Gion Kobu (祇園甲部)

Gion Kobu in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto City is the largest hanamachi ('flower town,' or geisha district) in Kyoto. It is known abroad as well as in Japan.


Gion Kobu started with the opening of a teahouse in front of the gate of the Yasaka-jinja Shrine at the beginning of the Edo period. Subsequently, it received official approval for the hanamachi, and the emblem featuring a dumpling cake was created. It is still used as the emblem for Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi. At the end of the Edo period, Gion Kobu was said to have boasted five hundred teahouses and more than one thousand geisha, apprentice geisha and shogi (prostitutes) in total.

To revitalize Kyoto, which was on the brink of decline due to the Tokyo-tento (designation of Tokyo as capital), Masanao MAKIMURA thought of showing the Miyako Odori (Dance of the Capital) in the Kyoto Exhibition as entertainment in 1872, and Yachiyo INOUE III choreographed the dance (see 'Miyako Odori' for details). It was agreed at that time that the 'Gion Kobu no Mai' (Gion Kobu's dance) would be choreographed only by the Inoue School of Dance and it has still remained this way. During this period, Gion was loved by many prominent figures such as literati and politicians, and greatly prospered. A portion of the area called "Zezeura" in Gion Kobu was separated to become Gion Otsubu, and Gion Otsubu became the present-day Gion Higashi (see 'Gion Higashi' for details on Otsubu).

When World War II started, the riverside to the north of the Shira-kawa River was destroyed during building evacuation; among the destroyed buildings was the teahouse called "Daitomo," run by Taka ISODA. Today, the area has become a promenade. Gion Kobu reopened right after the end of the war (1945), and five years later, the Miyako Odori was performed again at the Minamiza Theater (later and currently at the home base 'Kaburen-jo Theater').

From the late 1950's to the early 1960's, Gion Kobu boasted 150 teahouses and more than 600 geisha and apprentice geisha in total; yet Gion Kobu has reduced the scale of the hanamachi as time has gone by. Old streets have been replaced by new buildings, and as a result, the social environment has deteriorated, due to the increasing number of bars, hostess bars, and adult entertainment business. Being concerned about rampant development, residents in the Shinbashi area (Motoyoshi-cho) pressed the government to preserve the old townscape of the area. Consequently, the Shinbashi area was designated as a Special Preservation and Improvement District, and later selected as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings. On the other hand, the south area of Gion around the Hanamikoji-dori Street was spared from rampant development because the area was owned by Nyokoba-gakuen School, and was designated as a Historical Landscape Preservation and Improvement District.

The number of apprentice geisha, who are the poster children of the hanamachi, decreased to less than twenty at one point, but recently. the number has been gradually increasing and there are said to be a little less than thirty apprentice geisha today.

Personal Profile

Gion has been filled with a variety of figures and produced renowned geisha. Even in a particular kabuki play, Kuranosuke OISHI is shown to have played around in the Ichiriki-jaya teahouse at the beginning of the Edo period, and many anti-shogunate samurai who were to establish the new government frequented the hanamachi. Kimio NAKANISHI, a geisha in the teahouse "Uoshina" on the Yamato-oji-dori Street, is known to have kept anti-shogunate samurai from being caught by the Shinsengumi. Moving to more recent times, Oyuki (Sekka), a geisha in the teahouse "Kato-ro (加藤楼)," married George D. MORGAN of the Morgan family, who owned a large conglomerate, and was called "Morgan Oyuki" afterwards. Other geisha include: Taka ISODA who was a geisha and the proprietress of the teahouse "Daitomo," known by the tanka poem "Kanikakuya" (meaning somehow) by Isamu YOSHII; Sata MATSUMOTO who was an excellent performer of the Inoue School of Dance and engaged in nurturing junior geisha and apprentice geisha; and many more geisha such as Haruyu HAYASAKI, Komame MIYAKE, Satoharu TAMAKI, Takeha FUJIMOTO, Takako ANDO (whose geisha name was Takachiyo when active and appeared on a TV program called "11 PM"), Mineko IWASAKI, Machiko TAKADA (高田真知子), and Katsuno, all of whom have enlivened not only Kyoto but also the world outside Kyoto. Recently, there is a geisha called Makoto who became the first Jazz singer among geisha. The current chairperson of the Gion Kobu Geisha Association is Kofumi, who received a name from the Inoue School of Dance; other known geisha include Mameko, Tomichiyo, Mameni, Mametsuru, Koman, Kosuzu, Mamehiro, Mamehana, Mameka, Kokimi YAMAGUCHI, Terukoma and Suzuha.

Major events

Shigyo-shiki (opening ceremony)

Hatsuyori (an event in which geisha pay a visit to their teachers to wish them a Happy New Year)

Oishi-hi (memorial day for Kuranosuke OISHI)

Miyako Odori from April 1 to 30

Special Traditional Joint Performances by Five Hanamachi of Kyoto

Miyabi-kai Ceremony

Gion Matsuri Festival

Hassaku (an event in which geisha visit their teachers and teahouses to thank them) on August 1

Onshu-kai (dance performance) from October 1 to 7

Kaomise soken (kabuki viewing by a group of geisha in the hanamachi)

Kotohajime (an event in which geisha visit their teachers and teahouses to thank them for their support in the year and for continued support in the new year)

Okotosan (an event on the last day of the year in which geisha visit teahouses to say in the Kyoto dialect 'Okotosan,' or roughly meaning 'it's been busy')

[Original Japanese]