When I was younger I read Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and was captivated by the beautiful writing and depictions of the world of the geishas in Kyoto. It remains one of my favourite novels, and seeing a real live geisha would be a highlight of my visit to Japan. Kyoto was firmly pencilled onto the itinerary as my must-visit place.
Second to Tokyo, Kyoto is one of Japan’s most beloved travel destinations and is popular with foreign and domestic visitors alike. Kyoto was the Japanese capital until 1868, when it moved to Tokyo and even today it remains Japan’s centre of culture with scores of shrines, temples and palaces. Kyoto was spared the intense WW2 bombing that flattened many other Japanese cities, and now offers visitors a blend of metropolitan modernity and traditional heritage where skyscrapers meet with historic wooden houses and, most importantly of all, geishas.
One of the main draws in Kyoto in springtime is sakura – the cherry blossoms. As much of Kyoto is conserved to protect the heritage buildings, there is a chronic hotel shortage during peak periods such as sakura. When I was planning our visit – four weeks ahead of our trip – there was not a single room to be found in the whole of the city at any price. I felt like Mary and Joseph from the nativity, except we’d be arriving on a Shinkansen rather than a donkey and I have the good fortune not to be heavily pregnant. An alternative was needed, so we opted to stay in Nagoya and commute in to Kyoto.
Our first day in Kyoto was spent exploring the Higashiyama district which is famous for its temples. Craig, who had vowed not to set foot in another temple after Burma, did not take this news well. Nevertheless, we started with the photogenic Kiyomizu-Dera temple – a huge complex that was also surprisingly picturesque, despite the large numbers of visitors.
The temple is popular with tourists but also with Buddhist worshippers who come to douse themselves in the holy water.
If you are inclined to souvenir shop, the streets surrounding Kiyomizu-Dera are the best place to pick up (relatively) cheap trinkets for the folks at home. It will be to my eternal regret that we didn’t buy our god-daughters little Japanese kimonos when we meandered through.
A short walk from Kiyomizu-Dera is the Maruyama park, where we sat beneath a cherry blossom tree and people-watched over a green tea ice cream. I did a double take as three geishas walked towards us. Unfortunately, it was a false alarm. It seems to be popular for the ladies to dress up in kimonos – complete with wooden sandals and an elaborate hair do – and spend the day dressed up as a geisha and having their photo taken with admirers.
With the real geishas still eluding us, we made our way to Chion-In temple. This vast complex features an enormous entrance gate and is hugely popular with visitors. Moving on away from the crowds, we stumbled into the pretty garden at the far more intimate Shoren-In temple, complete with the obligatory soft-pink blossoms.
Eager to escape the crowds that had swirled around us since we started walking, we found a deserted staircase and walked up it. At the top, we found ourselves in a deserted cemetery. We walked around in respectful silence, savouring the peace as we studied the haka (tombs, which contain cremated remains) surrounding us.
Back down on the main street, we walked to the Northern part of Higashiyama. By now it was late afternoon, so we took a stroll down the Path of Philosophy – named in homage to a local philosophy professor who took his daily constitutional walk down this pretty canalside path. I can see why he chose it. After appreciating the art of zen in Kanazawa, I could see how walking beneath the cherry blossoms alongside the water would clear the mind and invigorate the soul.
At the end of the path, we doubled back and took a long walk through Kyotos clean, wide and pretty streets to the famous Gion district. The Gion district is home to Kyoto’s geishas, and some 2,000 remain here entertaining the wealthy in exclusive tea houses. Would we be lucky enough to see one?
Gion is actually a very small area – the centre is only three streets lined with picturesque traditional narrow wooden houses. Discreet signs in Japanese signal the tea houses, and pretty cherry trees shed their blossom into the roadside streams as tourists – cameras in hand – stalk the cobbled streets.
We had heard that on the hour is the best time to spot geishas in Kyoto, as they hurry from one appointment to the next. We spent half an hour walking the pretty triangle before admitting defeat. As we made our way back to the station, I saw a flash of colour out of the corner of my eye. A maiko (trainee geisha) was slipping out of a side door and scurrying towards a waiting car. There was no time to grab my camera, so I stood marvelling as she – poised and serene – arranged her stunning kimono around her and gracefully stepped into the car. It was over in a moment, but I had seen my geisha.
Accommodation options in Kyoto during cherry blossom season
- Hotels in Kyoto get incredibly booked up during cherry blossom season, so book early if you have your heart set on staying in Kyoto itself. We couldn’t find a single room in the city when we tried to book four weeks in advance.
- A good alternative to Kyoto is Osaka – a short train ride away – although prices rise here accordingly too.
- We opted to stay in Nagoya at the Nishitetsu Inn. Although Nagoya is 145km away, this is a 40 minute direct Shinkansen to Kyoto so makes for an easy day trip. The cost of the return trip was included in our Japan Rail pass (and meant we got maximum value from our investment, which pleased Craig’s Inner Yorkshireman). Hotels tend to be cheaper than Osaka – we paid £40 per night as opposed to around £55.
If you want to visit the geishas in Kyoto
- The Higashiyama district is easily reached from Kyoto station. We had SUICA travel cards that we’d purchased in Tokyo and these worked on the buses in Kyoto. Walk to the bus station and take route #260 to Gojozaka, which is the nearest stop to Kiyomizu-Dera. At the bus stop, double back for about 20 metres, cross the road and follow the crowds!
- Inside Kyoto offers excellent walking routes for both North and South Higashiyama; we blended the two into a rather packed day and omitted a few of the temples. If you want to visit each temple you’ll want to spread it over two days. Some temples are free and some charge a small entrance fee. We focussed mainly on the free ones!
- The Path of Philosophy takes about an hour or so to complete. In cherry blossom season it is a very popular hanami spot, but when we arrived in late afternoon it was much quieter and a perfect time to enjoy the atmosphere.
- If you are lucky enough to see a geisha in Kyoto, try to resist the urge to race up with a camera; as in Luang Prabang there have been complaints about tourists acting like paparazzi. Please act respectfully.