The one thing most visitors like to do in Gion is hoping to take a glimpse of the geisha or in Kyoto dialect, they called it “geiko”. They usually dressed in their traditional costume and with a white painted face, a red lip, and special hairdo.
Geisha & Maiko
Geisha are highly trained entertainers who sing, dance and played traditional music instruments. They usually entertain guests during dinner banquets and I heard they aren’t cheap to hire. Geisha can be found in a few cities in Japan but Kyoto is the birthplace of geisha. So if you wanted to see some real geisha, Gion District is the place. It is only a 10 mins walk from Kyomizu Dera.
A geisha path is not an easy one and takes a lot of discipline and hard work. A young trainee usually starts at the age of 15, sent away from their family and accepted by the “okasan” (the lady who run the lodging house). First, the young girl has to help to look after her seniors by cleaning and tidy the dormitory, just like a maid job. Then she will become a maiko, an apprentice geisha for a few years where she will learn all the traditional arts, such as dancing, singing and playing the shamisen. Then at the age of 20, she will turn into geisha.
How to tell if she is a maiko or geisha?
Maiko usually appeared with kimono with brighter colors and more decoration on their hair and long sleeves kimono. On the other hand, Geisha will wear kimono with short sleeves, dull colors and a hairdo with a wig.
A real Maiko and Geisha usually do not stop for photos, you have to hunt them like a paparazzi, which is not really a good thing to do. If you see a maiko or geisha stops and posing for you, it means she is not a real one, she is just the tourists from other Asian countries, dressed and experience like a maiko.
Catch a Maiko show and immerse yourself in the beguiling beauty of these apprentice geisha! Gain some fascinating insight into ancient Japanese customs. Not only you are able to see them performing, but you also get to chat and take photographs with them and observe how they treat their guests. They are able to engage with everyone from different age group and make a personal connection. The maikos you see on the streets in the day are totally different, they are cold and walk pass very quickly and won’t pose for you to take any pictures of them. Whereas the maikos at the maiko show are friendly and let you take as many pictures as possible because you paid for their service.
The other thing you may want to do while strolling in Gion District is experiencing a relaxing walk in kimono! There are plenty of rental shops nearby. Go in and choose your favorite color and pattern of the kimono and within 30 mins, you are all dressed up and ready to explore! The traditional architecture and the tea house of Kyoto are so matching with the kimono outfit.
Yasui Konpira-gu 安井金比羅宮
You will likely pass by Yasui Konpira-gu, a small shrine in Gion. It becomes popular among young Japanese women who rushed to the shrine to crawl through a hole in a large ema-shaped stone. The stone is also known as the “enkiri” 縁切り(Separation) or “enmusubi”縁結び (finding a relationship) stone. It’s where people come in hopes to break off bad relations and form good ones.
This is what you can do, pay for the shrine paper -Katashiro charm and write your name and wish on it. Hold the paper and crawl over the hole, then stick the paper on the stones.
Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin Forever Exhibition
There is a Forever Museum of Contemporary Art at Gion which happen to hold Yayoi Kusama works. Some background of Yayoi Kusama artist, she is the queen of pop art in Japan who has an obsession of dots. The yellow pumpkin and black dots are her masterpieces in 1994. There is also the sculpture of pumpkins with dots in Noashima Shikoku Japan.
Human Rickshaw Ride
The rickshaw pulled by a man who acts as a guide and tells you the hidden gems and history of the area. If you are too lazy to stroll around, try riding on the rickshaw and explore Gion District.
The best way to experience Gion District in Kyoto is in the traditional kimono, you will not feel out of place with the old architecture and tea houses. It is also very likely you will meet some geisha or maiko walking in the alley of Gion since this is the birthplace of Geisha. Do not hunt them like paparazzi but instead, take pictures from afar and not disturbing them.