Many Japanese people would associate Maiko culture with Kyoto. There are many maikos in Kyoto, but there are other areas in Japan that have a maiko culture. In this article, we will introduce these areas and also introduce a sample travel route in Kyoto, including Hanamachi, maiko districts.
Maiko(Geisha) Districts Across Japan
Kyoto can be said to be a symbol of Maiko culture. There are five maiko districts in Kyoto. Each of them has “Okiya” houses geiko and maiko belong to. Maiko is an apprentice of Geiko, and they live and eat together there, have varied lessons during the day, and go to the banquet in the evening. Although the number of maikos is on the decline, there are still about 300 maikos and geikos in Kyoto in total.
Unfortunately, most of the Maikos you might see in the city are very likely to be tourists dressed as Maiko during “a Maiko Experience”, and you rarely see real maiko walking around. If you want to meet a real geiko and maiko, we would advise you to go to a maiko show held at a hotel or “Odori” performances each maiko district holds in spring or fall. Koan offers a dining experience where you can enjoy authentic Japanese kaiseki cuisine and interact with a maiko or a geiko. Click here for details.
In the capital of Japan, Tokyo, the maiko culture has developed as well. Here, a geiko is called a “geisha”, and apprentices that are equivalent to maiko in Kyoto are called “Hangyoku” or “Oshaku”. There are Tokyo Six geisha districts in Shimbashi, Akasaka, Kagurazaka, Yoshimachi, Mukojima and Asakusa, of which Shimbashi is more famous.
Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture
Kanazawa is located on the northern coast of the Honshu island and borders the Sea of Japan. It can be reached in about two hours by express Thunderbird from Kyoto and two and a half hours by Shinkansen from Tokyo. You can use Japan Rail Pass on either route. In this historic castle town, there are three districts (called “Chayagai” here) such as Higashi, Nishi, and Kazuemachi, and the traditional townscape remains. As you walk down the street in the evening, you will hear the sound of shamisen and drums from the lit houses.
Niigata City, Niigata Prefecture
Niigata, like Kanazawa, is a city along the Sea of Japan on Honshu island but is located further north. It takes about 2 hours by Shinkansen from Tokyo. From Kansai, such as Osaka and Kyoto, it is good to take the LCC from Kansai International Airport(KIX) since you will have to travel via Tokyo by Shinkansen. Niigata prospered as a port city about 200 years ago during the Edo period. To entertain visitors, an area called Furumachi became a Hanamachi(geisha district). It has a reputation for hospitality with good quality rice and local sake. In this area, a geisha is called Tomesode, and an apprentice is Furisode.
Obama City, Fukui Prefecture
Obama City, Fukui Prefecture is a city along the Sea of Japan located just north of Kyoto City. It takes about 2 hours from Kyoto by train( and bus). This seaside city has been historically connected to the former capital city, Kyoto. Since the 13th century, it has supplied marine products to Kyoto, as the road connecting these two cities has been called “mackerel road”. In this way, this city was under the influence of Kyoto, and the Geisha culture was brought as well. However, the number of geishas has decreased in recent years. At present, the restaurant “Harima” is the only place where you can meet Obama Geiko.
Yamagata Prefecture is located north of Niigata Prefecture. Maiko culture is inherited in Yamagata City in the inland and Sakata City along the Sea of Japan. Yamagata City used to be a castle town and a major production area of safflowers in the Edo period. With the help of water transport of the Mogami River to supply the red dyestuff to Kyoto and Osaka brought about the maiko culture. Sakata City flourished as a port town like Niigata. “Yamagata Maiko” in Yamagata City and “Sakata Maiko” in Sakata City have inherited the tradition through the efforts of the local business community. The feature of the latter is that the tie of the obi is different from that in Kyoto.
Kawabata area, Akita Prefecture
Akita Prefecture is in the northern part of Honshu and borders the Sea of Japan. It takes less than 4 hours by Shinkansen from Tokyo. If you want to save time, you can fly there in one hour. In the early 20th century, “Kawabata Geisha” played an important role in the entertainment there along the Asahikawa River, but it was once lost. In recent years, it has revived as “Akita Maiko” and they are expected to be an evangelist of Akita’s charm.
Shizuoka Prefecture is one hour from Tokyo on the Shinkansen Hikari for Shin-Osaka. In Shimizu, which flourished as a port town, “Shimizu geiko” keeps its tradition. Geisha are also active in hot spring areas such as Atami and Izu Nagaoka.
Aichi Prefecture is between Osaka and Tokyo. Nagoya City has Meigiren Association and Anjo City has Ebisukai, which inherits the culture of Nagoya Geiko and Anjo Geiko.
Arima Onsen Hot Spring, Hyogo Prefecture
Arima Onsen hot spring is easily accessible from Osaka and Kyoto and is one of Japan’s three oldest hot springs. Here, too, the geisha culture is inherited. Currently, there are about 15 geishas. The geisha cafe “Ito” is popular as a place where you can casually interact with active geishas.
Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture
In Ehime Prefecture, northwest of Shikoku Island, Geisha districts developed around Matsuyama Castle in the Meiji era. One of the reasons is that there was the Dogo Onsen hot spring. In the past, there used to be geishas in both Matsuyama and Dogo, but now the 2 districts have been integrated into Matsuyama.
Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture
There is also a geisha district in Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, a large city in Kyushu. The history dates back over 200 years. The number of geisha peaked around 1900, reaching 2,000, but is now about 20. Efforts to preserve that history are continuing, and the “Hakata Odori” held in December every year will be the 30th time in 2020.
Five Geisha (Maiko) Districts in Kyoto and Nearby Tourist Spots
Kyoto is not only the center of maiko culture but also Japan’s leading tourist destination. There are many other sightseeing spots beside the “GoKagai”, five geisha (maiko) districts. When you see around in Kyoto, it is recommended to make an itinerary including other attractions. This section introduces the characteristics of the GoKagai and the sightseeing spots near them.
Kamishichiken District is a little further away from the other four while they are around Gion. It locates near Rokuonji Temple (Golden Pavilion) and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. It is said that it is the oldest Kagai in Kyoto and dates back to 1444. Part of the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine burned down, and they did restoration work. With the remaining lumber, they built seven teahouses nearby. This area got popular with the visitors to the shrine and the support of the Shogun Hideyoshi. It has a close relationship with Nishijin as well, which has been famous for its high-quality silk fabrics, and is also called “Nishijin no Okuzashiki”. In recent years, the elimination of electric poles has completed and the streets are paved with cobblestone, which lets you enjoy a further taste.
It developed from the teahouse district in front of the Yasaka Shrine. It is famous that Many Japanese writers such as Soseki Natsume and Junichiro Tanizaki loved it. There are many tourist attractions around it: Hanamikoji street boasts a historical cityscape; Kenninji Temple has three beautiful Japanese gardens and numerous cultural properties; Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine is famous as “a liquidation shrine”. Near Shijo Ohashi bridge that leads to Pontocho is Kyoto Shijo Minamiza, Japan’s oldest theater.
A flower district adjacent to Gion Kobu. It was derived from Gion Kobu in 1881 of the Meiji era. Yasaka Shrine, known for the Gion Festival, is located near the border with Gion Kobu. Gion Shirakawa, which flows through the city, is a great spot for a stroll. A beautiful traditional cityscape continues on both sides. Weeping cherry trees and Yoshino cherry trees are in full bloom in spring, making it one of the best spots for cherry-blossom viewing. Let’s walk over the “Ipponbashi” bridge, which is only 60cm.
After crossing Shijo Ohashi to the west, there is the Pontocho district along the Kamogawa River, which runs from north to south. They have annual dance stage “Kamogawa Odori” in May, and it is famous for having the most performances in number among “Odori” stages of five districts. Restaurants along the river have outdoor seating like a stage called “Yuka”, which is a summer tradition in Kyoto. From the Sanjo Ohashi or Shijo Ohashi bridges, you can see aligning beautiful Yuka lights.
It is the southernmost of the five flower districts. It is located to the east of Kamogawa and southeast of Shijo Bridge. Hanamikoji is recently crowded with tourists, but Miyagawacho has preserved old buildings and is quiet and good for leisurely walks. The number of Maiko in Miyagawacho is the second largest after Gion Kobu. Every year, “Kyo-Odori” is held in the spring and “Mizue-kai” in the fall. It is more accessible and within walking distance than Gion from famous sites such as Kiyomizudera Temple and Sanjusangendo.
Sample 1-Day Sightseeing Route to see the Geisha District in Kyoto
Arashiyama (8:30 am)
Arashiyama is famous for its beautiful bamboo forest. If you take a stroll through the “Bamboo Forest Path”, you will be able to enjoy nature with the sounds of birds singing and the rubbing of bamboo leaves. It is full of tourists during the day but is relatively quiet during the early hours. It is a good idea to start the Kyoto tour from Arashiyama. After the bamboo grove, it is goo to walk through Arashiyama Park and along the Katsura River to see another famous tourist attraction, Togetsukyo Bridge. If you have time, we recommend the Japanese garden at Tenryuji.
Rokuonji (Kinkakuji, Golden Pavilion) (10:00 am)
After enjoying Arashiyama in the early morning, head to Rokuonji Temple. You could take a bus, but we would recommend taking a taxi to save time. It will take about 20 minutes, and the cost will be about $20. The Golden Pavilion is something you should not miss. Of course, enjoy a walk around the entire site.
Kitano Tenmangu (11:00 am)
Let’s walk to Kitano Tenmangu for about 15 minutes from Rokuonji Temple. It is a popular shrine for students to take exams because the benefit of it is academic achievement. Michizane Sugawara is worshiped here. He was a politician of character in the 9th century but lost in a political war and got banished. In early spring you can enjoy plum flowers loved and missed when he left Kyoto, and in autumn you can enjoy beautiful autumn colors.
Kamishichiken District (noon)
Kamishichiken, located in front of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, is the northernmost part of the 5 geisha district and is separated from the other four. Every year from late March to early April, “Kitano Odori” stage is held, so if you visit Kyoto at this time, it is a must-see. The first performance starts at 14:00, so it’s a good idea to stroll around Kitano Tenmangu after lunch before the show.
There are many restaurants in Kamishichiken where you can enjoy delicious lunch. There is a wide variety of shops from Japanese to Western dishes. It is recommended to make reservations for popular shops.
Nijo Castle(1:30 pm)
After a stroll and lunch at Kamishichiken, let’s head to Nijo Castle, a World Heritage Site. Even if you factor in the waiting time, you will arrive in about 30 minutes without a transfer by bus. There is a deep relationship with the Tokugawa family, the ruler in the Edo period, and you can enjoy the gorgeous interior of the Shogun family.
Fushimi Inari Shrine (3:30 pm)
After Nijo Castle, head to Fushimi Inari Shrine. The fastest way to get there is to take the subway from Nijo Castle Station and transfer to the Keihan Railway at Sanjo Keihan Station. You will be overwhelmed to see thousands of torii gates painted red are lined up over the mountain path. However, among the sightseeing spots in Kyoto, it is the No.1 place on TripAdvisor, so be prepared for many tourists. It might be a good idea to start your sightseeing in Kyoto early in the morning here. Also, if you have the strength to walk up the mountain path for about an hour, we highly recommend the mysterious experience of climbing further the Inariyama mountain.
Kiyomizu Temple (4:30 pm)
After leaving Fushimi Inari, take the Keihan Railway to Kiyomizudera Temple. From Kiyomizu Gojo Station, walk or take a bus. This temple is very famous for Japanese people as well and boasts a long history which dates back to the 8th century. Please enjoy the beautiful view of Kyoto from the famous big stage.
Gion (5:30 pm)
The last is Gion. From Kiyomizudera Temple, let’s go down Nienzaka street while watching Kyoto-style Starbucks. Here, you can visit Yasui Kompiragu Shrine to imagine the emotions of the visitors or it is also a good idea to walk around Yasaka Shrine. Behind the Yasui Kompiragu shrine, there is Hanamikoji, which is in the Gion Kobu area. Miyagawacho, Gion-Higashi, and Pontocho are also nearby, so let’s walk around your favorite area. If you see a maiko, they are at work. Never get in the way.
Dinner (6:00 pm)
Not only traditional restaurants but many restaurants offer reasonable meals. However, walk-ins will be difficult. To avoid panic at the end of the day, it is a good idea to book dinner in advance. At Koan Hanare, you can enjoy authentic Japanese cuisine Kaiseki and a fantastic time with a maiko. It’s a great way to end your day. Check it here.