Unveiling Gion – A look from outside
Ever wondered if the world of Geisha was more real than a fantasy played out on television and books? Ever wanted to take a trip into a land boasting culture and secretly held ancient arts and other wonders? Ever wondered if such a place was accessible by a train or plane ride? Gion district in Kyoto (Japan) exists as an answer all of that. Known more famously to the world as the “Geisha district” Gion is the epicenter of this legendary Geisha tradition that has been passed down through generations.
The district is a preoccupied in its own little world cut away from the high rises of the urban Japan. This is probably the first thing that entices us to visit this mystical place. It espouses so many mixed feelings of discovering culture and walking inside a broad vision of art, making for an unforgettable entry in your travel journal. If you imagined the real Geisha district to be akin to it’s description in the fantastic book “Memoirs of a Geisha“, you thought correct.
Although seeming like a parallel world, its hardly a task to get there. After landing at Kyoto airport, all one has to do is find the central station and take one of those sleek silver subways zooming its way to Shijo. In a matter of minutes you will embark at Shijo station. Renting a cab is also recommended and is very easy on wallet as well, as Shijo is only minutes away. Upon arriving at Shijo the tourists are friendlier and the landscape more earthen. They smile and tell you to just head north by foot. And within a matter of minutes, you will be walking down the cobblestone lanes of old Gion.
Aglow with evening activities, the town is lit up like a festival all through the year. Strolling further you can spot many ‘Ochaya’ or tea houses that emanate effervescent laughter and the unmistakable scent of Japanese tea. The many shaped varieties of hanging lanterns that adorn these tea-houses carry a distinctly quaint charm that makes one itch to take a picture. These Ochayas are almost always buzzing with tourists and locals lining up to taste the experience that the old rustic parts of Kyoto offers.
Exploring other parts of Gion
Each Ochaya is a wooden house sparsely decorated in the age old Japanese style with silken place mats for visitors and tables where tea is served along with food and Sake (traditional alcohol spirit). The evening’s entertainment includes things like cocktails, games, music, dance and of course conversations with the hosts themselves – the Geisha folk, clad in colorful silk Kimonos and adorned in white make up and matching silk sashes. Historically this tradition dates back to the 18th century.
Traditional Geishas are women who entertain guests, both travelers and visitors through engaging them in these tea houses. They are found in two categories – Maiko (apprentices) and Geiko (practicing artisans) although spotting either one on the streets of Gion is rare. In the last few years their numbers have dwindled and so the cost of engaging in the activities of an Ochaya has become very pricey. So making do with a leisurely look around the area, a natural detour is found in the immediate neighborhoods itself. The ‘Onsens‘ or ‘hot springs’ are a good place to begin. These hotels that have a built in Onsen are called Ryokans and have the look and feel and the balmy appeal of a naturally occurring hot-spring. Try the ‘Shabu Shabu’, a famous delicacy while lounging in these spacious Ryokans that come with Futons (floor beds), sliding wooden doors et all.
Don’t forget to head out to the Gion Corner which is essentially the center of the everyday attractions. There is a culture show held everyday here introducing tourists to the very many Japanese arts and performances of tea ceremony, Ikebana (flower arrangement) and dance performances by the Maikos themselves. The ‘Kyogen‘ or slapstick comical plays keep the audience in rapt attention with its endless tapestry of humor and drama all rolled into ten minutes or so. and dances performed by real Maiko. If you are in Kyoto in the month of April, check out the Miyako Odori with daily dance performances by the Maiko. April also means the famous Sakura-viewing were rows of Cherry blossom trees bloom and blush with the radiance of spring, dotting the lanes of Gion (Sakura, the Cherry blossom flower). But the Maruyama Park with its scenic front, the scattering of family crowd and its large and open picnic area is most definitely the place to do it. The star attraction,the weeping tree or the Shidarezakura which has been stationed in its spot for decades now is lit up, come evening for the special Sakura-viewing parties.
Finally there is Shijo Avenue which bisects the Gion district. It is a popular spot for the more obvious reasons. It is the most prominent shopping hubs of older Japan (Kyoto was the former capital city). Sweets, Pickles, crafts and souveniers are affordable and are natural tourist favorites to take back home. A visit to Gion is best concluded with a stroll through the elusive Chinion and Kodaji temples with its in Shinto architecture and various religious activities that go on even today.
Although it is time to head back the mysterious call of the interspersed tea-houses and the square block patterns of the oh-so-narrow streets with a view of Cherry blossoms have somehow weaved their way into our hearts.