Kyoto has 5 hanamachi, each with its own history and flavors. Collectively they are known as the Gokagai (五花街), which means “Five Flower Towns.”
The largest and most prestigious of them all is Gion Kobu (祇園甲部). Located beside Yasaka Shrine, it was once a single hanamachi together with its neighbor, Gion Higashi (祇園東), but the split occurred in a fantastical fashion. In 1872 the capital had recently been moved to Tokyo from Kyoto, and Kyoto was experiencing a drop in tourism and its economy was on a downturn. To remedy this issue Kyoto would hold a World Expo that would bring people from around the world to see the wonders that Kyoto had to offer.
In order to wow the spectators, the governor and the mayor of Kyoto asked the head of a prestigious dance school, Yachiyo Inoue (井上八千代) of the Inoue School of Dance (井上流), to choreograph and stage a set of dances so that average people could see real geisha dancing for the first time without an invitation to an ochaya. The expo lasted for just over a year, and in the end, the dances proved to be the biggest success of all. To show their gratitude to Yachiyo Inoue the governor and the mayor would honor any single wish that she had. Her request was to divide eight neighborhoods from the total area of Gion and make it into a new hanamachi where only her school of dance would be taught.
The new area, Gion Kobu, means “First Class Gion,” and continues to be renowned around the world for its annual dances that take place each April called the Miyako Odori (都をどり), which is known as the “Dances of The Old Capital” in Japanese and the “Cherry Blossom Dances” to English audiences. The symbol of Gion Kobu is eight interlinked dumplings with the “甲” character in the middle.
Gion Higashi (祇園東), meaning “Eastern Gion,” is the east most part of the original Gion district. It is the smallest of the five hanamachi that remains wedged between the gates of Yasaka Shrine and Gion Kobu. Due to its size, it only puts on a single public dance each year in November called the Gion Odori (祇園をどり), which means “Dances of Gion”. November happens to be the second most popular month for tourism in Kyoto as people flock to see the stunning maple leaves at the many temples within the city, so the Gion Odori makes an excellent companion to these wonderful sights. The symbol of Gion Higashi is simply eight interlinked dumplings.
To the southwest of the Gion district is the district of Miyagawa Cho (宮川町). It came into existence due in part to its proximity to Yasaka Shrine, but more so to the Minamiza Theatre (南座) that sits at its northern entrance. Because of this Miyagawa Cho is known for its kabuki influence, and it’s on display each April during the Kyo Odori (京をどり). Meaning “Dances of the Capital,” it is a showcase of the up-tempo kabuki style of dance and is considered a must-see event for those visiting each spring. The symbol of Miyagawa Cho is three interlinked rings that symbolize a connection between the shrines, the tea houses, and the people who live there.
To the west of the Gions and Miyagawa Cho is the very prestigious district of Pontocho (先斗町). Its name comes from the Portuguese word for “Port” and the Japanese name for “Town” as it is situated directly on the banks of the Kamo River. Each ochaya in the district has a veranda that is situated directly above the water, giving the customers a truly unique and breathtaking view. Its annual dances, which have also been taking place since the 19th century, are called the Kamogawa Odori (鴨川をどり), which means “Dances of The Kamo River.” It also follows the kabuki tradition and is a fantastic sight to see every May. The symbol of Pontocho is a plover, which is a small bird that’s commonly found on the shores of the Kamo River.
Finally, the district of Kamishichiken (上七軒) is located in the northwest part of the city, far removed from the eastern area of the other four. It is also quite small, but its long history has kept it alive and well. Their yearly showcase takes place earliest in the year in March and is known as the Kitano Odori (北野をどり), meaning “Dances of The Kitano Shrine.” This is referring to the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (北野天満宮) which had Kamishichiken built around it. The Kamishichiken style of dance is also related to up-tempo kabuki and is a great way to start off the cherry blossom season. The symbol of Kamishichiken is two sets of skewers with five dango on them that are slightly crossed over one another.
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