Just like I was when I first arrived in Japan, I believe a lot of people who go to the country are dying to see geishas, right? In addition to trying to catch a glimpse of them walking down the street, I wanted to have a closer or, at least, longer interaction, to live the traditional world of the geisha up close! I found that this is possible and that there were some possibilities of seeing and interacting with the geisha in Kyoto besides just trying your luck. Check out the four options below.
But first of all, do you know the difference between geisha, geiko, and maiko? Could you imagine that an actor could be called a geisha? That’s because the term refers to any “entertainment person”, including the geishas themselves. Geiko is the most appropriate term for what we know as geisha. While the term maiko refers to the geikos apprentices and literally means “dancing child”.
Besides the terms being different, it’s possible to discern geikos and maikos through the clothing and hairstyles. A geiko dresses more soberly, with more neutral colors, and has a hairstyle with fewer accessories. While maikos have many hair accessories called Kanzashi (there’s one model for each month of the year! See here), a super elaborated hairstyle, and wear more vibrant colors like red and colorful clothes. All to show that she’s still a learner, a “child” who is in the process of training.
Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that it’s possible to see geishas in other parts of the country as well, and in other geisha districts like Osaka or Tokyo, for instance. But Kyoto is undoubtedly the most traditional and “easy” place to find them.
1- See geisha in Kyoto walking the streets of Hanamachis
Hanamachi means flower town and is the name given to the districts where geisha, maikos and the famous tea houses are, which can be both the houses where they live (okiya) as well as establishments to entertain visitors (ochaya). In Kyoto, there are 5 hanamachi, also called Gokagai (literally “five geisha districts”), which are the places you can go to try and see the geisha: Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Ponto-chō, Miyagawachō, and Kamishichiken.
First of all, you should know that it’s not polite to stare, chase or point cameras and smartphones in the face of geishas. Of course, it’s not always that we come across one on the street, and it’s obvious that we’re curious, but it’s worth the warning to try to be discrete.
During certain times of the year the probability of seeing geishas in Kyoto will be higher, and these times are: on the weekends and holidays, and early or late at night. This is because it’s at these times that they’re going in or out of their appointments and dinners, going to the ochayas on foot. Keep in mind that these are entertainment people, so these times are easier to guess. Monday night, for example, is not a good day to see geishas and it’ll be hard to come across one, while on Saturday we saw several on the streets of Gion.
I don’t know if you saw the post on How much it costs to travel to Japan, but we hired a few guides during our trip. In Kyoto, we use the guides from Chris Rowthorn and got the tours 1, 3, and 5. One of the tours ended half an hour early and our guide used that time to do a little bit of the tour they offered in Gion. We hadn’t been interested in this tour before, but in that half hour, we were surprised by how much information we absorbed. We saw details that we’d hardly notice without anyone to show us, such as the little plaques on the front of the tea houses indicating the geishas of that establishment. So, I think it’s worth checking the availability and trying to do the night tour to learn even more about geishas.
2- Private dinner with geikos and maikos
The most popular way aimed at tourists is to book a private dinner with geikos and maikos, but it can get really expensive really fast, in the range of ¥100,000 (U$900), apart from the value of your dinner and the dinner of the translator/escort who must also go along. The presence of this person is mandatory. So add another ¥20,000 per person for drinks and food, as dinner is likely to be a kaiseki meal in the ochayas or even in your ryokan (a Kaiseki is a more refined meal with many dishes, traditional of Kyoto).
Add it all up and you’ll soon find that the geisha dining experience in Kyoto for 3 hours can cost almost U$1500. This value for a couple at a private, well-organized dinner where real and authentic interaction takes place. The experience must be amazing, and I think it’s worth going for it if you can afford to invest that money. But it really is only for a selected few…
3- Traditional dance performance during spring
We’re here precisely to reveal the least publicized secrets and tips. And that’s exactly the case with the traditional dances that geishas perform during the spring! With around ¥4,000 (U$35), you can watch geikos and maikos delivering a poetic and traditional presentation! With a little extra, you can even attend a quick tea ceremony served by the maikos before the performance (we paid ¥4,800 for the full experience).
If you’re in Kyoto at the end of March, April or May, stay tuned for this tip! You won’t be able to talk to them, unfortunately, but you’ll get to see many geisha dancing, singing, performing and serving tea. Besides the many others who will be in the audience accompanying other people. No kidding, I looked like I was in a scene straight from Memoirs of a Geisha. 😱
We went to the Kamogawa Odori, a presentation in the Potochō district, and were delighted with the experience. We showed what little we could in our Instagram stories highlights. But unfortunately, filming was forbidden.
In addition to the Kamogawa Odori in Potochō, you can look for performances in kaburenjos (sort of like an entertainment/learning/office/theater space) from the other geisha districts. The presentations from other districts are called: Miyako Odori, Kitano Odori, and Kyo Odori. You can see more info about them on this website or this other one.
If you aren’t visiting Japan during this time and want to see geisha performance or other traditional activities, check out the Gion Corner schedule. By the way, the surroundings of Gion Corner are great for sighting geikos and maikos. =)
4- Japanese festivals around the country
As amazing as it seems, we saw a geisha for the first time on our third day of travel in Tokyo, not Kyoto. And more, we saw geishas in a very rare moment – which only happens once every two years – when they wear pants! This is because we were lucky to be in Tokyo during the Kanda Matsuri, a festival that takes place once every two years in mid-May, always in odd years, for over 400 years! During this time we saw the geisha dressed as men called Tekomai. You can see more detailed information about the Kanda Matsuri on this website.
But it’s not just during this particular festival that the geishas show their faces! There are many festivals in Japan that happen throughout the year. Besides being very interesting, they are often frequented by geikos and maikos. So, look up their schedule before your trip and see if it’s worth attending one.
This is Japan, a different experience in every corner. We came back delighted with everything we lived, and we have already started sharing our experiences and tips from Japan here on Segredos de Viagem. ♥
Have more tips on how to see and interact with geishas in Kyoto or anywhere in Japan? So comment down here and help us make this post even more complete!
This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil)