Most people know about Gion, the famous Geisha district in Kyoto, but are there any others out there? Well, there’s a hidden gem of a city, Kanazawa, that has not one, not two, but three surviving Geisha districts! We went to the two larger ones, the West and East Tea Districts, to check out the tea houses, culture, and sights the streets had to offer.
Chaya Geisha District Crash Course
First, it must be said that like Gion, the odds of actually seeing Geisha on the streets in broad daylight are very slim in any Geisha district. Geisha usually entertain in the evenings, and because they tend to get mobbed by curious onlookers, they take private transportation to and from many places, allowing them a bit of privacy that walking on the streets doesn’t afford them.
A Chaya (茶屋, or teahouse) District is a special tea house where Geisha perform, but not many seem to remain across Japan, due to a variety of causes. You can book a performance at Chaya, but those are hard to come across and very expensive.
Nishi Chaya Geisha District
Nishi Chaya is a smaller, more compact, and less busy version of one such district. Nishi Chaya is a single street with a few rustic buildings in the old Edo style. While it lacks the size and complexity of Gion or Higashi Chaya, it does hold a charm of its own. It was founded in 1820 for Geiko (local word for Geisha) to entertain wealthy guests and patrons.
Nishi Chaya hosts the Doll Museum, which we briefly looked into and decided not to visit ourselves. If you’re interested in dolls and a variety of dolls from around the world, then you can’t go wrong there! If dolls aren’t your thing, there are plenty of confectionary shops on this street as well.
We also visited a very nice coffee stand, MAMEノマノマ (noma noma), with a lovely traditional warehouse behind it along a tiny stream. I think that’s what really appealed to me about this district: It’s small, but if you look around all the nooks and crannies, you could find all of these tiny pleasures to enjoy!
In the Nishi Chaya district is also an oddly-placed European-style building. This is actually a training hall for geisha! It’s right next to a museum of Geisha music and performance as well, where you can see a sample performance room and traditional instruments that Geisha are trained on. If you’re lucky, you can hear the women practicing, but we had no such luck on our trip, sadly.
Higashi Chaya Geisha District
Higashi Chaya is much larger than Nishi Chaya and it holds a large variety of things to do and see: teahouses, museums, shops, and more! We visited an old house in a back alley that actually doubled as a small museum to show how tea was prepared through the ages at various Chaya. We saw this beautiful iron teapot and a sunken fire pit in the house that really caught our eyes.
We also found a metal-working shop that sold art that used a specific bronze smelting technique that yielded all sorts of beautiful and vibrant colors. We ended up buying a magnificent set of coasters there that we adore! We found a variety of craft stores where we found gold leaf goods, woodworking, and paper gifts native to the region.
The streets here are winding and have so many little shops and treats you can find. We found monaka stalls, tea and coffee shops, and all manner of wagashi treats. We ultimately decided to have a rest in this district and enjoy a bit of tea, but not served by Geisha; that seemed a little too rich for our blood!
Tea and Sweets in the Geisha District: Are They Any Good?
While we didn’t spend much time in Nishi Chaya, we did make some time to sit down and enjoy some special Kanazawa specialties in Higashi Chaya. We chose to sit in the second-floor cafe Hayuwa, which overlooks the main intersection and the famous Hiromi Side Viewpoint with its lovely willow tree.
The tree is a pretty famous icon, and you’ll see crowds of people posing in front of its leafy branches in the warmer months!
We got each got our own selection of treats: The Mrs. got matcha with a wagashi treat and konpeito, while I opted for the regional specialty tea, Kaga-boucha (加賀棒茶), with a few dango of varying flavors (matcha, sesame seed, and soy powder: kinako).
The kaga-boucha is made similarly to hojicha: it uses the stems of the first tea harvest but those twigs are roasted longer than usual, giving it its special flavor profile. Since Ishikawa prefecture used to be part of the Kaga family realm, it bears their name. It is just as refreshing as hojicha: light, woody and earthy flavors, and it goes down smooth, hot or cool. It also has minimal to no caffeine, so you can enjoy it at any time of the day!
The matcha had a lovely light bitterness to it, along with a strong, almost floral quality to it. There are many different types of green tea varietals used for matcha, and many different schools teach a variety of methods to make the perfect cup, so wherever you go, you’re guaranteed to have a unique cup!
While we were unable to visit Kazue-Machi Chaya, both Nishi and Higashi Chaya were well worth the visit! If you’re looking for a nice bit of history without the crowds of Kyoto, consider giving Kanazawa a shot. What do you think? Would you visit Kanazawa for its Geisha districts over Gion in Kyoto? Let us know in the comments below!