I have heard Kyoto described as “old Japan” in contrast to Tokyo being seen as “new Japan”. Like many generalisations, such descriptions may be seen as unkind and incomplete summations of each city given that each sits comfortably in the 21st century and embrace, in that very Japanese way, the old and the new. Nevertheless, differences in the relative emphasis assigned by each city to the old and the new tends to support these broad classifications, as is supported by the preponderance of world heritage sites in and around Kyoto.
Through previous posts I have shown several of Kyoto’s world heritage listed sites and will show more in future posts. Today, however, I wish to focus on the area that has been Kyoto’s gathering place through the centuries and continues to be so today. The place I am talking about is, of course, Gion.
Its history is too deep to cover in this brief discussion and I will leave readers to pursue their own enquiries, preferring instead to talk of my own experiences.
My first morning in Kyoto was spent in Gion and perhaps it was the chance meeting with a Geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) that cast its spell over me. From then, the place was like a magnet and it seemed that at some point of each day I would find myself somewhere in Gion. This was not always planned, but Kyoto is a great city to explore on foot and many paths lead to and/or from Gion.
In its heyday Gion was a maze of narrow streets filled with traditional wooden buildings and home to many thousands of geisha. If time travel were a reality it would be at the top of my time travel bucket list. Times do, of course, change and with tourism comes commercialisation. However, old Gion remains. The streets and alleys are still narrow and if one can ignore the modern additions such as power lines, a sense of the old maze and its charm can be felt. It is not a place to visit with a guidebook and a list of sights to see. It is a place in which to wander, get lost and keep wandering until you find your way.
The selected photographs attempt to show old and new Gion, though I openly admit they do not do justice to the place. The tea-houses by the canal (pic 1) attract an up-market clientele where geisha entertain. In fact, pic 2 shows a Geiko and Maiko (apprentice geisha) on their way to the tea-house in the foreground of pic 1. One can only wonder how many Geiko/Maiko have and will continue to walk this street. For me, pic 2 is a reminder of a lost opportunity. I was lost in concentration setting-up another shot with the camera mounted on a tripod when I became aware of movement behind me. On turning around I was greeted by the graciously smiling white painted faces of a Geiko and her Maiko sister en route to their appointment. There was only time to settle for exchanged greetings as they passed, hence the shot of them walking away.
Pics 3 to 5 show other examples of the warm, welcoming atmosphere created by the elements of old wooden buildings, cobbled streets, trees and water. To round off the older style images, pic 6 shows the Minamiza Kabuki Theatre, Kyoto’s premier kabuki theatre located in an always bustling section of Gion.
As mentioned earlier, Gion is a major tourist attraction and pics 7 and 8 give some indication of its popularity. Pic 9 shows the same street with fewer people, but what is interesting is how the young Maiko is the focus of attention. Although the kimono worn by regular Japanese women do not match the finery worn by geisha, one does see more kimono worn around Gion than elsewhere in Japan (at least in my experience). Typical examples are those of the kimono clad women in pic 11 enjoying a stroll through one of Gion’s many winding laneways and the young women (pic 12) disappearing into an alley, framed again by those typically Japanese building elements of paved stone and wood.
For those readers who have visited Gion I hope these images may spark some pleasant memories and for those who have not visited in person, I hope this little glimpse may spark some interest.
(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)