Just this past weekend, I braved the heat and made a pilgrimage to Kyoto for a solo adventure. I’m not really a fan of traveling Japan in the summertime but I never turn down the chance to get in a chance to visit one of my favorite cities in the world.
Having so much time to myself, I was able to do some things I’d long had on my list but that I don’t always get around to when I have my young daughter in tow.
So on Friday evening, with the rain pelting down around me, I met up with the guide for the WaRaiDo Gion Night Walk. His name was Yuki and he was originally from Nara. I have been in Gion many times (and am even working on an in-depth self-guided walk to the neighborhood (stay tuned for some exciting developments on that and other neighborhoods in the near future!) but I was hoping to learn at least a few new things about this fascinating corner of Kyoto.
Despite Yuki’s belief that the weather would keep our group small, we had 35 people join the tour. That’s probably the biggest detractor of the experience. The price is very very reasonable (¥1000) for a nearly 2 hour tour and you don’t need to make reservations, but with groups that large (since you never know who or how many will show), you can’t easily maneuver in the district’s narrow streets. Cars aren’t very patient with huge hordes of tourists. As the guide can’t use the microphone in all parts of the district, this means that some people may not be able to hear. We tried to get as close as possible, but with 35 people holding sturdy Japanese umbrellas … it just didn’t work all that well.
The tour starts on the northern (Shirakawa) side of Gion and ends right in front of Gion Corner at 7:45. Along the way, Yuki told us about the history of Gion, the Gion teahouses and geisha houses and general maiko and geisha culture. He elaborated on some general cultural points (differences between shrines and temples, for example) and got into some specifics on things like geisha hairstyles.
I have to admit it wasn’t my favorite tour ever, but the weather and the size of the group didn’t exactly help the situation. For the price, it was a decent outing. Those who come knowing little or nothing about geisha (or geiko) culture will learn a lot. I feel like I have a fair amount of knowledge under my belt (no expert though, mind you), but I still learned several new points. I was particularly intrigued when Yuki stopped to point out the community chalk board that had the entire month’s schedule of cultural classes for maiko and geisha written on it and I enjoyed learning more about the hierarchy in the okiya (geisha house).
Are you guaranteed to see a maiko or geisha on this tour? Well …. no. And Yuki (and other guides, I imagine) are quite up front about that in the beginning, even offering to return your fee should you choose right then not to continue with the tour. But as the tour is slated to always end at Gion Corner, at an hour when the show’s maiko are exiting after their second performance, there is a VERY good chance that you will see at least two. (We did, but that was it for the evening.)