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Back to Kyoto and the geisha district

Wednesday, 7 March, 2012· Last Updated on: Wednesday, 7 March, 2012

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I’m sitting at a low table in a tatami room in the little old geisha house where I normally stay, in Miyagawa-cho, just down the road from Gion. It’s somewhat low class – the lowest class of the five Kyoto geisha districts – and therefore friendlier. Every time I come to Kyoto I discover all over again how magical it is – the old wooden houses with bamboo blinds swaying and red lanterns glowing all the way down the road and geiko and maiko clopping by on high wooden clogs and tantalising little alleys snaking off between the houses. Last night I went to see an old Gion geiko called Fujitoku who was once a very famous maiko. Being in a geisha house is a bit like a pub – all the customers are regulars. In fact there’s a famous geisha phrase, ‘ichigen-san kotowari’, which means ‘no strangers’; if you don’t have an introduction you won’t get in, no matter how rich or famous you might be. Some of the geisha I know from my previous visits here to research my book on geisha, but in the case of Fujitoku the 90 year old lady at whose modest little inn I stay took me along, so I had an introduction.

I’m eager to find out what the area was like at the beginning of the Meiji period, when Across A Bridge of Dreams is set, when Gion was full of dashing young rebel samurai and geisha risked their lives to hide them from the shogun’s police; but it’s so long ago no one seems to know. I’m glad to see that nothing seems to have changed since I was last here – though it’s a poignant time to be here, just approaching the anniversary of the dreadful earthquake and tsunami.

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