears in a sumptuous black kimono with a design of waves and a patterned gold obi. Her hair is adorned with ribbons, bows and coral ornaments. Her face is painted white and only her bottom lip is red, the mark of a first-year maiko. Koito proudly adjusts her obi while fellow geiko snap away on their mobile phones.

So a new generation of maiko starts the process. The world is changing around this very traditional lifestyle. Who can tell whether these young girls will spend their whole life as geiko, as women used to in the past — or if they’ll give up and go back to a more conventional life when they finish their five-year training at age 20. People ask if geisha are dying out. Looking around, it’s obvious business is fine.

Nozomi Shinkansen trains cover the 513 km between Tokyo and Kyoto in just under 2 hr. 20 min. In Miyagawa-cho, Mr. Sawai awaits you at his Sawai ryōkan ([075] 561 2179). However, if you would rather sleep on a bed than a futon, the Kyoto Gion Hotel (www.apahotel.com) is also on Shijo Street, close to Yasaka Shrine. For dining, there are many restaurants in Pontocho, where in summer it’s wonderful (and cooling) to have a terrace table above the river. And, of course, there’s Kaji-sho ([075] 231.3801). Lesley Downer is a writer and journalist. She lived in Japan for many years and is now based in London. She is the author of “Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World.” Her latest book, a novel titled “The Samurai’s Daughter” (published in hardback as “Across a Bridge of Dreams”), features a famous Kyoto geisha who was the mistress of the 19th-century hero Saigo Takamori.