I could hear the people around me whispering and pointing, turning around there she was. In a street lit road in Gion, the beautiful girl laughed, she pretended to be shy, but in the end agreed to take a picture with one of the tourists surrounding her. Her white face, bright red lips, black hair, and kimono, a picture of perfection. As she walked away the woman smiled and excitedly talked to her family, happy to have taken a picture with a Geisha.
Unfortunately, the girl they stopped was not a real Geisha, but another tourist. Many tourists come to Kyoto and wanting to immerse themselves with culture, they go to one of the many salons that provide a Geisha experience. For around 10,000 yen or so you can dress up as a Geisha. For a slightly cheaper price some only rent a normal kimono and get their hair done as well. Walking through the streets in Kyoto, we saw girl after girl dressed in beautiful kimonos wondering the streets, so what do you do when you want to see a real Geisha? and how do you know they’re real and not tourists?
Rob and I spent a great evening wondering through the Gion district in Kyoto. It is beautiful, full of old wooden buildings and good places (although they can be expensive) to eat or drink. We also did a great walking tour explaining the history of the area, it was full of great information and with a little bit more research on my part, here is what you need to know about Geisha’s in Kyoto. Although my photography skills and camera are not good enough to take good pictures of people moving during the night, I did manage to get a few blurry pictures to remember the evening by.
Please remember, these are real people with real jobs. Do not get in their way when they are walking and be respectful when taking pictures. If they’re with a client, don’t photograph them.
Kyoto’s Geisha Information
Kyoto and the area surrounding it has a distinct dialect. Here, a Geisha is referred to as Geiko, and an apprentice Geisha as Maiko. In the city, there are five Geisha districts; Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Pontocho, Kamishichiken, and Miyagawacho. The most popular being Gion, because of it’s picturesque buildings and also being the setting of Memoirs of a Geisha.
As you walk through Gion, it can be difficult to know what the buildings are as privacy is paramount and the doors and windows to many of the buildings are covered. There are two types of buildings to be on the look out for, an Ochaya and an Okiya.
An Ochaya is a tea house, this is where Geikos entertain their clients, food is not normally served here and is usually ordered in when there is a party needing to be entertained. They can be distinguished by the small black metal plaque on the outside near the door frame. They are very exclusive and it is very unlikely you will be allowed inside without an invitation or some sort of connection.
An Okiya, is a boarding house, this is where Maikos and some Geikos live. The Okiya is owned by a woman referred to as Mother and she will pay for all the training, kimonos, food and everything else needed by Maikos when they are in training. Maikos will be indebted to their Okiya and all their earning will be paid back to the Okiya until their debt is paid. Once their debt is paid and Maikos have become Geikos, they may chose to live independently. Okiyas can be distinguished by the small wooden plaque or plaques on the outside of the door. They are rectangular and at the top there’s the symbol of the Okiya and underneath the name of the Maiko that lives there. The number of Maikos living in a boarding house varies greatly, so if you see three plaques, there are three Maikos living there.
Difference between a Geiko and a Maiko
A Maiko is an apprentice Geisha, they normally train for many years before becoming a Geiko. Geikos, on the other hand, have completed their training, are slightly older and more experienced than Maikos. Their kimono, make-up, and hair style are different and once you know what you’re looking for it’s very easy to distinguish between the two. Both Maikos and Geikos are normally very busy and they will rarely stop and pose for a tourist. They usually walk very fast to their next destination.
Make-Up: There are many subtle differences between the make-up of a Geiko and Maiko but the most obvious one is their lips. During their first year of training, Maikos only colour their bottom lip red, afterwards older Maikos will thinly colour both lips. Geikos will colour both lips and sometimes use a slightly fuller shape compared to Maikos.
Hair: Maikos use their actual hair to create the elaborate hair style, they will have flowers and hair pins on it, the size and colour depending on what stage of their training they are at and what Okiya they belong to. Geikos use a wig and a simpler pin to present a more mature look.
Kimono: Maikos kimonos are more elaborate and colourful, with long sleeves that can sometimes drape to the floor. They have a red collar that can sometimes be embroidered with different colours. Their obi (belt) drapes at the backs and at the bottom there is a symbol in the middle, the sign of the Okiya where they live. As Geikos are older and more mature, they wear a simpler (although just a beautiful) kimono. Their collars are white and their obi is neatly folded at the back.
Where to See a Geisha in Kyoto?
Dine in an Ochaya
If you want to truly experience being entertained by a Geiko, dining in an Ochaya is the only way. Unfortunately, the services are really expensive and you will normally need to be introduced by an existing costumer to even make it through the door. However, if your budget is large enough there are a handful of travel agents or hotels that might be able to arrange it for you.
Gion Corner offers two shows in the evening at 6:00pm and at 7:00pm respectively, showcasing different traditional Japaneses arts. It includes a kyo-mai dance performed by a Maiko. It’s just over 3,000 yen but it can be easy to find a discount coupon. If you’re around Gion Corner just before the last show finishes, you might be able to spot a Maiko that just finished her dance performance, leaving to go to work or back to her Okiya.
Festivals in Kyoto
Throughout the year, there are a many festivals and traditional events that will have Geikos and Maikos there. This can be one of the cheapest ways to see a Geisha up close. They usually happen during the changing of the seasons, for example when the cherry blossoms (this is also a good blog post about Geishas in Kyoto) are in full bloom.
Seeing a Geiko or Maiko Walking
The last option (and it’s free!), is to spot a Geiko or Maiko walking through one of the Geisha districts while they’re on their way to work or back home. Maikos work extremely hard, during the day they must study and train in various Japanese arts, and in the evening they will entertain guests, they can have anything from one to three appointments per night.
Each appointment usually last two hours, with the first one normally starting at 6:00 in the evening. This means that the best time to see a Geiko or Maiko is when they walk from one tea house to the other, at 6:00, 8:00, 10:00 or 12:00 give or take 15 minutes depending if they’re early or late.
After our great walking tour we managed to see a Maiko leaving Gion Corner, a quick glimpse of the beautiful kimono and immaculate hair, quickly walking away on her way to work. Knowing how rare it can be to see a Geisha, we were pretty happy and we decided to get some food. Instead of taking the main road we got lost in the many little alley ways, and as we walked towards the restaurant we saw another Maiko walking in the same direction on the way to a tea house. It was almost eight o’clock. By the time we finished dinner, it was just before ten and really enjoying our previous walk we decided to walk back to our hostel through Gion, we got very lucky and saw two more!
Gion is a very special neighbourhood, each building steeped in history, with a different story to tell. The small wooden buildings, the bright white or red lanterns, and the quiet atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve travelled back in time. If you’re lucky, as you walk through a small road, listening to the murmurs and quiet laughter, in front of you, just for a brief second, a Geisha will walk by.
Below you can also check out our short video of us doing the walking tour.