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Introduction > Higashi-Chaya-gai, the geisha quarter

Higashi-Chaya-gai, the geisha quarter

Higashi-Chaya-gai got its name from its cardinal direction “Higashi,” meaning “East” and from its social function.This is the quarter of the chaya-gais, the traditional Japanese tea houses where geishas formerly practiced an array of cultural arts on a daily basis to entertain the high-class society of the Edo period.

Stepping into the Higashi-Chaya-gai quarter feels like stepping back in time. The stone pavement, petite shops marked by varnished wooden billboards, and faintly lit streets in which one can see an elusive play of light and shadow among the traditional houses all serve to remind us of an era long past. Unlike the distracting electric billboards that swamp modern cities, Higashi-Chaya-gai presents itself to tourists as a miraculously preserved old sepia snapshot of a world that existed over 150 years ago.

The current quarter was built in 1820 and is organized as a labyrinth of narrow streets built around a central aisle, which was lined by the entrances to the most famous shops in the city at the time. Do not hesitate to wander around these alleys to discover what Japan would have looked and felt like before its modernization and westernization.

In this labyrinth of connected alleys, one can find the remaining storefronts of some old shops, such as that of the Higashi-Chaya-gai Kyukeikan, which shows how this quarter of town was separated from the others by its mud walls. Made of wood, the quarter’s old urban houses are called machiya in Japanese. Their architecture has several remarkable characteristics, such as kimusukos, large, barred panels that prevent outsiders from looking into the building.

The fact that these houses were built two stories high reflects their owners’ high rank in society, since such constructions were a rare privilege for the nobility during the Edo period.