When we started to plan our trip to Japan, one thing was very clear to me; I wanted to see a real geisha! But I soon realised that it was easier said than done. I read many articles about geishas and found out that they are almost a disappearing tradition in Japan. This profession doesn't attract young people anymore, and there are only about 200 working geishas in Kyoto. So my chances of seeing one were pretty slim. I felt like my obsession was kind of silly and even a little childish, but we still decided to try. I tried to prepare myself for a disappointment.
A geisha is sort of an Japanese hostess or an entertainer who mostly works at tea houses, but can also be seen at different events. They usually perform dances, play games with guests or serve tea and drinks. Against many believes they are not prostitutes. In the Kyoto area, the geishas are called either geiko or maiko (if it is a young apprentice geisha). Geishas usually have a long training which they start as early as 15 years old. They start as maikos and then graduate to become geikos when they are about 20. You can tell the difference between a maiko and a geiko by the way they dress up, and their decorations and make up. Also many tourists want to try out the geisha costume during their visit to Japan, so if you run into a geisha in a touristy spot in the middle of the day, then you have most likely just seen a tourist.
I chose our travel dates to Kyoto on purpose for the weekend because I knew that the geishas would be most likely working at least on Saturday nights. We planned to walk around and maybe even have dinner in the famous Gion Geisha District. I read so many articles about where I could spot a geisha, and based on those, geisha hunting was pretty popular among the tourists. Some of the pictures of people chasing them on the streets looked quite horrible honestly, and I didn't want to harass them. Many of the articles mentioned that geishas are usually busy getting to their work, so they wont stop for photos or to chat with tourists. I read somewhere that you could stand and wait by a known geisha school on a street called Hanamikoji Dori, and they would most likely appear at some point. This seemed a little much to me, so as a back up plan I thought that we could see a show with geishas at the Gion Corner Yasaka Hall cultural center. In this show the geishas perform some dances and a tea ceremony. A few times a year there are also some public events in which geishas participate and you can join in.
On Saturday night, we arrived at the Gion District which was already occupied by the tourists. The tea houses had opened their doors and the atmosphere there was somehow special. We walked around admiring the paper lanterns when suddenly we heard a jingling sound. And just like that, a real geisha walked by us! She disappeared as fast as she had appeared and we didn't have time to do anything. I had seen my first geisha! In the next two hours we saw almost ten maikos on their way to the tea houses, and they all seemed to appear from no where and disappear in a heart beat. It was magical! But unfortunately, we also saw some tourists who were running after them or standing in their way while taking pictures. We mostly stood behind others, but at least my husband was able to get a couple nice videos of them.
When we left Gion District we were standing at a traffic light with a maiko. She seemed to like our little daughter who was so fascinated by the geishas. They smiled at each other and waved. This maiko was maybe on her way to work or was waiting for a ride. At first I didn't notice a man standing next to her who might of been a client of hers. I have heard that you should not take pictures of geishas with their clients, so I blurred his face. Although I have no idea if this was the case or if they were standing there together.
Even my husband was intrigued by the atmosphere at the Gion District that he suggested we should go back the next day. We walked around looking for a dinner spot, and then stopped in some of the souvenir shops and at Yasaka-Jinja Shrine. I already wrote something about it earlier. This time we were not lucky to see geishas, but we did enjoy our evening stroll. We also visited Pontocho District one night, which is another geisha district in Kyoto. No geishas there either! But Pontocho was lovely with it's narrow little alleys and tea houses. Overall we felt very lucky that we happened to see so many geishas on that one night. We were definitely in the right spot at the right time!
If you happen to see a geisha, don't forget that they are in a hurry to get to work. They must be tired of big tourist groups chasing them around and getting in their personal space. Our special vacation time in Japan is their everyday life. Even the sign in the Gion Geisha District tells us that some people must have forgotten that.
MY TIPS FOR KYOTO IF YOU WANT TO SPOT A GEISHA
- The easiest way is to purchase a ticket to a cultural show in Yasaka Hall Gion Corner. They cost about $30 for adults, and they have discounts for kids and students. So not too expensive!
- There are companies who sell a dinner package where you can meet a geisha and take pictures with her. Prices might be a little high but hey, it's a once in a life time experience!
- The best places to spot a geisha otherwise are the Gion Geisha District (especially the main street; Hanamikoji Dori) or Pontoncho.
- Geishas arrive at the tea houses after sunset. We saw geishas right before 6 pm and then more of them right before 7 pm.
- The best days are most likely on the weekends, especially Saturday evening when many gatherings and parties are arranged.