Geisha (芸者) , geiko (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act as hostesses. They are one of the most misunderstood pieces of the Japanese cultural puzzle. They are trained as hostesses with skills in various Japanese arts, particularly dance, music and the tea ceremony.
The history of geisha goes back to the eighteenth century, and even after so much time, modern geisha still undergo a long apprenticeship process, live in traditional geisha houses and study traditional Japanese instruments.
Unlike Samurai, Geisha are still alive with their white-painted faces, traditional Japanese hairstyles and fabulous kimonos. If you have a chance to meet one, it will definitely be the highlight of your trip to Japan. So where does one meet them? That’s the problem.
Before talking about the ways to meet Geisha, let me explain a little about Maiko (舞妓) and Geiko (芸子) , the terms used to refer to Geisha in Kyoto.
Kyoto is known as the historical former capital of Japan which has over a thousand years history. There remain a hundred Maiko, apprentice Geisha, and 200 Geiko, matured Geisha.
A Maiko is under 20, usually starting her career as young as 15 to be a professional in Japanese traditional culture and entertainment. Both Maiko and Geiko go to a special school to learn Japanese culture such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, Japanese traditional music and dance.
Maiko are professional artists, yet their charm is in their youth and immaturity. Their appearance emphasizes their youth. For example, they tuck their sleeves in at the shoulder like a child.
When they turn 20 and are acknowledged to be skillful in art and service, they become Geiko. They are usually mature enough to listen and talk to the guest and required a higher level of artistry.
Let me give you some tips to actually meet Geisha. It may sound like a dream, but it is possible. What’s more, there are several choices ranging financially from reasonable to expensive.
While Kyoto is considered the most famous Japanese city for geisha, you’ll find them in several areas of Tokyo as well. Asakusa, the city’s oldest geisha district, has managed to retain the feeling of the Tokyo of the past, including geisha traditions.
It’s also possible to spot a geisha in her full regalia in the upmarket Ginza entertainment district. Since it’s very rare to spot a geisha out and about in Tokyo, you’re better off attending a geisha show if you’re really interested in the culture; the best of these takes place in the Shinbashi District at Azuma Odori.
If you want a taste of what it’s like to be a geisha, a few business will deck you out in traditional geisha makeup, including the white face powder, and a traditional kimono. The entire process takes over an hour.
For budget travelers who want to see Geisha but don’t want to spend much money, Gion Corner is the best place to go. It is a theater where they play a digest version of seven Japanese traditional performing arts: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, koto (Japanese Harp) playing, gagaku (court dance), kyogen (comic play), Maiko dance and Bunraku (puppet play).
At the end of the show, a Maiko or two show up and dance a traditional Japanese dance. As the theater was first made for the Tokyo Olympic Games to welcome foreign guests, it has various language brochures and earphone guides. You can experience all the performances for only ($30) !
Then the only way to see Geisha is to go to the Gion area (Kyoto) or Asakusa (Tokyo) or Shinbashi (Tokyo) and wish for good luck ☺️
Anyway, Gion is where Maiko and Geiko live, so you may come across a Geisha moving from one banquet to another by chance. Hanami-koji, the street in front of Gion Corner, would be good place to wait and see.
If you’d like to “meet ” a Geisha, Gion Hatanaka will make your dream come true. They have a special package for meeting a Geisha while enjoying authentic Kyoto cuisine. A few Maiko and Geiko in full make-up will come to the room to show some dances, pour sake to guests and talk to them.
You can say “hi” to them in person and take pictures with them. If you’re brave enough to raise your hand, you can even join their party games! It will understandably be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The most expensive and authentic experience, you (and your group) will be entertained privately in a tea house or ryotei (traditional restaurant) with a maiko who will perform dances, serve drinks and play party games.
Dinner will be included, and is likely to be a Kyoto-style kaiseki course. This can be a great option if you have a group of four to five people, as some tea houses will have group discounts.
Budget: Anywhere from around ¥20,000 per person and up, which covers dinner and the maiko’s hourly fee.
A more affordable option compared to the private dinners, these dinner shows are usually held in a traditional hotel or restaurant, providing the maiko with a lovely, dramatic backdrop.
While guests enjoy dinner, the maiko will perform one or two dances, come around to meet everyone and pose for pictures. This is a much more social experience, and is particularly nice for couples or solo visitors looking to chat and perhaps make new friends while also taking in the elegant performances.
Budget: Depending on location and number of people, these plans can vary from ¥8000 to just under ¥20,000.
If you’re more interested in seeing geisha and maiko as they go about their business instead of in full performance mode, or for photographers who want to get pretty “only-in-Kyoto” shots, walking tours of the geisha districts are a good option.
The tours start at times when it’s likely the geisha and maiko will be walking home from lessons or heading out for their evening appointments. While it’s understandably exciting to meet one of these kimono-clad artists on the street, please do make sure you’re respectful and don’t mob them with cameras!
Budget: Starting from just ¥1,000 for an evening walk, these are the most budget-friendly options for visitors to Kyoto.
If after seeing the elegant maiko and geisha you get an irresistible urge to wear the dramatic kimono and white makeup they’re famous for, there are lots of studios where you can experience a maiko makeover!
Make-up artists will skillfully apply the oshiroi (white base) and the bright red and black eye make-up, then dress you in your choice of kimono with a darari obi (dangling obi). Then you can pose for pictures, take a walk around Kyoto’s sights and take awesome shots to share with friends back home!
Budget: Anywhere from ¥5,500 to around ¥15,000, depending on how many professional pictures you want to have taken. ☺️