Japan specialist Noriko Townsend (center) recommends visiting Kyoto’s Gion district in the late afternoon, when geishas stroll the streets. // © 2014 Noriko Townsend
Born and raised in Aomori Japan, a city on the northern end of Honshu Island, Noriko Townsend returns to the country as often as three times a year or more to keep up with new developments for her Altour leisure travel clients.
Returning from one of those visits just last month, the Fort Collins, Colorado-based Japan specialist spoke about one of the destination’s can’t-miss highlights.
What’s your favorite region in Japan?
If it’s spring, I absolutely love the Kyoto area. The cherry blossoms are so beautiful and the history is so impressive. There are so many UNESCO World Heritage sites. But you know, you really shouldn’t visit more than five temples, or you will definitely get ‘templed out.’
What sort of clients do you like to send to Kyoto?
Kyoto is for everybody, even if you don’t understand the history of Japan. The main focus in Kyoto is mostly the gardens, the temples and the shrines, and the Gion district is, of course, well-known for geisha girls. If you go to the Gion district about 4:30 pm, you’ll definitely see them.
But people should really go back afterward and revisit the same place and stroll around the streets after the tourists are gone. After 4:30, everybody leaves and it’s so quiet because there’s no chance of seeing a geisha girl. The narrow streets are so serene and you’ll feel like you’re in a different time.
Are there some specific Kyoto activities you like to recommend for your clients?
I often recommend maiko [geisha in training] dinners. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it’s not cheap. They perform, dance and play music. After dinner, when the performance is over, they’ll come and pour you sake and they actually come to talk with you.
Do the geisha speak English?
Some do. Not all of them, but you have translators. It’s a great experience even for Japanese people.
I’ve also had families who had so much fun wearing kimono and walking around the Gion district. There are quite a few kimono rental shops. They’ll put the kimono on and do your hair and give you kimono shoes — the geta — that you can wear and walk around in for three or four hours. When you’re tired you just return the kimono. It’s a very interesting thing to do, even for Japanese people.
How much do the maiko dinners cost?
About $200. I book them all the time because I know all the geisha houses. If somebody doesn’t know them, I’m sure they can book the evenings with a ground operator in Japan. The biggest ground operator in Japan, of course, is JTB, and agents could learn about the maiko dinner bookings through them.