Japan Winter Itinerary Part 2. An Intimate Visit to Kanazawa Geisha District – Higashi Chaya
My First Cultural Experience of Geisha in Kyoto
On my first trip to Japan a few years ago, I had an opportunity to tour a geisha district in Kyoto. Gion is the most famous geisha district in Japan, known for its teahouse (ochaya) and geisha culture. I was thrilled to sign up for a professionally guided Gion Walking Tour.
To my disappointment, I later learned that traditional Japanese teahouses follow a strict referral-based admittance policy. This means that only regulars — typically upper-class Japanese businessmen — of these teahouses are allowed in. The invitations are only extended to those referred by already-admitted guests. It sounded as if it is a fraternity for wealthy, middle-aged men. Boo!
Even after joining the officially recognized guide tour, I didn’t get to set my foot into the door. While the group tour was helpful for me to understand the traditional teahouse culture, I only got to see the exteriors of the authentic teahouses – not the ones for tourists – and geisha dormitory. The guide did spot a real-life geisha; unfortunately, she quickly “floated” away into the back alley that my eyes didn’t catch her. Apparently, they are trained to walk that way in public discreetly.
The life of geisha is kept beyond the veil for so long making geisha a mysterious creature arousing curiosity. It was possible partly because of the limited public access and partly because of misunderstanding around who a geisha really is.
This post is part of Winter in Japan Series:
- Part 1.Things to Do in Kanazawa in Two Days
- Part 2. Behind the Closed Doors of Geisha House in Kanazawa
- Part 3. Where to Stay in Kanazawa: Kanazawa Hotel Review
- Part 4. Things to Do in Toyama: Toyama City Guide for the First-timers
- Part 5. Shirakawago Winter Light Up Festival
- Part 6. Where to Stay in Takayama: Takayama Hotel Review
- Part 7. What to Expect from Traditional Japanese Ryokan Stay
- Part 8. What to Wear in Japan: Japan Winter Season Edition
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What is Japanese Geisha?
Geisha in Japanese means “person of art.” A geisha is a female entertainer who is highly trained in traditional Japanese arts, music, and dance. Geishas entertain male guests by singing, dancing and playing musical instruments at conventional Japanese teahouse. They are not a prostitute.
You might be surprised to learn that young girls first need to go to a geisha school for professional training. These girls in their apprenticeship are called maiko. Once they graduate from school, they officially become a geisha.
Why Visiting a Geisha House in Kanazawa?
After the slightly disappointing Kyoto Gion experience, I was super excited to learn that I can step into an authentic teahouse in Kanazawa Geisha District!
Higashi Chaya has successfully preserved Japanese edo-era teahouses. These geisha houses in Kanazawa have historical and cultural significance; Kanazawa geishas still perform ceremonies and customs handed down from edo geishas.
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Higashi Chaya: Kanazawa Geisha District
Two of the teahouses in Higashi Chaya in Kanazawa is open to the public. I decided to stop by both Shima and Kaikaro Teahouses. These teahouses don’t really advertise themselves with a big English sign. In fact, any authentic ones would not need to do so. I was able to recognize the front exterior from the Kanazawa map I picked up from the JR station.
Address: 1-31-21 Higashiyama, Kanazawa, Ishikawa [Google Map]
Tel: (81) 076-252-5675
Hours: 9 am – 6 pm; No closing days
Admission: 500 Yen (Cash Only)
Tea Ceremony: 750 Yen
When I slide-opened the wooden door of Shima Teahouse, a lady in Kimono inside an office greeted me. After I paid 500 yen, I received a brochure, took off my shoes, then finally another layer of a door was opened for me to get in. I was asked to put away my purse into a locker (free) before proceeding. No selfie sticks or bulky professional cameras were allowed.
Inside was dark and cold without an ounce of heat in the air. Given it was a snowy day in the middle of January, I was expecting to warm myself up a bit inside. Since I took off my insulated winter boots, my feet were freezing on the cold tatami floor – a traditional Japanese mat woven with rice straw.
I first was guided into the second floor through the stairwell. There, I saw “endless” annexing rooms, divided by sliding doors (“fusuma”). Only after reading the brochure, this unique room arrangement made sense to me. In chaya (or ochaya; teahouse), customers would sit in a guest room (“zashiki”), and geishas would perform singing and dancing in the adjunct waiting room (“hikae-no-ma”).
After taking a quick look at the instruments on display, I came back down the steep stairwell to the first floor. Here you can peek at the accessories and jewelry, mirrors and cosmetics, cigar pipes, tea sets and other decorations in geisha’s dressing room.
Another interesting thing to see here is the kitchen. It looks nothing like a modern kitchen. It’s a tiny, narrow space with the antique kitchenware on display.
Behind the kitchen, Shima offers a tea ceremony anyone can participate. The fee was additional 750 Yen that can be paid before leaving. I decided to pass as I wanted to check out the other teahouse before they close.
Walking a few steps further into the Higashi Chaya main street is the Kaikaro Teahouse. From the moment I opened the main door, Kaikaro represented itself much different from Shima. If three words can describe this place, that would be grandeur, glamorous and elaborate.
Again, I took off my insulated winter boots to get in; however, Kaikaro was much warmer than Shima. At the reception, I was able to choose between admission only (750 Yen) and admission with a green tea & confectionary set (1,250 Yen). The confectionary set looks delicious and decently priced, so I went with it.
First, we self-toured the guest and waiting rooms upstairs. Quite contrary to the narrow, steep hardwood stairs at Shima, the wide, red-lacquered stairs at Kaikaro was enough to awe me already.
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Kaikao Tea Room
Kaikao Teahouse beautifully implemented classical Chaya architecture called “kimusuko,” which is a sizeable wooden-bar panel; it was designed to let in the sun into the house while preventing outsiders from peeping in.
In the tearoom downstairs, I sat at the wooden square table, built around a metal teapot boiling in a heated sand pool (“irori”). When we looked out the kimusuko, snow suddenly started to pour in. While others run on the street vainly attempting to avoid the heavy snowfall, I was enjoying a warm matcha green tea with dessert. I felt cozy and didn’t want to leave.
Kaikaro offered an array of Kanazawa gold leaf desserts, which is a local specialty craft. Kuzukiri (jellied kudzu starch that looks like a noodle) was served cold with a sheet of an edible gold leaf to dip. Sweet red bean soup also was served hot, sealed with gold leaf. Even a manju had gold flakes on top. A group of us ordered one each to taste. Everything was delicious!
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Kanazawa Teahouse Comparison: Shima vs. Kaikaro Teahouses
Shima has turned into a museum now and no longer serves as a traditional teahouse. Since the establishment about 200 years ago, the only additions to the house are electricity and modern toilets. This kind of preservation makes Shima a bit old and outdated but more authentic to the original Edo-period teahouse. Shima was unique because you can peek at geisha’s dressing room and kitchen that tell a story about the geisha’s life.
Although Kaikaro was built about the same time, it seems more modern and decorative. The tearoom is cozy and inviting with delicious tea and local-specialty desserts. No wonder, Kaikaro still serves as a traditional, referral-only admitting teahouse in the evenings while it is open to the public during the day. Occasionally, Kaikaro hosts a ticketed event “enyukai” where attendees can watch geisha performance. Experiencing the traditional Chaya culture and watching geisha performance sound fantastic to me. Why not?
I’d recommend visiting both places as each offers its unique beauty and experience. Try green tea + confectionery set at Kaikaro tearoom.