What to Know about Geishas in Kyoto
Geishas are some of the most fascinating figures associated with Japanese culture. They’re recognised around the world for their general image, as well as a long history of performing service and entertainment roles in Japan. While some imagine that geishas are representative of some past era, they are actually still active and very well-respected in parts of Japan. It’s primarily in Kyoto that people still go out of their way just to catch a glimpse of a geisha or - if they’re lucky - see one performing. But there are a few things you should know if this is on your travel agenda in the area.
In Kyoto, geisha are actually known as geiko, and apprentice geiko are known as maiko. Maiko start their training when they are about 15 years old and spend the next five years becoming highly skilled in a wide range of entertainment including performing tea ceremonies, traditional dance, flower arranging and playing musical instruments. They're even trained in the art of holding engaging conversation! The easiest way to distinguish between a maiko and a fully fledged geiko is by their clothing. Geiko tend to have a more subdued look with muted colours whereas meiko often wear more brightly coloured kimono with longer sleeves, playful hair accessories and higher geta sandals.
You'll also need to know where to go to find geisha of course. Geishas are not so prevalent in modern society as to just be walking around town in any old area, and on top of that they tend to work on fairly strict schedules. So instead of simply hoping you’ll bump into one of these extraordinary women, you’ll want to research where they’re most active. In Kyoto, that means a few places such as the street of Hanamikoji-Dori and, somewhat broadly, the area known as Gion. Even in these places it’s not as if there are crowds of geishas milling about, but you’ll certainly have your best shot of seeing them, particularly outside the teahouses on Hanamikoji-Dori or on Gion Corner.
Another thing you might want to consider before you go looking for a geisha is that you should try to consciously let go of any preconceived notions you may have. Geishas have become something akin to symbols of Japanese culture and because of that, inevitably, they’ve been glorified, and sometimes misrepresented, in popular culture. Video games, TV shows, movies, and books give all sorts of different impressions of geishas, and as a result you might not really know what do expect beyond the traditionally painted faces. Sometimes depictions are accurate, and sometimes they’re not. Perhaps the most appropriate representation is in the digital slot machine Geisha Wonders. There, the game explains that the geisha is a traditional Japanese hostess trained in music, dance, and poetry. It’s not a comprehensive definition but it’s one general idea to hold onto.
Maybe most important of all is that you need to know the etiquette of looking for geishas in Kyoto. It may sound like a silly disclaimer if you’re a generally polite and conscientious person, but it’s vital to remember that geishas are "real people" not props, decorations, or objects of entertainment. For this reason, basic courtesy is expected, and required. Beyond this however it’s also important to be respectful of geishas’ jobs and lifestyle. If you see these women out and about, it usually means they’re on their way to bookings, which means they are not to be slowed down or interrupted. Delaying a geisha or getting in their way is considered to be rude and inconsiderate. You may take photos of geishas, but they need to be on your own time and from your own vantage point, which is to say you can’t stop them to frame a perfect photo or pose with you.
If you really want to dive into geisha culture, you have several options available to you. Private sessions with geishas are fairly exclusive and expensive, so you’ll either need to have a connection that gets you invited to a scheduled geisha party, or you’ll need to be ready to spend a fair amount of money to book a geisha yourself. For a more affordable experience you can head to Gion Corner in Yasaka Hall and enjoy 50 minutes of geisha performances including tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), bunraku puppetry and kyo-mai dance. Another more affordable alternative to a private geisha session is to attend an Odori dance performance. Each of the five geisha districts holds one annually, and they are a fantastic opportunity to observe their skill and grace.
It really is worth it to seek out these unique entertainers if you’re ever in Kyoto and interested in the culture. It just requires that you be prepared, because seeing geishas - either performing or simply walking down the street - is not like your average cultural attraction.