Language of Kyoto

The language used in Kyoto’s geiko district is an old Kyoto dialect—and some words may sound bizarre even to a Japanese native. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you may find it useful to get familiar with the basics of 花街言葉 kagai kotoba, the “geiko districts language”. Use them during your next trip to Kyoto’s Gion!

Kagai kotoba can be heard only within the five geiko districts of Kyoto. Every girl who wants to become a maiko has to master this language before her official debut. Maiko and geiko are ambassadors of the old Kyoto elegance and manners, therefore they need to speak such language. It might be challenging for girls who come from different parts of Japan and have a strong local accent (i.e. Tokyo, Kyushu, Okinawa).

Customers are always eager to chat in Kyoto-ben with maiko

Not only geiko and maiko need to learn the Kyoto dialect, but many of the local shop owners and staff members also tend to use these words to make their services feel more sophisticated and trustworthy. Domestic tourists are always extremely happy to hear some Kyoto-ben at traditional shops, bars, or other establishments.

Kyoto dialect influences the way geiko and maiko communicate with each other
(maiko Koeri, geiko Katsue, and maiko Katsuhana on Hassaku 2019)

京都弁 Kyoto-ben (and Kansai-ben; it includes Osaka dialect as well) is used widely and commonly by people living in the area. Young inhabitants usually use only a few certain words characteristic for the Kansai region, while some older citizens build the whole sentences in Kyoto-ben. The accent is also crucial and it’s difficult to imitate it when you come from a far-away region of Japan.

Maiko Fukuya of Miyagawacho talking to a customer at a touristic event, November 2019

The language used by geiko and maiko is slightly different than the standard Kyoto-ben spoken by the ordinary residents of the old capital. Many of the kagai kotoba words were peculiar for the Imperial court or samurai families and are no longer used by the commoners.

Let’s discover a few basic words of kagai kotoba.

It might be the most famous word specific for the Kansai region. Used widely in Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka by everyone. The accent of “ookini” in Kyoto is much different than in Osaka, though. While there’s a double long “o” in both cities, Kyoto natives pronounce this word with a high-pitched accent put on “ki” and then finish it with short “ni”. Ookini can mean basically everything! Originally, it’s “thank you”, but it’s also used as a greeting like “hello” or “best regards”. It’s used by maiko and geiko while approaching someone or entering the room. It can be heard by some shop staff members everywhere in Kyoto.

This phrase is just a kagai version of yoroshiku onegaishimasu, a typical Japanese sentence that cannot be translated literally into English. Otanomoushimasu is said when you ask someone politely for something or when you want them to be kind to you or to remember you well. This phrase means something like “please take care of me”.

“-hen” (or “-hin”) ending of a verb is used instead of the standard “-nai”/”-sen” negative form of certain verbs. The word おへん ohen means “there isn’t” (ありますarimasen). -haru is added to some affirmative verbs as an ending. It’s a typical old Kyoto dialect.
-yasu may be added to some greetings and phrases in the affirmative. For example: おつかれやす otsukareyasu (“Good job”; instead of お疲れ様 otsukare sama) or おやすみやす oyasumiyasu instead of おやすみなさい oyasumi nasai (“goodnight”).

It’s an alternative form of the standard “desu” (“is”). “Dosu” is used almost exclusively by the geiko and maiko nowadays.

Some greetings like おはよう ohayo (“good morning”) or おめでとう omedetou (“congratulations”) can be mixed with a “san” ending to make it more sophisticated and formal.

“Welcome” used by the staff members instead of the standard いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase.

Da is a very casual desu, but in Kyoto (and the whole Kansai region) many people say ya instead. Such words make Kansai-ben quite soft to the ear. Similarly, ね ne (= “isn’t it?”) transforms into な na.

Honma means truth/true. It’s the equivalent of 本当 honto in the standard Japanese, but honma is used by almost everyone in the Kansai area.

Of course, the Kyoto dialect and kagai kotoba is a much more complex topic and the words listed above are just the basics. If you would like to learn more, simply follow me on Instagram and/or book a Japanese language class with me!

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One Reply to “Language of Kyoto”

  1. This is a great introduction to Kyoto-ben and the Gion sub-dialect. When I lived there, the most difficult word for me was さかいに sakai ni, instead of the standard だから da kara, to mean because or therefore. I couldn’t find it in any dictionary. After several months I suddenly realized that I never heard the standard だから、so that had to be the meaning of さかいに。

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