Kyoto’s Pontocho is a magical street in central Kyoto just west of the Kamo River.
It runs north to south from Shijo Dori to Sanjo Dori. It is best known as one of the licensed geisha areas in Kyoto, but for the average tourist it is well worth a visit.You can stroll the area in 30 minutes and take in the tea houses and other traditional architecture. The tea houses are beautiful wooden buildings with no sign out front (they do have a small hand written sign with the name of the house). Tourists will not get into a tea house. They are the preserve of the well-heeled, the connected, and most important–those already known to the establishment. You cannot walk in off of the street and expect to get any service. Within the geisha hierarchy, Pontocho is the number two area, following Gion which is the top-ranked area. To spot one of the painted ladies–for example, Ichiraku, who is pictured at right–your best bet is to go around 5 or 6 pm and wait. At that time, maiko and geisha are often on their way to an appointment at one of the houses. Geisha have worked in the area since the 1500s. What you will find today is a beautiful street decorated with lanterns at night that features a variety of restaurants. They range from very, very expensive to quite reasonable.In the summer, these restaurants add outdoor decks, creating Japan’s only under the stars dining experience. At the northern end of Pontocho, just south of Sanjo Dori, is the Pontocho Kaburenjo Theater. This theater is where the maiko and geisha practice and, twice a year, perform the Kamogawa Odori, or Kamogawa river dancing. The dance performances are open to the public and combine traditional dance, Japanese theater, singing and the playing of the three-stringed shamisen. Beyond camera-wielding tourists–at peak times of the year, the area can take on the feel of a safari: Japanese and non-Japanese visitors alike in search of an elusive species–The area is also a place ordinary Kyotoites go to drink and dine.