The cultural heritage of Kyoto is utterly astounding, but after spending over a thousand years as the capital, this isn’t really surprising. From temples to shrines to gardens, people flock to the city to see ancient landmarks and a glimpse of an era now confined to history books. Peculiarly and often overlooked is Kamishichiken; Kyoto’s oldest geiko district. I always ask myself why it is that such a stunningly preserved portion of Old Kyoto isn’t jam-packed full of tourists and travellers? Located slightly out of the city centre, to the north west near the famed Golden Pavillion, it’s less accessible than the largest and most famous geiko district; Gion, which attracts hoardes of visitors to its machiya-lined traditional streets, luckily leaving Kamishichiken a quiet haven for travellers who want to delve deeper into Kyoto’s secret beauty.
In kanji, Kamishichiken literally translates to ‘seven upper houses’, the name an ode to the establishment of the district in the Muromachi Period, when seven teahouses were built from tools and materials leftover from the rebuilding of the Kitano Tenmangu-Shrine that sits on the west side of the district, (and has a wonderful antiques and crafts market on the 25th of every month).
Aside from being home to a number of geiko tea houses, Kamishichiken’s streets, something akin to stepping foot onto a film set or being transported back in time to when samurai ruled the land, are bursting with quaint little shops, restaurants and even a machiya-style hostel overlooking the intricately carved rooftops of the Saihoni temple. Yuzuki sells the most ornately decorated kimono and offer a kimono and yukata dressing experience. Judging by the coiffed clientele that can be spotted leaving through the simple silk noren, the quality of the kimono and experience of the staff in tying the perfect obi means that this would be a far more authentic experience than the service offered at many others of Kyoto’s kimono rental shops. Pick up some pickles at Jugemu, sweets from Tenzindo and souvenirs from Matsuhiro too.
The heart of Kamishichiken can be found in the kaburenjo theatre. Starting yesterday (March 25th) and running until mid-April every year, all of the districts 25 or so maiko and geiko don their finest kimono and come together to perform the Kitano Odori, a traditional and visually arresting dance show in this, one of the few remaining wooden theatres in Kyoto. Tickets to the performance sell out quickly so it’s best to book way in advance, but don’t despair if you couldn’t get your hands on any. Make your way to the area around 5pm, around the time the odori is coming to a close, to spot maiko hurriedly making their way from the theatre to their tea houses for the evenings festivities. The opportunity to snap some photos of these elusive entertainers in all their finery is probably one of the best chances you’ll get in the city, aside from actually being invited to a tea house – something that is a real rarity even now in Kyoto.
The theatre also opens as a beer garden in the summer (starting from July 1st). Eat and drink amongst the manicured theatre gardens whilst watching concentric circles forming as kimono-coloured koi break the surface of the serene pond, all the while being served by and being able to chat to the maiko and geiko of this beautiful area.
Kamishichiken may be small, but it oozes character and charm, it’s streets offering living stories from another era for those willing to search for them.