Cross the Kamagawa River on Shijo street and the blazing lights of the downtown arcades quickly give way to the wooden houses and dark alleys of an older city. The neighbourhood of Gion in eastern Kyoto is home to the city’s historic entertainment district, an elegant collection of traditional machiya houses, neighbourhood shrines and venerable old restaurants serving some of Kyoto’s finest food and entertainment.
In the Edo period Gion was a district of earthly pleasures celebrated as ‘ukiyo’ or the ‘floating world.’ A vibrant, seductive escape, a world of sake and brothels, teahouses and theatre, girls and geisha. But don’t mistake Gion for a glorified red light strip. Granted, the sexual element is there on the edges, but the Gion of today retains the charm without the sleaze – traditional, beautiful and in its own way much more seductive.
Gion must be walked at night, when the streets are darker than elsewhere in Kyoto. I wandered, only a soft light glowing from the paper lanterns hanging in doorways like round yellow moons. A kitchen-hand in white meandered by on a bicycle, riding one handed with a wooden box of food in the other; the sudden, inexplicable smell of incense wafted by, replaced abruptly by raw ginger; invisible diners whispered secret conversations, just out of reach behind paper screens; a kimono-clad hostess clopped past in her wooden sandals before disappearing behind a private door.
I followed the Shirikawa canal down a row of old restaurants. Their large, latticed windows blazed out over the churning water with modern images of that vanished, floating world. Men in suits dining in private rooms, white-clad waiters bowing and bobbing silently from room to room. Outside on the street black-clad drivers idled in black sedans, waiting for their bosses inside. I began to imagine what words were being said in those private rooms, and what deals being done by those wealthy, powerful men, when I saw a geisha sitting among them.
I stopped, transfixed, in the middle of the road. Her hair was perfectly arrayed above her pale make-up, her kimono a burnished meld of orange and bronze. She inclined her head gently, artfully, listening and laughing, the quiet centrepiece of the evening. I lingered on the cobblestones in the darkness of the street, absorbed by this vision through the latticed window. I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo; I felt like a hunter trespassing in the royal woods – ‘Touch me not, for Caesar’s I am, and wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’
I hurried on my wandering way, feeling entranced and alienated all at once. This peculiar feeling would visit me again and again during my brief stay in Kyoto. Tradition, beauty, privacy and privilege, they all meet in these secretive wooden streets, drawing in you in with sublime, vanishing glimpses of the floating world. Glimpses, nothing more.
It should be noted that for modern day geisha, the terms geiko and maiko(apprentice geiko), from the Kyoto dialect, are preferred. The word geisha connotes prostitution, which true geisha most certainly do not engage in.