Geishas are the fabled for their expensive Kimono and perfect make-up. Here’s my guide on where to see a geisha in Kyoto.
Geishas (芸者) are sophisticated entertainers, musicians, dancers, fashion icons and more. They are both exceedingly beautiful and rare. So rare in fact that hunting the Geiko and Maiko of Gion for pictures has become a veritable sport – not only among tourists but among passionate Japanese photographers as well. Now you need to be aware that there only a few places in Japan where you can actually see them. So very few of these high-class entertainers remain. The travails of the long apprenticeship and the strictures of the ancient geisha society aren’t particularly alluring enough to convince modern kids to drop out of school to start this career. Where once there have been close to 100.000 geishas all around Japan, today perhaps 2.000 to 3.000 remain.
As a tourist your only real option of spotting one of the fright creatures will be in one of the hanamachi (‘flower towns’, i.e. geisha districts) in Kyoto. The best time to see a Geisha would be around 5:45 pm directly on the main street (Hanami lane) in Gion. But let’s take things slowly. You and I, together we shall explore the Flower and Willow World a bit!
Want to know what a real geisha party is like? Check out my report on my private geisha party!
What you should know about geishas
As someone who has experienced geishas closer than 99 Percent of all tourists, let me give you some advice. I know your expectations are high. I can understand that visiting Kyoto you probably will want to see Geishas. And you will want to take a picture of them. Your chances of succeeding with both sometimes seem to be slimmer than seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat (and I certainly know how hard that is; check out my polar bear picture hunt in Spitsbergen here).
Now, first of all, you will have to understand what geishas actually are. There’s no way you will catch one among the lantern lit streets of Gion if you don’t understand these facts: Essentially geishas are private entertainers – very sophisticated and expensive entertainers that is. If you read or saw Memoires of a Geisha – please forget it all. The book is fiction and reflects modern geisha culture in Kyoto in a very poor way. It is a geisha’s job to lighten up any party, to entertain guests with dance, music, and witty conversations. Of course, their otherworldly beauty also sets up a pleasing background for otherwise dull proceedings. (If you want to know more about a Geisha’s real job, check out this story about my first geisha party) That is the core of the geisha business and that is why people book them. There is an official booking agency that directs them.
Now, why does that matter? Parties & entertainment typically belong to the night – and so do geishas. There are few exceptions to this rule – mostly rituals of the geisha community. But let’s forget about these for the moment, since as non-japanese-speaking tourists you will have a hard time navigating yourself around these.
Where to see Geishas in Kyoto
So let’s rather focus on your biggest chances! Geishas live in small communities with other geishas (some of them in training) and their adoptive mother. These communities are called okiya. The traditional okiyas are usually, but not exclusively, located near the important tea houses and bars. In the early evening clients will call and book (actually that will mostly happen weeks before, but let’s stick to the illusion here for simplicity) the geishas for their upcoming dinners and parties later on.
And here comes along your only true chance to see a geisha. Somehow the geisha has to get to the party. Most will take a taxi, but if it’s a short distance she may even walk. Once she has entered the tea-house where the party is going on – they are lost to you. Tourists or other patrons without an official introduction will not be admitted to the tea-house. Do yourself the favor and don’t try – especially not with offering money! So if you want to take a photograph of a geisha you have to be smart.
As a rule of thumb, most geishas will leave for the evening entertainment around 5:45 pm. This is when you will have to be in Gion – specifically the old part of Gion. The main street, called Hanami, might be your best bet. On this street, a lot of famous and high-end tea-houses are located. But for god’s sake do remember that some of those establishments will have a back entrance, and do remember that geishas actually live in this quarter of Gion. They will take the back lanes if possible! So be a little more mobile, if you want to see a geisha and don’t stand still on one spot right at the entrance to Gion where all the rest of the tourists hover about.
Oh and don’t go there later than 6:00 pm. By then all geishas will have arrived at their tea-house engagements and your opportunity for the perfect geisha picture will have passed by. Typical geisha parties (called ozashiki) will last about 2 hours. So naturally there is a chance to see them leaving the respective establishment again. Some will head back home, others will proceed to yet another party. The whole hanamachi will be vibrant until the early morning – especially on weekends.
You must realize, however, that by then it will be dark. It will be so much harder to spot your geisha in the gloom. Also, the pictures will turn out to be a blurry, flash-light mess. (Remember geishas walk rather quickly, and so will you, if want to have your picture!) So stick to the early evening, close before dusk – this is where you can track down your geisha, this is where you will want to be! But be patient and keep your camera at the ready. But be aware that a Geisha won’t stop for you to take a photograph. Your only chance would be to ask her in Japanese in a mixture of extreme politeness and desperation.
Other opportunities to see a geisha in Kyoto
Will that be your only opportunity to see a real geisha? Basically yes! There are a scarce few events in the life of a geisha, where she will make a staged public appearance: first on her debut and again when she finishes her apprenticeship. On these auspicious dates, she will tour her quarter and will visit the other okiyas and tea-houses. These events will usually be announced beforehand. Don’t expect to find these dates on the English internet or in your travel guide. (Some Okiyas have websites these days – again only in Japanese)
There is, however, another possibility. You could also book a geisha! Years ago that wasn’t possible at all. You would have needed an official introduction by an existing patron. And the closed shop of Japanese high-society would have made sure that you, as a tourist, would not have gotten one – ever! Luckily things have changed. First of all the Japanese economy isn’t what it once was, so the geishas actually need the extra income to keep things going. But from what I understood the opening is also about keeping the geisha culture alive. After all – how can tradition live on in a globalized world, if the world can’t participate? Expect prices of around 100.000 Yen for an evening (well actually 2 hours) with a maiko and a geiko. But even today you will need someone to initiate the arrangement. If you are staying at one of the high-class ryokans or hotels in Kyoto, they will be able to help you, though. (I always stay at the Tawaraya Ryokan and they can handle it for you.)
Is that too expensive for you? Well, there’s one other way to see a geisha in Kyoto. There is a public theater called Gion Corner located around the middle of Hanami Lane in Gion (here’s the official website). Every night this little theater brings traditional Japanese performing arts on stage. If you book a ticket you will have the chance to see an authentic geisha as well. Roughly 10 minutes of the 1-hour show will be dedicated to a geisha performance (the picture above is taken there). From my personal experience…well…how should I put it… Let’s say the theater is somewhat run down and the performance really lacks the class and style the whole geisha culture is about. Shows will start at 7:00 pm each day. So basically you could add this after your geisha hunt in Gion – successful or not. Try to get tickets as early as possible. You will not be the only tourist who wants to see a geisha in Kyoto the easy way.
Festivals in Kyoto to see a geisha
Okay! I admit it! I lied to you! There are in fact still other opportunities where Kyoto’s geishas make a public appearance. The flower and willow world is a business like any other and believe it or not, the geisha districts are very aware of it. It is one thing to create a super exclusive subculture that most people won’t ever be able to afford, but it’s another thing entirely to forget about the advertisement. So on a few days a year there will be special festivals and events, where the geiko and maiko of the different hanamachi will show off their beauty and the very exclusivity that gets them booked.
One of them is called the Kotohajime (事始め) and is held on December 13th each year. It translates to ‘beginning of things’ and will be very easily accessible to you. It sort of marks the start of the New Year’s celebrations in Kyoto. On this day all the geishas of Kyoto will visit their dance instructors, music teachers and other people who help them along in their career. They will thank them for the past year but most importantly will use the occasion to prolong their association for another year – hence the name.
Be aware that most maiko and geiko will not wear their usual big make-up, wigs and expensive kimono on Kotohajime. It’s a bit more low-keyed. Still, if you stroll around in Gion on that day, you will see them flocking around in an unusual density. There is no official schedule, but as a general rule everything in Japan happens quite early, so don’t show up too late! You will not be the only one around – just try to make out the most Japanese-looking photographer and follow him around.
Another good opportunity where you can see real geishas in Kyoto will be a Kabuki Festival called Kichirei Kaomise Kogyo (吉例顔見世興行). Kabuki is the traditional Japanese music theater (not unlike opera) and has a long tradition. Between November 30th and December 26th, an eclectic Kabuki festival is held at Kyoto’s foremost Kabuki theater – the Minami-Za. The Minami-Za is hard to miss since it stands directly in front of the subway station that gets you out in Gion. Even if you are not around for the Kichirei Kaomise Kogyo, you should definitely check out a performance there.
But back to your best chance where you can see a geish in Kyoto: Part of the Kichirei Kaomise Kogyo are special performance attended by the famous and not so famous geishas of Kyoto (they are attending, not performing!!). These events are called Hanamachi sōken (花街総見); The Hanamachi sōken, the viewing of the geisha district, are an integral part of geisha culture. In fact, maiko will wear a special hair-ornament with tiny tags signed by their favorite actors throughout December as part of the celebrations. The best part: every one of the four Hanamachi will host its own sōken! The Hamachi sōken are public events, but tickets will be very hard to come by (you will have to book months and months in advance and even then your chances are slim).
But it goes without saying, that the geishas will have to get into the Minami-za Kabuki theater somehow. There is only a front entrance. So waiting for them in front of the theater on that day will be your best bet ever to see them. It’s a public advertisement event and they will even pose for you (and the uncounted other photographers) on that day. If you don’t speak Japanese and can’t check the newspapers for the exact dates, do ask your concierge, he will be able to help you along! Like I said, the Hanamachi sōken are scheduled for December.
Last thoughts on Geisha hunting in Kyoto
Now I am a big, big fan of geisha culture. So my personal views might totally differentiate from yours. I would recommend you to stay a couple of days in Kyoto and go to one of the hanamachi every evening (I just mentioned Gion above, since it’s the most famous and active, but there are also Miyagawa-cho, Kamishichiken, and Ponto-cho). It will increase your chances of seeing a geisha and it will also show you the diversity of the geisha culture. You will be in the city anyways, most museums will have closed by that time and it’s a great way to end your day in Kyoto! (do check out my guide on things to do in Kyoto if you want to know what to do with the rest of your day)
And then, of course, I would advise you to spend an evening together with a geisha. For some, the price might sound steep, but it will be an experience to last a lifetime. I do it every single time I visit Kyoto and will literally think of nothing else on my way to Japan’s old capital. But then I guess, I am a little bit of a freak.
Oh and one last word: for god’s fucking sake – treat the geishas respectfully! Don’t hunt them down aggressively. They are aware that they are an important cultural asset/tourist attraction and most will to some extent enjoy the extra attention. But they don’t like to be touched, they don’t like to be harassed, they don’t like your flashlight 5 centimeters away from their nose and they’d rather get to their evening appointment without navigating around your clumsy attempts to pull out your camera. I’ve seen how tourists forget all manners too many times and it makes me angry like nothing else.
Since you managed to read all this I’ll treat you with a little video. This was taken on my last visit. Really need to sort my video archives and find the rest of the footage I got. Enjoy!
Ah well – thus ends my little but hopefully helpful guide on how & where to see a geisha in Kyoto. If you got any questions, please feel free to ask them – or maybe you want to share you down experiences with me! I’d be more than interested!!!