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Pontochō 先斗町

Geisha houses on Pontocho Alley, Kyoto
Geisha houses on Pontocho Alley, Kyoto

Pontochō is one of the traditional entertainment and nightlife district of Kyōto. It is just a, long, narrow, stone-paved alley running between Sanjō-dōri and Shijō-dōri Avenues, along the western bank of the Kamo river.

The name Pontochō is said to be a blend of the Portuguese word "ponto" (meaning point), or possibly "ponte" (bridge), and the Japanese word "chō" (meaning town, street, or road).

It is a good place to spot a colourfully dressed maiko (geisha apprentice). The best time is the early evening, around 6 pm, when they are on their way to the tea houses, or around midnight when they leave.

Like in neighbouring Gion, most establishements in Pontochō are extremely expensive and required to be introduced by a Japanese habitué. Nevertheless, there are a few affordable yakitori or other ordinary restaurants too. Most restaurants have a terrace on the Kamo River.

Kiyamachi-dōri, which runs along a small river between Pontochō and Kawaramachi-dōri, has all kinds of usual restaurants (as opposed to geisha tea houses) as well as nightclubs, and is popular with young Kyotoites.

At the northern end of Pontochō, close to Sanjo-dōri, is the Kaburenjō Theatre. The theatre has had the function of a practice hall for geisha since the 1870s. It provides a rare opportunity for tourists to view real geisha performing a combination of traditional dance, singing and playing of traditional instruments at an affordable price. The performances, known as Kamo-gawa Odori ("Kamo River Dances"), are only held in spring (1-24 May) and autumn (15 October-17 November). Tickets cost between ¥2,000 and ¥4,500.

Pontochō is the geisha neighbourhood where American anthropologist Liza Dalby apprenticed to become a geisha in 1975. She is the author of Geisha and served as a consultant for Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha, adapted to the screen by Steven Spielberg.

Maiko in Pontochō, Kyōto

How to get there

Pontochō is very centrally located. Three stations give direct access to the street : Hankyū Kawaramachi station, or just across the bridge Keihan Gion-Shijō and Keihan Sanjō stations.

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