Sunday, October 15, 2017

Kansai Diaries, Day 6.75: Gion Night Walking Tour

November 28, 2016

Two or three days ago, I was browsing a magazine I had picked up from the airport and I chanced upon an ad "Walk in Gion and Experience Kyoto Traditions in English". I visited Gion, specifically Hanamikoji-dori, last year, but it was late at night, and all I saw were old buildings illuminated by the light of lampposts and a car or two passing by. This would be my chance to glean some information about this well-known area and the mysterious world of geishas. And maybe even see a geisha in the flesh.


The tour starts at 6pm, but I am not familiar with the meeting place, a red building called Kitaza. I go early. In case I get lost. But I do not get lost and arrive 30 minutes too early. Even the guide is not here yet.

I stand off to the side of Izutsu Yatsuhashi, a sweet shop housed in this red building, and do not wait for long—the guide arrives and asks if I am here for the tour. She introduces herself as Mie. We chitchat. Our chat is interrupted when Mie spots the owner of the sweet shop take a bit of a tumble and she hurries off to help him, leaving her bags on the pavement. As six o'clock nears, a solitary tourist comes, then a couple, then a group, and more groups of twos or threes, until we reach a total of 26 guests.

Mie takes us to Shirakawa-suji, the street that runs parallel to Shirakawa Canal. She shows us Tatsumi Bashi (bridge), an area featured in the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha", and we make a stop in front of small shrine near the bridge where she tells us about Tatsumi Shrine, a shrine frequented by geiko (what geisha are called in Kyoto).

Shelters shaped like Japanese umbrellas


Shirakawa-suji and Shinbashi-dori intersect at Tatsumi Shrine, and the guide leads us to the left to explore Shinbashi-dori. The street is crammed side by side with old buildings which are tea houses, restaurants, maybe residences. From here down to Hanamikoji-dori, Mie takes us to alleys I wouldn't have dared explore by myself, not for fear of getting mugged (Japan is a very safe country!) but for fear that I might be trespassing. She points to tiny details such as the very small torii on the bottom of the wall—to warn dogs not to pee there! Haha!


A warning to dogs

Throughout the walk from Shinbashi-dori to alleyways to Hanamikoji-dori, Mie entertains us with stories of past well-known geiko in the area with a binder of photos to help us visualize. Interrupted at one point when she sees a maiko (apprentice geiko/geisha) shuffling along the dimly lit street. I manage to get a glimpse of the back of the maiko's head.

At the corner of Hanamikoji-dori and Shijo-dori, she draws our attention to a building with red walls. (I had seen this building last year and did not think much of it.) No signs at all what it is. This, Mie tells us, is Ichiriki Chaya, a very famous and historic ochaya or tea house in Kyoto. Not everyone can go in; it is by invitation only and costs gazillions a night. Okay, not gazillions, but an overwhelming amount!

Ichiriki Chaya

Our guide herds us to Gion Corner, our last stop. Gion Corner is where traditional arts performances can be witnessed on stage. But, let me clarify, she herds us to the gate of Gion Corner. We, obviously, are not here for the performance. We are here to spy on a maiko (apprentice geisha). Not her words, mine. We cross our fingers and hope to catch a glimpse (our guide's words) of a maiko. After a few minutes of shaking off the cold, we uncross our fingers and fumble for our cameras: a maiko was hurriedly walking towards the gate. Towards us.

The maiko was too fast for my too slow camera shutter

And with the click of about twenty cameras, she is gone. And we all smile at our tour's happy ending.

Gion Night Walking Tour
WaRaiDo Guide Networks
facebook page:
Tour fee 1000 yen

Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger
An Ignoramus in Japan: Vending Machines
An Ignoramus in Japan: Bathrooms and Toilets
An Ignoramus in Japan: Manhole Covers
I Spy With My Little Eye: Japan's Fashion Contradictions
I Spy With My Little Eye: On the Go in Japan

Kansai Diaries (2016)
9D/9N | Wakayama, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kansai Region
Osaka: Day 0: Arrival
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado
Wakayama: Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan
Wakayama: Day 1.5: West Side of Koya Town
Wakayama: Koyasan Sidewalk Shorts
Wakayama: Days 1.75~2: Okunoin, Three Times
Nara: Sleep, Eat, and Explore Nara City
Nara: Day 3: Horyuji, Hokkiji, and some Japanecdotes in Ikaruga Town
Nara: Day 3.5: Yakushiji, Toshodaiji, and Heijo Palace Site in Nara City
Nara: Day 4: Early Morning at Nara Park
Nara: Day 4.25: Naramachi Walking Tour
Nara: Day 4.5: Yoshiki-en, Todaiji, and Kofukuji in Nara Park
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado
Kyoto: Day 5: Rainy Day in Uji City
Kyoto: Day 5.5: Tofukuji, Kawai Jinja, Shimogamo Jinja
Kyoto: Day 6: Ginkakuji, Ryoanji, Ninnaji
Kyoto: Day 6.75: Gion Night Walking Tour (you're here!)
Kyoto: Day 7: All Day in Arashiyama
Kyoto: Day 8: Last Day in Kyoto
Osaka: Day 8.75: Dizzying Dotonbori
Osaka: Day 9: Osaka, Over and Out

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