Gokagai: Discover the Kyoto Hanamachi!

Hanamachi (花街) , or flower town. The Geisha districts. 

These are the districts where Maiko and Geisha live and were the most Okiya ( Geisha Houses ) and Ochaya ( Tea Houses ) are. The Hanamachi are historical districts and the Japanese people have worked and are working hard to preserve the Edo Era ambient of the streets and houses located in them. True living pieces of history, just like the Maiko and Geisha living in them. 
All of the Hanamachi were preceded by and should not be confused with traditional courtesan / prostitution districts known as Yukaku ( Pleasure quarter, Red-light district ), do bare this in mind.  Maiko and Geiko have nothing to do with sex or sex intercouse, please understand this. Also, I will be calling them Geiko instead of Geisha since that is the name used in Kyoto and I will be talking only about the Hanamachi of Kyoto.

 Find out more about Geisha and Maiko in my article about the Kyoto Geiko & Maiko


Generally called "Kagai" instead of Hanamachi in Kyoto, Gokagai is the name that the whole Hanamachi of Kyoto recieves altogether.  Although they were previously 6, Kyoto's Gokagai is composed of 5 currently active Hanamachi in the city. Shimabara, which was the sixth, can be still visited nowadays but it is sadly defunct, although very charming. The remaining Hanamachi are Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Miyagawa-cho, Kamishichiken and Ponto-cho.
Kamishichiken, the "isolated" Hanamachi. It is very close to the Kinkakuji.
The four Hanamachi of the Gion
Area: Pontocho, Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi and Miyagawacho. They are close to the Yasaka Shrine.
- Source of both maps: maiko-kyoto.jp   

Each district has a familiar crest called Kamon, which appear on Geiko's and Maiko's Kimono and lanterns ( try to find all of the Kamon in the pictures I provided down below :) ! ) and each district has a festival were Geiko and Maiko dance for the public called Odori. You can find the different Odori listed down below:  
  • Kitano Odori ( 北野をどり ) – Kamishichiken ( since 1953 ), Spring, varying dates, currently last week of March and first week of April 
  • Miyako Odori ( 都をどり ) – Gion Kōbu ( since 1872 ), all of April 
  • Kyō Odori ( 京をどり ) – Miyagawa-chō ( since the 1950s ), first 2 weeks of April 
  • Kamogawa Odori ( 鴨川をどり ) – Ponto-chō ( since 1872 ), most of May 
  • Gion Odori ( 祇園をどり ) – Gion Higashi, early November
Gion Odori taking place! Don't miss the chance to see one if you can.- Source: http://jpninfo.com

Let's start talking about Gion, probably the most famous district in Japan and abroad!


Originally developed in the Middle Ages in front of the Yasaka Shrine, Gion is the largest and most exclusive Geiko district in Japan and you can clearly see why. This is also the most common place to spot Geiko or Maiko on their way to work so it is a very popular Hanamachi. However, Gion is separated in two districts: Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi. Let's learn about them!
You can really feel the Edo Era around Gion
!- Source: c1.staticflickr.com

Gion Kobu 

Gion Kobu Kamon
Kobu is larger than Higashi, occupying most of the district of Gion. Although the number of geisha in the district is sadly decaying in the last one hundred years, this Hanamachi is still famous for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment. It is the most widely known street of its kind, due to it being used in many films, plenty of photographies, literature or as a stage for Kabuki theatre. When they talk about Hanamachi and Geiko culture, many people image Gion! 
As you can see, its coat of arms is linked to the 8 small towns in the street and contains the “” character in the center of 8 dumplings arranged in a circle shape, but do not mistake this with the Gion Higashi, listed down below.

Gion Higashi

Gion Higashi Kamon
Higashi is smaller than Kobu and occupies the northeast corner, centered on its rehearsal hall. This street is relatively small among the Gokagai as well, with the smallest number of Maiko nowadays. However, after the Gion Kagetsu theater was built, it became a street that nicely mixes history and modern times, something the Japanese do very well! Some say that, in the late Edo Period, this street had up to five hundred teahouses and more than a thousand Geiko / Maiko and prostitutes altogether. It is also said that it was a very visited place by literary men, politicians, artists and all kind of important men.
Its coat of arms is, too, a dumplings arranged in a circle shape. The same as for Kobu, but there is no character inside the circle, so watch out!
Feel the history while wandering around these old streets...
- Source: http://muza-chan.net


This Hanamachi is specially famous for the conservation of the architecture of its houses, something that the Japanese dearly do ( And we truly thank them for it ). But it has quite a name, hasn't it? It is said that this name comes from the Portuguese word "Ponte", meaning bridge, with the Japanese word "Cho" attached to it, meaning town, block or street and it does make sense, since the Portuguese visited Japan quite often in the old times!
At least, this district exists since the 16th century. The area is also home to the Kaburenjo Theatre, which is located at the Sanjo-Dori end of the street, it is hard to miss. This theatre is used as a practice hall for Geiko and Maiko, quite a dream!
Its coat of arms is truly different from all of the other Hanamachi, a very cute “Chidorimon” ( meaning “a plover bird” ), one of the attractions of the winter around Kamogawa River.
Pontocho, near the river, as charming as it looks!
- Source: photos.smugmug.com


We can start talking about Miyagawa-cho by talking about Izumo Okuni, which is famous for its Kabuki performance, you will be able to find a lot of theatrical houses in this street! This Hanamachi is known for being a place where entertainers gathered ( and still do ). Kabuki was the main art and attraction in here. As this art was just then developing into a mass entertainment spectacle as it is known today, the area was very popular and Miyagawa-cho grew into a full town of teahouses very quickly. Today, Miyagawa-cho has its own Kaburenjo or theater where Geiko dances are performed, as explained above.
Its Kamon is Mitsuwa ( meaning “Three Rings” ). It came into use since the Meiji Period, and it is believed to symbolize three miniature shrines based on the old tale of Miyagawa but its origin is not 100% clear and you can find several theories on the Internet.
Three Maiko walking through Miyagawacho. See how the lantern to the left shows the Hanamachi's Kamon.
- Source: images6.fanpop.com 


Nowadays, there are around 25 Maiko and Geika in Kamishichiken that work in 10 Ochaya, more or less. The geisha in this Hanamachi are known to be excellent musicians as well! It is located a little bit far away from the other four streets, but it's known as the most historical and oldest street of the Gokagai area in Kyoto. Kamishichiken started when seven teahouses were built in this place out of timbers remaining after repairs to Kitano Tenmangu shrine, which was sadly burned in a fire during the Muromachi Period. However, at that time, it was called Shichigen Chaya ( Seven tea houses ). Since then, this street has prospered, because it was built right in front of the gate to the mentioned shrine.

And last, but not least, its coat of arms or Kamon consists of Taiko Hideyoshi's favorite “Five Dumplings”. It is said that, when Taiko Hideyoshi held the Kitano Grand Tea Party, he was offered the famous Mitarashi dumplings. Interestingly, he loved them so much that he gave the special right to do business in them, he also shared  the tea house for religious ceremonies so it is said that this story is the basis for the “Five Dumplings” coat of arms.
You can truly travel back in time walking through this Hanamachi!
- Source: farm6.static.flickr.com

And, together, they build the famous Kyoto Gokagai!

That's all for now :) I hope that you found this interesting and that you learned something along the way!! Please like, comment and share if you liked it!

Thank you for reading and enjoy your visit to these famous Hanamachi!

~ You can learn more about Geiko and Maiko. Read my article and find out what you did not know about their mysteries!

Sara López