October 28, 2010

Enjoy good old Nara! - Geisha District

Have you visited Naramachi (Nara Town)? Walking along the narrow streets in Naramachi, I'm sure, you will  get  nostalgic and relaxed, feeling  as if you came back to your hometown after long absence. Naramachi has been drawing a number of tourists since they enjoy the atmoshpere of good old Nara. Here preserved are the merchant town houses dating back to19th century.

Naramachi, located to the south of Sarusawa, is not an official name but the name refers to the broad area comprising a lot of small towns. 

This is Ganrin-in Town, one of small towns in Naramachi. Although many people visit this quiet and elegant area, few people know once this area flourished as Hanamachi ( Geisha or Geiko district). In Nara or Kyoto, they are called  Geiko which refers to  Geisha. Around 1860s the town began to develop as Geiko district. In its heyday from 1920s to 1930s, there were more than two hundred Geiko and Maiko in the town. Most of the town people were engaged in related jobs to Geiko district such as Okiya, Ochaya, hair salons, public bath houses, restaurants and more. But its glory didn't last forever. Around the middle of 1960s, the town began to decay since the number of wealthy merchants ,who called Geiko or Maiko to attend  their banquets, decreased. Besides, not so many women wanted to become Geiko or Maiko. Now there are only a few Geiko and two Maiko in this quiet  town. It is hard to imagine its heyday, isn't it?. The traditional Japanese house in the magazine  is "Mangyoku" which  used to be one of Okiya.
(Okiya is a boarding house for Geiko and Maiko.
Ochaya is an exclusive Japanese restaurant where Geiko or Maiko attend a party to entertain customers.
Maiko is an apprentice Geiko.)

Geiko and Maiko are often introduced in the various magazines.

 Many interesting pictures of Geiko and Maiko have been preserved  and exhibited in Ganrin-in Photo Gallery which is  also architect Yamashita's working place.  He opens his office to the public as a private museum (まちかど博物館).
You'll be surprised to  find a number of changes and differeces  if you compare old Naramachi  with present Naramachi.

Let see some of the pictures in the gallery.
 Maiko on Eya Bridge in 1932 and present Eya Bridge.
 Eya means painters who used to live near this bridge. The area is said to have been picturesque with perfect combination of clear water of the river and seasonal flowers blooming on the riversides. This picturesque scene must have inspired the imagination of the painters.  Now the river is gone as it was converted to a concrete culvert.

Celebration of the 10th anniversary of telephone exchange in 1918.
The pictures show once there were more than two hundred Geiko and Maiko in Naramachi at its peak .  Surprising!!

Open-air beer garden in 1932.
In summer a temporary beer garden was set up near Sarusawa Pond or in the precincts of Kofuku-ji Temple, where Geiko served cold beer and showed comical dances or plays to entertain people. Unbelievable!!

An American soldier and Geiko in Kofuku-ji Temple in 1947.
After World War Ⅱ, for a while US occupation army was stationed in Nara. They used the central branch of Nanto Bank as the headquarters  and flied the Stars and Stripes.

While strolling in Nara Park, I have seen Geiko and  Maiko several times, especially around the road  under Five-Story Pagoda of Kofuku-ji Temple. I suppose this road  must be the commuting route for them. Come to Naramachi!  If you are lucky enough, you'll see Geiko or Maiko.

Maiko in formal Kimono
                                                                                                 Maiko in casual Kimono


  1. Before I saw a film, " La traviata", based on a story written by Dumas as "La dame aux Camelias". The heroin Violetta is a courtesan who attends at court and gives her hospitality for the noble men.
    I suppose that Geisha and courtesan have some similarity, though I don't know about the both in detail.
    I wonder if such position as courtesan would be still there in Europe or not.

  2. haricot,

    Thank you for your interesting comment.

    I saw "La dame aux Camelias".

    Honestly speaking, I have never thought the similarity between Geishas and courtesans.
    Maybe both of them give and create fantasy in the ordinary daily life, not showing reality, and they are well diciplined, hospitable and excellent conversationalists.

    Courtesans remind me of Tayu(太夫)who refered to high class Oiran(花魁). Oirans were gone but Geishas have survived. There must have been some reasons.

    How about courtesans in Europe? What do you think?

    Anyway, Geishas have been misunderstood. Nowadays they are completely independent.

    Real Life Geishas
    by Narional Geographic Channel


    In Kyoto,many tour programs have "Maiko Show" , so people can enjoy conversation and performance of Maiko by paying around 18000 yen, including dinner.

  3. Thank you so much for the link, I missed that one, and shame on me ! I'm very fond of Geishas and their universe, and this article is so interesting to me !

  4. Dear Snowhite,
    I am planning a trip to Kyoto and Nara for spring 2016 to photograph geiko and maiko for my graduation project from photography school. How to get in touch of you through email?


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