Kyoto: Of castles, shoguns, and geishas

"I have to see a geisha."  

That's what I kept saying over and over during our trip to Japan last March.

Since we were staying in Osaka, my travel companions and I decided to go on a day trip to Kyoto which was approximately just an hour and a half away.  I was excited!  Located in Kyoto is the Gion District, one of the last remaining geisha districts in Japan.  It is also home to several temples built by shoguns or Japanese military commanders centuries ago.
"Kyoto (京都, Kyōto) served as Japan's capital and the emperor's residence from 794 until 1868. 
Over the centuries, Kyoto was destroyed by many wars and fires, but due to its historic value, the city was dropped from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb and spared from air raids during World War II." (More info here.)
The moment we got down from the bus, I was immediately charmed by the city.  While Osaka was bustling and industrial (in some areas), Kyoto had a more quaint vibe with little cafes lining up the side streets and people going around in their bicycles.

Charming Kyoto.
The sun was bright and the weather was cool.  With cameras in tow, we set off to explore one of the most historical cities in Japan.

Nijo Castle

Our first stop was Nijo Castle.  If you are drawn to the history of shoguns, then taking a tour of the castle will take your curiosity further.
"Nijo Castle (二条城, Nijōjō) was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle's palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep." (More info here.)

Unfortunately, taking photos aren't allowed inside the castle. (I think it's to preserve the centuries-old paintings from harsh light).  So we just soaked in as much of the interior's details as we can.

Then we went around the compound which is actually one huge zen garden.

Exploring the castle grounds.

The Golden Pavilion

"Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408." (More info here.)
Yes, you read it right.  GOLD LEAF.  We went there after lunch and while the lighting is usually harsh during that time of day, the Golden Pavilion, nestled in the middle of a pond, was still amazingly photogenic.

The Silver Pavilion

"Ginkakuji (銀閣寺, Silver Pavilion) is a Zen temple along Kyoto's eastern mountains (Higashiyama). In 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today's temple, modeling it after Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), his grandfather's retirement villa at the base of Kyoto's northern mountains (Kitayama)." (More info here.)

Before reaching the Silver Pavilion, we passed through an uphill market where all sorts of trinkets and local Japanese stuff are sold.  I particularly enjoyed the slight festive atmosphere with all the tourists buzzing about in the area.

When we entered the pavilion, we found ourselves entering another Japanese masterpiece--a huge garden with meticulously raked sand in the middle.

The Yasaka Shrine

"The Yasaka Shrine (Yasakajinja), also known as the Gion Shrine, is a Shinto shrine in the Gion District of Kyoto. The popular city shrine is famous for its Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's largest festivals.  Yasaka Shrine was first built in 656 AD. It was dedicated to Susa-no-o, the god of prosperity and good health, and his wife and 8 children. Most of the buildings that remain today are from a reconstruction in 1654." (More info here.)
Japanese ema.  These are small wooden plaques where Shinto worshipers write their prayers and are later on hung in shrines.  I didn't buy
an ema but I did send out a wish when were there. (And no, I'm not telling what it is :p)
Gratitude.  These lanterns bear the names of various local business establishments who made donations to the shrine.

Gion District

Around 4:30 p.m., we reached the most anticipated part of our day's itinerary-- the Gion District.

My legs were already tired from all the walking but I was rejuvenated by thought of seeing geishas in person.  And my mind was set:  I wasn't gonna leave Kyoto without seeing at least one!

Our tour guide told us that Gion geishas actually prefer being called by the local term, geikos.
"While the term geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts", the more direct term geiko means essentially "a child of the arts" or "a woman of art"." (More info here.)
Found in Gion are several ochaya or tea houses where you can dine while being entertained by geikos and maikos (apprentice geishas).  But it can be pretty expensive (the minimum fee being approximately 200USD per head).  So I decided to just a catch a glimpse of them on the streets instead.

Geishas usually come out around 6:00p.m. on their way to and from engagements.  My companions decided to go back to Osaka while I stayed behind to wait for these mysterious women entertainers.

A few minutes later, darkness began to set and the geishas began to appear one by one.

True to their reputation, they were mysteriously alluring.

They were very elusive, only coming out in pairs and rarely stopping when someone greets them.  In their geta or wooden sandals, they walk on without saying a word or even making eye contact with anyone and then quickly disappear into ochayas.

In fact, when you go to Gion, there is no guarantee that you will see a geisha.  So I was really lucky I saw around five of these beautiful "women of art".

People from around the world are so fascinated with them that I actually read somewhere that there have already been complaints about tourists acting like ruthless paparazzis when chasing after geishas.  So out of respect, I kept my distance and just zoomed in my camera on them.  I only wish I had a more powerful lens!

Camera-ready.  Tourists eagerly anticipating the approaching geishas.
Elusive geishas.  A young girl tries to talk to a geisha but the latter just bows politely and walks away.

It was already dark when I left Kyoto.  Since I'm geographically-challenged, commuting back to Osaka on my own was bound to be tricky but I didn't mind.  I saw real geishas.  GEISHAS!  How often do you get to say that? ;)


  1. HEY, I was saying exactlythe same thing when I was in Kyoto some 5 years ago...and in Gion we saw some...I love Kyoto+the atmosphere in the old part of the city, very cozy! thanks for sharing these fantstic pics:-)))

    1. Me too! When I go back to Japan, I plan to stay in Kyoto longer :)

  2. Great post and perfect photo collection! It's a quite foreign culture for us but it's very interesting too! I very like atmosphere of your photos. Did you read Memoirs of a Geisha from Arthur Golden? That's a brilliant book and the story was set in Gion district.
    Thanks for sharing this post and have a great week.
    Greetings, Miklos

    1. Hi Kovács! I got to watch the film but I haven't read the book yet. I did some researching, though, and learned that Mineko Iwasaka, the geisha that Golden interviewed, filed a lawsuit against him for breach of confidentiality. She also said that the life of a geisha that Golden described in the book was a falacy (the prostitution bit in particular).

      But I've read some articles as well saying that it did or does happen. So I guess not knowing the real story behind geishas is what makes them more alluring!


  3. these are fantastic! so glad you found your giekos! and i love the rooster on the top of the pavilion. i lived in okinawa for a short time many years ago, but my two boys were very small at the time so i didn't have a lot of time for pictures. these take me back there... <3

  4. You LIVED in Japan? Jealous! Been researching on grants and scholarships because I wanna experience living there even if only for a while. It must've been an experience for you :)

    1. my first husband was in the marines so we joined him for approximately seven months. it was a lovely island! so many gardens and temples. but it was rather crowded too. streets were very narrow and homes had almost no yards. you had to go to a public garden for green space. where we lived, the island was only 3 or 4 miles across so you could go to the rooftop and see the ocean in one direction and the sea of japan in the other. but, i was a stay at home mom, so most trips were just down to the commissary or to the library. i have many simple memories though like the sound of someone in the neighborhood playing the koto on very warm evenings...

  5. It seems like i found the missing pages of the book memoirs of a geisha thou the book was pretentious, superfacial and cliche but looking at to your beautiful pictures Geisha really livesi n a shimmeringly exotic world.

  6. Wow the zen garden. Pangpawi ng huge stress din.

    Love all the photos. Did you try to walk closer to those Geishas? Anong smell nila? They smell like flowers just by looking at your photos.

    1. I wanted to! But out of respect, I kept my distance. But yes, I get what you mean! They look divine.

  7. at least you got to snap some photos, knowing how elusive they can get.

  8. hello dear, me again:-) could u drop me a mail(with your private mail) so I could send u this mail I just wrote u;-)mine is my blog-name at gmail....THANKS!

    PS: The first geisha I saw I followed for few meters and at one moment we were just the two of us so she stopped and posed for me, simply great experience! I have a frame with three different geishas pics (of mine) hanging in my bedroom now:-)))

  9. Cool! Geishas! =)

    Lovely pictures, as always. =)

  10. Nice street shot - looks like are still traveling to wonderful places.

  11. I don't know where I placed a comment, I thought here but I couldn't find it. But anyway, this experience must be super surreal!!!

  12. i missed your blog and definitely envy about the Japan trip you had. Anyways, best of everything.

  13. Hello. I'm traveling to Japan this month but will spend most of my time with my parents in Kyushu. I have 3 days to spend alone in other partsof Japan, Osaka and Kuoto. Will stay in Osaka and plan to go on daytrip to Kyoto. Too bad I already booked my domestic flights before I learned that Kyoto should be explored well. Sigh. Anyway, to save time (I'm bad at directions as well!) I will join group tours. Did you get a tour guide exclusively for you and your friends? Or did you join a group tour? If its the latter, would you mind sharing the name/contact details of your guide? All agencies I saw online do not have geisha hunting (hahaha) in their itinerary but I really want to see one.. Hahahaha :)

    1. Hi AC! Thanks for dropping by. For Kyoto, yes, we got a tour guide. I have the contact information in my email and will post as soon as I have access :)

      Well, if it's any consolation, I just realized we should've stayed longer in Kyoto when we were already there.

      "Geisha watching" isn't really part of the itinerary but Gion, the Geisha district, is :)

    2. Thank you! My email add is Thanks so much for the tips and info in your blog. :)


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