It has been three centuries since the beginning of the geisha culture, and the world is still intrigued.
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, for a particular design assignment.
The geisha exists in the flower & willow world.
What’s A Geisha?
She’s a professional entertainer and highly-skilled artist trained in many traditional Japanese arts. A geisha 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 the olden days, geisha houses (okiya) often buy young girls from poor families. The okiya will take responsibility to raise and train them. The girl will first work as maid and assistant to the okiya’s geisha, taking lessons meanwhile. Once she becomes an apprentice geisha, i.e., a maiko, she would accompany senior geisha to banquets, parties and teahouses (ochaya) – places that make up their work environment.
The social system in Japan was that the wives maintained the home and did not participate with men in business or politics, therefore they could not entertain their husbands’ business associates or host any related functions. Geisha, therefore, became an integral part of business entertainment by serving as gracious hosts at banquets. Affluent businessmen would arrange for food and drinks, and hire them to entertain their associates with music, dance and light conversation. Some businessmen became patrons of a favorite geisha for which he pays handsomely.
In modern days, becoming a geisha is entirely voluntary.
Geisha in Numbers
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 (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and 55 maiko.
It’s a culture that is fast vanishing in the modern world.
Geisha dress in traditional kimonos and wear geta (wooden clogs). They use a white foundation for make-up 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.
Japanese are people sensitive to changes of seasons, finding delicacy and beauty in the transition from one season to another. From kimonos to hair accessories, they are in accordance with the current season.
The most famous area in Kyoto for catching sights of geisha, Gion (祇園) is a beautiful, charming district with its many traditional wooden machiya houses. There are restaurants and teahouses where geiko and maiko entertain.
I noticed, when it’s nearly time for business, staff of teahouses and restaurants will hose and wet the floor outside. Was it to clean the floor for the customers that will arrive? Or is there another significance to this? I’m not sure. Then, out comes cloth curtains to be hung above the entrance, and lanterns will be lit.
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 Dec, I was beginning to worry that soon, it’ll be too dark for photos.
Randomly along an alley, I turned around and saw her.
She walked briskly, turning and disappearing down a little lane quickly. It was barely 4.30pm. Nearby, there were 1 or 2 more photographers who had been waiting just like me, snapping photos of this maiko from a distance away respectfully. I was actually really stoked inside of me, it being my first time seeing a maiko. Everyone remained really calm and especially quiet.
The surreality of the experience remains vivid in my mind. Afterwards, I saw a few more maiko. As it got darker, it was also getting very chilly. My persistence finally paid off when she appeared at 5.10pm, right along the street that I was pacing.
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 to my choice of accommodation near Kyoto Station.
How to See A Geisha at Hanami-koji in Gion
Plenty of it is about luck, I believe. My first sight of the maiko on a Saturday was at about 4.20pm, while seeing the geisha was at approximately 5.10pm. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one pass by you along Hanami-koji street as she makes her way to her next engagement. Do refrain from shouting in excitement, running after them, or asking for photos, because they’re paid for their time to get from appointment to appointment, so they will not stop for you. It is very rude to harass a maiko/geisha, please don’t do that.
Another budget-friendly method is to attend a cultural show at Gion Corner (thought I saw mixed reviews about the experience), or if you have a good budget, there are also tour groups that offer lunch or dinner packages and you can engage with a one in person.