John Dougill writes…
Charlie Chaplin loved it, and so have thousands of others. The Kamogawa Odori is simply irresistible and a rare chance to see geisha perform in public. It helps make May the merriest month of the year.
Kyoto has five geisha areas in all, popularly known as ‘hanamachi’ or flower districts. Gion is the biggest and best-known; Pontocho which stages the Kamogawa Odori is the second biggest. The name is thought to derive from the Portuguese term for ‘point’ in reference to a prominent spur of land once visible in the Kamo River. The geisha first catered to businesses along the Takase Canal, and when the area was made safe from flooding in 1670 teashops sprang up in a narrow passageway between the canal and the Kamo River. It’s said that the well-known term ‘the water trade’ arose here from the geisha’s custom of attracting passing boatmen. The district was given formal recognition in 1813 and became one of the city’s most popular entertainment spots. Set in tiny alleyways, it still retains a distinctive feel even today.
The public performances began in 1872 when both Gion and Pontocho put on stage shows as part of a tourist campaign. They proved so popular that the other districts joined in too. Geisha entertainment is usually a very private affair, so the intimate style of dance had to be adapted to a large audience with no specialist knowledge. Each of the five areas has its own theatre, and each of the shows has a quite distinctive character. The dances are grand occasions, popular with locals and tourists alike. They serve to bring the community together, for local businesses offer sponsorship and residents sell
tickets in support.
The most prestigious show is the Miyako Odori performed by the Gion geisha, done in a polished, classical style designed to appeal to connoisseurs. Much more relaxed is the Kamogawa Odori, which often includes a revue in which geisha act the part of samurai in the manner of a Takarazuka musical. ‘They fight at a distance, apart from each other, making sweeping gestures with their swords,’ noted Chaplin of the stylised performance: ‘The combat is impressionistic, terminating in a posture of victor and vanquished.’ One imagines the precise choreography appealed to the perfectionist nearly as much as the dainty young girls.
The performances come to a rousing end when a grand finale brings all together in a dazzling display of brightly coloured kimono. Weaving round the stage in swirling patterns, twirling fans in one hand and flower bouquets in the other, the geisha fill the stage with a riot of colour that brings gasps from the audience. The sinuous bends of the body and the sensuous curves of the kimono create a kaleidoscopic effect of constantly changing shapes. The result is stunning. In a city filled with seasonal splendours, this spring display is one of its finest flowerings.
The Kamogawa Odori runs from May 1st through to the 24th.
Times: 12:30, 14:20, 16:10
Tickets: 4,500 yen (with green tea served by Maiko), 4,000 for “special seats” (but no tea), and 2,000 yen for the “normal” seats.
Location: The Kaburenjo Theater at the north end of Pontocho. Here is a map.
Text by John Dougill. John Dougill is professor of British Studies at Kyoto’s Ryukoku University and the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History, In Search of the Hidden Christians, and Japan’s World Heritage Sites. He is also a contributor to our book, Deep Kyoto: Walks.