If you've followed my diaries along until now, you'll perhaps remember that during my write up of time spent in Kyoto, I felt the dire need to write about Gion in an entry all of its own.
Kyoto had a huge impact on me out of all of our stops around the country. I've pinned it down to primarily being the fascinating mix of "old and new" that the city has developed itself with over time.
Only in Kyoto did I see pristine historical temples amidst gently plonked modernisation which in it's addition didn't impact or spoil anything.
The streets were so clean (I mean that's the same for everywhere in Japan, I noticed, but especially in Kyoto), and almost "sleepy". The city is so huge, but so very gentle whilst being expressive. It's such an unusual thing!
Speaking of it's kept history and culture, Gion is very well known for one other fascinating culture aspect in addition to its temples and gardens, and that is the Geisha district.
Lloyd and I were lucky enough to be collected from our Ryoken one evening by a guide named Duncan, who was to then take us for one of the most incredible experiences I think I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing, if I'm honest! We were off to tread the historical streets of Gion to perhaps catch a glimpse of true, traditional Geisha, or Geiko.
In summary, Geisha are women who choose from an early age to move from their family home to become professional entertainers for prestigious tea houses of which only the most refined and wealthy frequent. Geisha perform elegant dances during dining, provide conversation when required, and serve and make guests feel comfortable during social events at such establishments, and encourage social games revolving around drinking and dance.
Whilst walking, we learned that each Geisha district in Tokyo had it's own signal that Geisha were present and in training at properties in certain streets and Geisha homes in Gion, with strings of white or red lanterns across properties. Some properties also had the lanterns to mark that they were involved in some way with Geisha, from being hairdressers and beauticians to prepare Geisha for their evening, or dress makers for Geisha attire.
We also learned more of the traditions which Geisha follow from centuries gone by, and still abide by today, from the young women choosing giving up their home and family names from as young as 15 years of age, and acquiring mountains of debts to the tradition from the need to invest in their elaborate and perfect style.
Walking along a street lined with Geisha homes, we noticed that each home housed around 8 Geisha which were looked after by a "matriarch" who would arrange transport for the women, care for the home, ensure they were turned out and prepared for their evenings, and ultimately take care of the finances earned by the women.
A typical evening for a Geisha starts at their designated Tea House at 6pm sharp, so if you are out to potentially see the women appear for work, it is generally a good idea to find yourself in districts like Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi at around 5:30pm.
Although I feel so very lucky that we captured this moment as this young woman appeared at the door, I couldn't help but not hold too much of a lingering gaze on her out of...well...courtesy really.
At first, as we were arriving in the Geisha streets, we were quite alone and everywhere was quiet. As the clock ticked to around 5:50pm however, there were cameras EVERYWHERE.
I won't lie, it made me feel a little sad...These women were on show before they had even got to work, with endless tourists flashing off their photos without firstly acknowledging them for who they were.
If you find you are in a similar situation, please be respectable. We did not use our camera flashes, and didn't try to take as many photos as possible in quick succession. A simple photograph, and a gentle greeting of "Konbanwa", without gawping or being intrusive to her movements is just simply manners. Remember, some of these women are very young girls, and very new to their journey as a Geisha.
You can tell which Geisha are the youngest and starting out at the earliest stage of their career, as they tend to have minimal make up, and a naturally sitting hairstyle. After their introductory training and a further examination, only the very talented and determined in action and ambition will go on to become a maiko (Geisha/Geiko apprentice) and eventually fully fledged Geisha/Geiko a few years later. It's a long journey, but one marked with true culture and reputation.
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