It has been three centuries since the beginning of the geisha culture.
Are you like me, still intrigued by this mysterious culture?
When I was in design school, fascinated by this geisha culture that was kept away from the rest of the world, I read up intensely on it, mainly for my design assignment actually. I wanted to find out more about the geisha – she who exists in the flower & willow world.
So we were going Kyoto, and there’s no way I could visit Kyoto and not try my best to see a real geisha.
History of Geisha: What is a Geisha?
“Are geishas prostitutes?”
A geisha is actually a professional entertainer & highly-skilled artist trained in many traditional Japanese arts. She spends about six years studying the arts of music, dance, theatre, tea ceremony, language, hostessing, etc. Throughout her career, she continues to learn and practise these artistic accomplishments.
In Kyoto, a geisha is also called a geiko.
How did a geisha come into the Japanese culture?
The social system in Japan back then was that the wives maintained the houses. They don’t participate with men in business or politics. Therefore, these women couldn’t entertain their husbands’ business associates or host functions. This is where geishas fill the gap – serving as gracious hosts at banquets. Rich businessmen would arrange for food and drinks, and hire geishas to entertain their associates with music, dance and light conversation.
Some businessmen then became patrons of a preferred geisha, whom he’ll pay generously.
How many geisha were there in Japan?
In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan (source). By 1970, they numbered about 17,000 and today, there are fewer than 1,000. Statistics recorded in 1999 stated that there are 190 teahouses remaining, employing 195 geiko and 55 maiko.
In modern days, becoming a geisha is entirely voluntary. It’s a culture that’s fast vanishing in the modern world.
Difference between a maiko and geisha
Long ago, geisha houses (okiya) often buy young girls from poor families. The okiya will then take responsibility to raise and train the girls. The girls will first work as maids and assistants (their ranks is termed shikomi) to the okiya’s geishas, while taking lessons in the meantime.
Once the girl becomes an apprentice geisha – a maiko (舞妓), she would find a geisha to become her oneesan (‘elder sister’) and mentor. There would be a ritual for this binding ceremony. The maiko will accompany her oneesan to banquets, parties and teahouses (ochaya) – which is a geisha’s work environment. The geisha will introduce her little sister to her patrons and associates in the industry.
Photoshoot of a maiko, whose name is Koyoshi. Photographed by AnikiKarasuno.
The Distinctive Look of the Geisha
A geisha’s outfit is actually an elaborate affair which can take a long time to set up. Geishas dress in traditional kimonos and wear geta (wooden clogs). For makeup, they use a white foundation as the base, and paint their lips bright red. Their hair is worn up and adorned with ornaments, exposing the neckline – considered to be one of the most beautiful parts of a woman. From the maiko to the geisha, the make-up styles are updated according to seniority.
The maiko’s look is more decorative and dramatic, while the geisha’s look will be more toned down to reflect their elegance. If you wanna know how to spot the difference quickly, the maiko will look very young, at most 20 years old. Her hairstyle is styled from her real hair (a geisha wears a wig).
Fashion of Geisha
The maiko’s kimono is colourful and patterned, and her obi is let down long at the back, almost reaching the ankle. The geisha’s kimono is more subtle in design and with a white collar. A maiko’s clog shoes are thick and high, sometimes with bells that jingle as they walk, while the geisha’s shoes are shorter in height.
Japanese are people sensitive to changes of seasons, finding delicacy and beauty in the transition across seasons. From kimonos to hair accessories, they’re always in accordance with the current season. Very poetic!
Where to See A Geisha in Kyoto
Gion – the geisha district in Kyoto
Gion (祇園) is a beautiful, charming district with many traditional wooden machiya houses. When I saw their photos before my trip, that formed my impression of Kyoto. I thought Kyoto is like that everywhere, but no, Kyoto is actually a modern city, which makes Gion even more special to visit.
Gion is the most famous district for spotting geishas.
Over here, there’re many restaurants and teahouses where geiko and maiko will entertain their guests.
By the way, there’re “geisha makeover” services available, where tourists in Kyoto can dress up and look like a geisha for the day or for a photoshoot. However, in Gion, the geishas & maikos you spot are likely the real deal. You’ll also see many tourists in Japanese costumes – another thing that tourists love to do in Kyoto.
On my first day in Gion, it was still rather early, at about 4.15pm. I wasn’t expecting to see any geisha or maiko yet. Slowly, I wandered around the alleys of Hanami-koji. The sun sets at 4.45pm in Kyoto in December; I was beginning to worry that soon, it’ll be too dark for photos. So I waited, and waited.
Randomly along an alley, I turned around and saw her.
It was barely 4.30pm. Nearby, there had been 1 or 2 more photographers who had been waiting just like me, snapping photos of this maiko from a respectful distance (btw, I was using a zoom lens). I was actually really stoked inside of me – it being my first time seeing a maiko. Everyone at this alley remained really calm and really quiet, an electric buzz in the air. Till now, the surreality of the experience remains vivid in my mind.
Afterwards, I saw a few more maiko. They were always quick to disappear, almost as if they were illusions.
As it got darker, it was also getting very cold. Still, I camped at Gion, waiting for a real geisha to appear.
My persistence finally paid off when she appeared at 5.10pm, right along the street that I was pacing.
A figure of a distant culture, quietly shuffling past the busy crowds of the modern world, along the main street of Hanamikoji.
My dream of seeing a geisha at Kyoto has come true.
At the last sighting, satisfied, a little cold and hungry, I decided to leave Gion and head back for dinner.
How to See A Geisha in Kyoto
Head to Hanami-koji street at Gion. Your best bet is that street, specifically, that section between Shijo Dori (四条通) and Kennin-ji which is a shrine at the end of the street), followed by the little alleys that branch from that street.
The best time is advised to be at dusk (early evening), especially on weekends and holidays. I was there on a Thursday if I didn’t remember wrongly, and I spotted them at late afternoon (4+, 5+pm), so I would think you need some luck too. You probably won’t see any geishas on Mondays.
Another budget-friendly method is to attend a cultural show at Gion Corner (though I saw mixed reviews about the experience), or if you have a very good budget, there are also tour groups that offer lunch or dinner packages and you can engage with a geisha in person.
Etiquette reminders for seeing geishas at Gion
- Don’t shout in excitement. Please refrain from creating a commotion and drawing further attention.
- Please don’t run after the geishas.
- Do not stop geishas for photos or selfies with you. Geishas are paid for their time to get from appointment to appointment, so they will not stop for you.
- It’s very rude to harass a maiko/geisha.
How to get to Gion / Hanami-koji: Take bus 100 or 206 from Kyoto Station. Alight at Gion bus-stop (the bus has screens indicating next destination). Turn and walk in the opposite direction of your bus, then turn right into Shijo-Dori (the road that Yasaka Shrine directly faces). A little further down, Hanami-koji street is on the left of this road.
Information about geisha in this post was based on my research during my school assignment.
More information sources: Kyoto Geisha | Kyoto Visitor’s Guide 300th Issue Special Feature | How Geisha Work | Difference between geiko and maiko
Instagram-embedded photos: @kyoto_maiko | @ThePetiteWanderess (mine)
Image credits: Photo of geiko & maiko in yellow kimono (Wikipedia, licensed under CC 2.0). Cover photo is purchased stock image. All other photos were taken by me.
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