For most foreigners, going to Kyoto to spot a Geisha tops the list as the ultimate cultural experience when visiting Japan. The mystery of the Geisha puts them on the top of the bucket list for many tourists, but the ever elusive Geisha makes it a challenge to take a photo of one or let alone spot one.
Before anything else, what is a Geisha?
Before I talk on how to spot a Geisha, it is important to know a little bit about their story to fully appreciate when you see (or think of) one.
A Geisha (or Geiko in Kyoto dialect) is a woman highly trained in the arts of music, dance and entertaining. Geisha is Japanese for “person of art." She spends many years learning to play various musical instruments, sing, dance and be the perfect hostess in a party of men. A geisha, when she is working, is just that: the illusion of female perfection. A geisha’s makeup, hair, clothing and manner are calculated to indulge a man’s fantasy of the perfect woman, and men pay huge sums of money to have geisha attend to their every whim. Almost.
Though the mystery of a Geisha sparks the interest of many, it’s funny that most do not know what a Geisha actually is – some would actually only know of them as glorified prostitutes. The conception of geisha as prostitutes is a foreign misunderstanding. It is true that there was a time that they used to sell their virginity to the highest bidder (called Mizuage) as a way to recover the huge investment by the Geisha house (Okiya), but this practice has been deemed illegal since the 70’s. Though there still have been current but rare occurrences of Mizuage, this is not the main reason why Geisha still exist – I mean, they can earn an enormous sum of money just by entertaining guests, right?
Those who understand the intricacies of Japanese culture explain that a geisha is not a prostitute. A true geisha is successful because she projects a sense of unattainable perfection. When men hire geisha to entertain at a party, sex has nothing to do with it. A geisha entertains with singing, music, dance, story-telling, attentiveness and flirtation. She can speak about politics as easily as she can explain the rules of a drinking game. In a time when Japanese wives were excluded from public life in general, geisha were the women who could play the role of attentive female at business gatherings.
Geiko and geiko aspirants live in special houses (Okiya) in the Geiko districts. In Kyoto, young girls move there typically at age 15 to be taught communication and hospitality skills and various traditional Japanese arts. After an introductory training and examination, only the talented and determined will go on to become a Maiko (geiko apprentice), and eventually a Geiko a few years later.
Got it. So how do I make sure I see them once I am in Kyoto?
It’s really expensive to shell out hundreds of dollars just to be able to see a maiko or a geisha in private, so here are a few guaranteed, tried and tested tips in hunting without spending a fortune:
- You can hunt with all the camera-clad tourists every day from 5-7PM on Hanami-Koji Street in Kyoto’s historic Gion district. This is when the maiko and geisha go out of their okiyas to head for the tea houses and attend to clients.
- Be mindful of the taxis and be ready with your camera. You might be surprised to find a maiko or a geisha in one of the 50’s style taxis passing by the streets of Gion. They’re pretty fast, so be sure you have your camera ready when that moment comes.
- Plan ahead and take note of the festivities that have free public geisha and maiko performances. I was lucky that there was a festival called Hanatoro Higashiyama (runs for a whole week around early March) when I was in Kyoto so I made sure to watch the free public performance as they have scheduled. You can watch my video of their performance below.
- One tip that I can guarantee to you is to head out to Hanami-Koji Street at midnight in the freezing cold. This is when they head home from the tea houses. Very different when hunting Geiko and Maiko in the afternoon – no other tourists, it seems that all the other tourists are unaware of this mystery unfolding every midnight. You can almost feel their emotions after a night out at work. Some were a little tipsy (may be their clients had them drink a little bit too much), and some were being dropped off by their clients to their homes (you’ll witness how they say goodbye). Surreal!
- If all else fail, cough up the cash. Everyday starting at 6:00pm and at 7:00pm, you can enjoy geiko and maiko performances for only ¥3,150 at the Gion corner. It is conveniently located just at the far end of the Hanami-koji street, so you can just head straight if you fail to see one. Note that from December till the second week of March, performances will be held on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays only.
Leaving for Japan? Check out my ultimate Japan trip checklist – don’t forget these when you go
Consider these when Geisha hunting…
- There are stories of tourists being delighted to meet a friendly geisha in the street, only to learn she was actually a costumed tourist from nearby Osaka, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Taiwan. If a geisha or maiko is overly friendly and posing on the road, chances are she’s not the real deal. A ‘geisha for a day’ will usually walk around, take lots of photos and agree to stop for you to take her picture. Real geisha do not usually do that. Real geisha, when dressed up, are on the way to work or on the way back so they do not have time to spare. The quality of the white makeup is another good indicator of authenticity — a real geisha’s face will be refined and smooth. Question is, will your Facebook and Instagram followers tell the difference? Probably not.
- To fully appreciate when you see one, it is important to know how to distinguish the physical differences between a geisha and a maiko. This article explains perfectly in detail the differences between the two.
- They are not Hollywood celebrities. You are free to capture photos and videos of them (with dignity, of course) but you must respect them: no shouting, no blocking of their ways. Basically, do not scare them off.
- The geisha and maiko usually uses the back alleys to avoid tourists. In case you spot one (and she sees you), you’ll notice that they’ll walk faster than the usual. You are free to snap photos but please, do not get in their way as they have work to attend to and cannot be late (and you know how the Japanese are particular to time).