Have you ever watched the movie: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘? Or have you read the book? I’ve personally done both at a young age and I instantly fell in love with Japan’s geisha as I witnessed their unique beauty, grace, and discipline. In fact, ever since then, I have been deeply enamoured by their mystifying world — which, thankfully, have still survived up to this day!
I say ‘survived’ because I was also interested in the samurai (Japan’s olden warriors who typically serve a feudal lord or daimyo). I badly wanted to witness their noble way of life; however, it made me terribly sad when I learned that they no longer exist, and this is because their social class has died down long ago around the late 1800s after the emperor favored a more modern western-style army. Sure, there may be descendants and even people who still try to practice samurai behavior and/or swordsmanship today, BUT it’s not the same given how the whole samurai lifestyle and system is absolutely non-existent anymore.
The geisha tradition is not as old as the samurai but it IS old and I’ve surely developed some sort of mild fear that the geisha might eventually disappear too — which I hope to goodness, they won’t — and this worry of mine makes a bit of sense because there aren’t that many geisha anymore. To put it into numbers, back in the 1920s they numbered around 80,000. Their current number? It is now estimated to be only 1,000 to 2,000!! Because of this and more, it couldn’t be helped that I’ve made ‘meeting or seeing a legit geisha‘ as an item on the very top of my bucket list.
Well… guess what?
I already made this dream come true when I went to Japan this year!
What have I done, precisely? I talked to a geisha in Tokyo over a dinner banquet, I caught sight of a legitimate Japanese maiko (who was on her way to work) in one of Gion – Kyoto’s narrow alleys, and I watched two young Japanese maiko perform in Kyoto’s Gion Corner — three breathtaking experiences that I will surely remember and treasure forever.
Of course, now that I have met and seen them, my wish for their practices to continue for eternity has been strengthened even more!
But before I go on, actually, let’s talk about the movie again because I find it imperative to note that since ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ was made in Hollywood, it had several aspects that were false (if not overly romanticized) thereby contributing to the already growing misconceptions of this culture. Thanks to my discussions with a geisha, Kimicho of Tokyo, as well as to my long research sprees, I have come to learn MORE of the truth.
…and yep, you guessed it right!
Today, I will be imparting that knowledge with you so that you too can be cleared of any misconceptions that you may have about them.
Understanding the Geisha of Japan
» What is a ‘geisha’? How about a ‘maiko’?
A geisha, which translates to English as “performing artist” or “artisan”, is a high-class professional and traditional female entertainer in Japan trained in various forms of art.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In west of Japan such as of that in Kyoto, they use another name for geisha: geiko. Whereas in Kanto area (around Tokyo), they call them geigi. For Tokyo and other places, they commonly use the word ‘geisha’. For the sake of consistency in this article, I will use the word geisha. Besides, it is a more widely recognized term that can be used to encompass both that of western Japan’s geikos and Tokyo’s geisha.
Meanwhile, a maiko, which translates to English as “dancing child”, is an apprentice geisha.
Historically, a maiko starts her training at a very young age: around 3 or 5 years old. But now, their training starts at a much later date: in Kyoto they start at 15 or 16 and in Tokyo they start at 18.
Nevertheless, any girl who wants to enter the community does not have to begin as a maiko because it’s said that they can already proceed being a geisha. (Still and the same, they are required to do at least a year’s worth of training before debuting as a geisha.) For women who are aged 21 to 23 and above, they are deemed to be too old to become maiko so they already become a geisha when they join the community — again, still with training beforehand.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In Tokyo, maiko are rather called as hangyoku (“half jewel”) and they can remain to be so until they are 23. For the sake of consistency in this article, I will use the word maiko.
• What a geisha does •
A geisha is usually hired to attend to guests (who are predominantly and traditionally male) during banquets, meals, parties, and other occasions as she demonstrates her skills through various ways such as dancing to a tune played with the shamisen (a stringed instrument), initiating games, doing the art of conversation, and more.
Photo by: Japanexperterna / Color edit applied / CC
For these affairs, they meet up with their guests at an ochaya* (tea house) or at a ryōtei (traditional Japanese restaurant) and charge their customers by the hour with flat fees.
*Ochaya are highly exclusive places that customarily only grant entry to regular or trusted customers. This is mainly because of how they operate: they don’t bill their guests at the end of the evening, but rather once a month for all the expenses accrued — hence, there is a special level of trust involved. For instance, not just about anyone can go up to an ochaya without being introduced to it first by an already existing customer (and that existing customer would essentially risk their reputation by trusting the behavior of the person that they are introducing to the ochaya). Going by this train of thought, hiring a geisha to have a dinner banquet with is not easy especially if you’re not Japanese and not well-connected, as it is exclusive AND expensive.
Fortunately, most ochaya have lessened their restrictions lately and tourists can now have a geisha dinner if they go through partnered travel agencies and hotels. However, you will still need to prepare a considerable budget for this because a full geisha dinner can be worth around 50,000 yen and up ($470~ or Php 22,500~) per geisha or maiko. This does NOT include dinner yet which starts at 10,000 yen ($95~ or Php 4,500~), as well as an interpreter if you don’t know how to speak Japanese (since geisha and maiko don’t train in English conversation).
TRIVIA: Some people will say that it can be a ‘waste’ of your money to have a geisha dinner if you don’t speak Japanese — the magic of it all may cease to exist! They say that this is because you’ll be missing out on one of their best talents: conversation or witty banter.
No matter the case, this is all up to you of course! The way I see it, it might indeed be a waste of money, BUT I don’t think it’s a bad idea to do it anyway and get an interpreter (better yet, drag along your Japanese friend). And if you’re up for it, there are also already a few trained and recognized foreigner geisha in Japan who can speak English. I went through this experience myself and I enjoyed it so much! (To learn more about these modern foreigner geisha, go here).
By the way, you might be wondering: “Why are geisha expensive?!“
First of all, not only is their training long, meticulous, and costly (which they have to slowly pay back to their okiya or geisha house), but their whole attire (handmade kimono which are designed just for them) are costly too — it can start at $10,000!
• History of geisha •
Geisha started to appear in the pleasure quarters of Japan before the turn of the 18th century. The first geisha were actually men, whereas the first female ones who appeared years later were teenage odoriko who were expensively-trained “dancing girls” or dancers-for-hire. (As time passed on, being a geisha was mainly regarded as a female occupation.)
Slowly, geisha became more widespread and a lot of them started to work primarily as entertainers — anyone who was selling sex (which was against their intended kind of work) were imprisoned after all in order to protect the oiran who were licensed high-class courtesans or prostitutes at that time. However, when 1800 came in, the oiran slowly fell out of demand when wealthy Japanese men chose geisha more as their companion of choice due to their ‘chic’ and modern demeanour.
Simply put: the rise of the geisha was the fall of the oiran.
Left & middle photo by: Japanexperterna / CC | Right photo by: Keisuke Makino / CC
Meanwhile, when World War II began, geisha started to decline; they had to close their okiya (geisha houses), and the teahouses and bars had to close shop as well. As a result, they went to other places in Japan for safety or for work (such as in factories, etc.). It didn’t help either that some prostitutes started to refer to themselves as “geisha girls” to American military men.
Nonetheless, when the war ended, the returning geisha made it a point to reinstate their traditional standards as highly-skilled entertainers, and at the same time, they proposed increased rights for their profession.
• Myths to bust about the geisha and maiko of today •
1 MYTH: Geishas are prostitutes.
TRUTH: Geisha are NOT prostitutes. They are and always will be highly-skilled entertainers. (It helps to note anyway that prostitution is illegal in Japan ever since 1956.) Plus, even though there were some of them in the olden times who offered sex to their clients, it helps to note that it wasn’t a part of their true traditional function or training — call them rebels if you will, and they might just be so since as I’ve discussed previously, a geisha is imprisoned in the past should they ever offer sex to others casually.
Of course a geisha is free to pursue personal relationships with any man that she meets through work; but such would most likely never be casual nor will it ever be her goal for such an interaction. They live in a geisha district (hanamachi) which is very closely-knit community, and given how greatly they value their reputation, they would always pick their relationships carefully. Should they ever fall in love and want to marry, then sometimes they must retire because geisha (most especially in Kyoto) are expected to be single. Nevertheless, there are now a lot of places in Japan (like Tokyo) that allow married, divorced and/or women with children to become geisha.
2 MYTH: Geisha have personal relationships with a patron or danna.
TRUTH: This is NOT true today. It may have been tradition in the past for geisha to take a danna or a patron who was wealthy enough to support the expenses related to her training and other costs in order to have a personal relationship in return (which was not inherently sexual) with a geisha. But today, it is very unusual for a geisha to have a personal relationship with a danna and should they ever have one (which is rare because most of them love to be autonomous now), it’s mainly because of the patron’s desire to help prolong the geisha arts and traditions — nothing more. Again, a geisha and her danna can fall in love but intimacy is never viewed as an exchange for the danna’s financial support.
3 MYTH: Young girls are sold to okiya (geisha houses) by their parents because of poverty.
TRUTH: It may have happened way in the past, but nowadays, NO young girl is sold to an okiya due to poverty as it is more of a personal career choice in order to become a maiko/geisha. In fact, a lot of girls have to persuade their parents today in order to let them become one. Once a girl’s parents do consent to it, she will have to be interviewed first by the association as well as the female owners of the ochaya (tea houses) before being accepted.
4 MYTH: Geisha are lead by men and money (as portrayed in the movie: Memoirs of a Geisha).
TRUTH: This is NOT true. It helps to always remember that the movie was mainly fictional and set to be ‘sellable’ to audiences. (Well, hello Hollywood!). Being a geisha is like being an artist or a performer — it’s a respectable profession and much like any career you pursue in life that you are passionate about, you do it because you love it while also earning your living from it. They don’t go around chasing after men either; it just so happens that the people that they present their art and performances to are predominantly men.
5 MYTH: Maiko go through mizuage wherein a patron would pay to take their virginity. (As also seen in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’).
TRUTH: Nope. This kind of mizuage was actually a ceremony done by young courtesans and prostitutes in the past — NOT by maiko. Though there are speculations that this mizuage (taking of the virginity) was done by some maiko in the past, what’s important to remember is that this is NOT done today nor was it ever traditionally accepted to be done by geisha for their maiko. The only kind of mizuage that maiko have done was a ceremony wherein older geisha would symbolically cut the topknot of the maiko’s hair to signify her coming of age (of becoming an adult).
• How to identify geisha and maiko •
As you visit Japan, take note of the below points to help you quickly differentiate a geisha from their apprentice (maiko):
- AGE. As I’ve already discussed, maiko usually start their training at a young age (15 to 16 for Kyoto and 18 for Tokyo) so they are much younger than a full-fledged geisha who often start at around 21 to 23.
- HAIRSTYLE. Geisha usually wear wigs whereas maiko have their hair styled naturally. A geisha’s wig and a maiko’s natural hair are regularly styled by highly-skilled artisans (lately though, traditional hairstyling is slowly phasing out because it can sometimes lead to balding on the top of their head).
TRIVIA: Maiko have their hair styled elaborately every week. To keep their hairstyle intact, maiko sleep with their necks on small supports called as takamakura (they are tall uncomfortable-looking pillows; if you’ve watched the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll know what I’m talking about).
- HAIR ORNAMENTS. Maiko wear more elaborate decorative hair ornaments called as kanzashi and the designs can vary depending on the stage of training that they are currently in. During their minarai stage, their hair accessory is a hana-kanzashi or an ornament with flowing flowers that will dangle from the maiko’s hair to her chin (usually worn during the 1st year of her training). In contrast, geisha wear simpler kanzashi which is usually just a comb.
- MAKEUP. On a typical day, a maiko will be seen wearing the most recognizable feature of geisha: the full white face makeup. Geisha, on the other hand, do NOT have this makeup on unless they are going to do a special performance.
Maiko will always have a noticeable white band of unpainted skin on their hairline (since they don’t wear wigs) and their eyebrows will be shaded in red or pink, their cheeks slightly blushed, and their eyes outlined with black eyeliner and red eyeshadow. During the early stages of their training, ‘junior’ maiko (or minarai) will only have their lower lip painted in red and as they advance (as ‘senior’ maiko), both their lips will be painted but only in a thin line. For geisha who need to have their face painted when they work, apart from having no visible part of exposed skin near their hairline (since they wear wigs), their eyebrows will also only have a faint shade of red, their eyes outlined in black (if a ‘senior’ geisha) or with a slight red (if they’re a ‘junior’ geisha) and their lips painted fully in red.
Left photo by: Joe Baz / CC | Circle & right photo by: Annie Guilloret / CC
TRIVIA: This white makeup fully covers the geisha or maiko’s face, neck, and chest — except for the nape (called komata or the back of a person’s neck) which they will make sure is visible when they would later on wear their kimono. This part is considered to be a traditionally erotic area in Japan so they accentuate this sensuality by customarily leaving an inverted “V” shape on a geisha, and an inverted “W” shape on those who just debuted as maiko. (This style is called as eri-ashi)
- KIMONO. A maiko usually wears a colorfully-designed long-sleeved kimono (Japanese traditional garment) with a wider obi (sash) that is set to look like a bow as it drapes down to their back. A maiko’s collar is also a distinct feature because it is thick and embroidered, hangs very loosely and are mainly in the color red (other colors can only be gold or white). It will slowly have white embroidered patterns as they advance in their training but it will always remain to be dominantly red. Geisha, who are more mature, wear more subdued but refined kimonos with shorter sleeves that are usually in one color with a simple pattern at the bottom. Their obi is shorter too and it looks like a square bow knot at the back. Lastly, their collars are completely white and are not as loose. (Both maiko and geisha though wear kimonos according to the season).
- FOOTWEAR. Maiko generally wear very high wooden sandals, to prevent their kimono from touching the ground, called as okobo. Geisha use shorter wooden sandals called zori or geta (maiko will wear this too if the situation calls for it; but they wear okobo more).
Left photo by: Laura Tomàs Avellana / CC | Right photo by: Joi Ito / CC
• How to spot the fake geisha and maiko •
You might have heard of makeover (henshin) studios in Japan that will dress tourists up as a geisha or maiko for a day. With this in mind, if you have ever seen a geisha or maiko while you are around popular spots in Japan — like in parts of Kyoto or Tokyo — it is highly likely that you have witnessed or took a picture with a fake one.
To help you identify and spot these tourists who are only dressing up, see below the several features that they will possess. (Ultimately, henshin studios make it a point to NOT dress up their clients authentically; otherwise, they will be shut down by the authorities.)
- They have mismatched hairstyle, makeup, and clothing. Taking into considerations the descriptions that I’ve made previously of authentic geisha and maiko features, a tourist in disguise will always have a wrong mix of characteristics. For example, most of them will have the decorative long hair ornament (of a junior maiko) yet with both her lips painted (like a senior maiko or geisha) and with a wig on (though some shops can now do your hair too).
Also look at the 3rd one, she has a camera with her! (Maiko are not allowed to use any electronics while working).
- They are walking around crowded areas. A true maiko or geisha knows that she is sought out by tourists and they can get ‘mobbed’ in a sense; so, you will NEVER find them walking through a populated area while in their full regalia. What they usually do is walk through back streets and alleyways in order to avoid the crowd. Hence, if you ever see a maiko or geisha walking casually through a well-known place, she is surely a tourist dressed up as one.
- They are out during the early time of the day. Geisha and maiko commonly work in the evenings; though it’s possible that they are booked for an early banquet, it almost happens rarely.
- They are willingly taking photos with others. Geisha and maiko are actually paid for the time that requires them to get from point A to point B, so when they are out on the streets, they will never stop by to take photos with tourists. (You can always ask them though if you can take a photo, but do it quick). Therefore, if you see one who is taking her sweet time pleasing a crowd of tourists to take a photo of her (unless it’s an official event) then she is a tourist who had a makeover.
- They are accompanied by other people who are in normal clothing. Saw a geisha or maiko with an elder or companion who has to aid her while she walks in her high wooden shoes? That’s a tourist. Real geisha and maiko are trained to walk well with their zori or okobo sandals. Besides, they always know their way around town too. If they’re ever accompanied, it will usually be by a young girl in a kimono who will carry her belongings (this is a new maiko in training who is called a ‘shikomi‘).
Actually, you wouldn’t be aware of it but you might have had a legitimate geisha or maiko in your midst especially when you’re walking around in Kyoto. When they’re in their normal clothes (such as a yukata), identifying them will naturally be tough — unless you are a fan who recognizes their face or unless they are wearing their signature kimono and traditional white makeup (shiro-nuri).
NOTE: There’s another kind apart from henshin tourists whom you could easily mistake as legitimate geisha and maiko, and they’re called furisode-san or kimono-san.
An established business by ‘Furisode Gakuin’ at Tokyo’s Asakusa district in the 1990s, these furisode-san are paid entertainers only who mimic the look and services of geisha and maiko at a cheaper price (usually around 25,000 yen or $250 for a 2-hour party). They only have about 3 months of training and again — they are NOT real geisha nor maiko.
In fact, most of the geisha experiences that you might have actually read in other travel blogs are actually experiences with a furisode-san. How do the Japanese feel about these people? A mix of approval and disapproval. Approval since they help gather interest in real geisha; disapproval since they deem it as disrespectful to the real tradition.
How then can you ensure that you’re not booking an experience with a furisode-san? Apart from the cheap price as an indicator, make sure that you book through legitimate travel agencies who only seek to provide real geisha/maiko experiences (example: GoVoyagin).
» The geisha of today
Though the geisha tradition is dwindling (due to its exclusivity, expensive price, and traditional form), it is in Kyoto where it remains to be the strongest today. Kyoto is also the pinnacle area where experiencing geisha remains to be the best and most prestigious in its five hanamachi (geisha districts or “flower towns”), namely: Gion Kōbu, Ponto-chō, Kamishichiken, Gion Higashi, and Miyagawa-chō.
If we have to put it into numbers, as I’ve previously mentioned, there only about 1,000 to 2,000 geisha now and they are found in several cities across Japan — not only in Kyoto, but in Tokyo (with well-known hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa, and Kagurazaka) and Kanazawa too. It is said that there are about 300 geisha in Kyoto; but the exact numbers there as well as in other areas are unknown to us outsiders.
TRIVIA: I was told that there exists still a male geisha in Japan. His name is Eitaro and he is found in Tokyo’s Omori district.
Speaking of hanamachi, these are places that are generally referred to as the ‘flower and willow world’ (karyukai). Given that they are speckled with okiya and ochaya that are owned and run by women, all the power is then held by females. (Men in these districts are rather mainly artisans, dressers, or wig makers.) Children who are girls are also preferred so that they can later take on the business — this is a trait that is in contrast to the rest of Japan.
• The foreigner or non-Japanese geisha •
In order to keep up with the times, some okiya have been accepting foreign nationals as geisha. So far there are only a few of them that have been admitted. (Below are their Japanese names, and the data below is as of 2016.).
- Ibu – a geiko in Anjo, Aichi Prefecture // originally from Ukraine ~ source ~ retired
- Juri – a geisha in the resort town of Yugawara // originally from Peru ~ source ~ unsure if still working or retired
- Fukutarō – a geisha in Izu-Nagaoka, Shizuoka // originally from Romania ~ source ~ retired
- Sayuki – a geisha in Asakusa, Tokyo // originally from Australia ~ source ~ admitted as trainee but had not debuted as full geisha
- Rinka – a geisha in Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture // originally from China ~ source ~ unsure if still working or retired
- Mutsuki – a geisha in Shinigawa, Tokyo // originally from China ~ source ~ working as a geisha
- Kimicho – a geisha in the Oimachi district of Shinagawa Tokyo // originally from America ~ source ~ worked as a geisha since 2015, turned into a geisha interpreter late 2016 due to visa issues
Kimicho just started last October 2015 and I personally had the pleasure of meeting and talking to her! Read about it here!
Evidently, you will not see foreigner or non- Japanese geisha admitted (yet) in Kyoto as they still remain to be somewhat strictly traditional. Nevertheless, it is great to see that the rest of Japan is slowly opening its geisha tradition to others who love the culture, even if they are not of Japanese descent.
• How to become a geisha •
I’ve discussed this already above, but just to reiterate, training to become a geisha in which you start as a maiko begins at 15 to 16 in Kyoto and 18 in Tokyo (in the past, it started at 3 – 5 years old). So these days, girls must have at least graduated from middle school (except Kyoto who has special laws for it) before they can make the decision to train as a maiko and eventually become a geisha.
However, it is rather more common for young Japanese women to start training after high school or college; but a lot more would begin later. If they are above 21 to 23, they will already start as a geisha (with a year’s training) since they are too old to be a maiko. Having said that, one doesn’t have to start as a maiko since they can already start to train as a geisha — but of course, the allure of the overall comprehensive training process as you progress from a maiko to a full-fledged geisha can be quite an experience (and can add more to one’s reputation in the community).
So in order to become a geisha, once you reach the age required, you or your parent need to contact for example: Ookini Zaidan (the guild for all of Kyoto’s hanamachi businesses) and you must fulfill their other basic requirements: not taller than 160cm, at least 43kg in weight, willingness to train in the traditional arts for years, etc. Once they consider you a good candidate, they will send out your profile to okiya houses that might be interested in training you.
NOTE: Okiya will shoulder all your expenses for food, training, clothes, etc. once you are accepted by them and bonded by a contract. When you start working you can slowly pay off these debts.
If you are non-Japanese, Kyoto is a hard environment to crack in so you’re better off applying to other places like Tokyo and applying to okiyas yourself (better if you know someone who can introduce you to an okasan or a mother of an okiya/geisha house). By the way, do NOT try to apply if you don’t know the language yet; otherwise, absolutely no okiya will take you!
• The training of a maiko •
There are several stages to undergo if you train as a maiko. First of all, the stage of…
Shikomi. As you are taken in, you will first be regarded as a shikomi, someone who basically works as a helper for the okiya as you do errands, help other geisha and maiko dress up, etc. — but at the same time you are also slowly being trained into the lifestyle. Example: adjusting to wearing a traditional yukata as normal clothing, growing out your hair, learning the proper demeanor, going to school (kaburejo or nyokobo) to learn the arts of the shamisen instrument, dance, tea ceremony, etc.
» This can last for about 6 months before going to the next stage.
Minarai. At this point, you start your formal training and be regarded as a minarai which literally means “learning by watching”. In this stage, you will have an older geisha for a mentor whom you will call onēsan (sister) and this will be a bond that will stay for life. You are then expected to accompany your onesan to ozashiki (dinner banquet events) so that you can sit and observe her as well as other geisha and maiko interact with the customers. Through this way, you will not only gain real insights of the job but you will also gain the chance to know potential clients. At times, your onesan will allow you to perform but she will keep a close eye on you.
» This training period starts a month before your official debut as a maiko.
Misedashi. This is your official debut as a maiko and this ceremony is like a grand public party wherein your name will be spread out across the hanamachi. You will also undergo a ritual called as sansankudo (also done in wedding ceremonies) where you exchange cups with your onesan, other geisha, and senior maiko — people who you are now bound to. Afterwards, you are now free to hold your own parties and perform in festivals; but you will always join your onesan at her events and you will also still continue learning from her.
» Normally, this stage will last about 4 to 5 years.
Photo by: David Offf / CC
• Debuting as a geisha •
Erikae. Around the age of 21 to 23, you will be promoted as a full-fledged geisha in yet another public ceremony called erikae or “turning of the collar” wherein as the name implies, they will turn your red collar to white as a sign of your transition to maturity from that of a maiko girl into a geisha woman.
Geisha. You will continue studying, working, and holding ozashiki banquets until you pay off your debts to your okiya. You could also take on a minarai/maiko under your wing. When your debts to your okiya are settled, you may choose to move out, work independently, or continue living in the okiya.
Hiki-iwai. This is a celebration that marks your retirement as a geisha, and it can be because of various reasons: you want to quit the geisha life, you want to pursue another career, you are too old to work publicly, you want to get married, or you want to become an okami-san (proprietress of either an ochaya or okiya).
Realistically-speaking however, not a lot of maiko make it to the geisha level because the lifestyle can be quite difficult. Also, once someone does become a geisha, it’s also common for them to retire within 5 years of their debut.
Anyhow, geisha and maiko alike are celebrated and they have a HUGE fanbase — not only in Japan but worldwide too!
» Where to find or see geisha?
The geisha world needs to survive. It used to only be exclusively available for the rich or well-connected Japanese, but now it’s possible for other people as well as tourists to meet and see them through travel agencies and hotels.
But certainly, like I mentioned above, a private face-to-face dinner banquet or party can still prove to be pricey. If such is the case for you — don’t fret because there are still other ways to see REAL geisha and maiko at a much affordable price as listed below…
- Go book a spot in Niigata Hanamachi Chaya’s program in Niigata City. This is the cheapest way to meet, play, and talk to a real geisha up close since you only have to pay 3,000 yen ($26~ of Php 1,300~). It’s very similar to an ozashiki (dinner banquet) experience. To find out more about it…
- Go to Miyako Odori in Kyoto. This is a yearly spring dance during April done by Kyoto’s geisha and maiko. Ticket prices start at 2,500 yen ($24~ or Php 1,100~) and you can see more info about this here.
- Go to Kamishichiken in Kyoto during February and July to September. Geisha and maiko of this district serve tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) to about 3,000 guests in an annual open-air tea ceremony held on February 25 (the plum-blossom festival in the Shinto shrine of Kitano Tenman-gū). Additionally, ever since 2010, there is a beer garden that opens up to the public at the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theatre during July to August (6PM to 10PM) where you can get the chance to be served by maiko and geisha. (At night, geisha would also sometimes to traditional dances).
- Go to the narrow alleyways of Gion, Kyoto to catch sight of a maiko or geisha. Their work often starts at around 6PM to 8PM but ordinarily, you can have a better chance of finding geisha or maiko at around 10PM to 11PM on the streets of Gion as they make their way to work. (Again, take note of my tips above on how to spot the real ones!) Unfortunately, there really is NO one guaranteed spot where you can see them because they can be elusive and they can be anywhere! Nevertheless, it’s said that the most common hubs would be the street of Pontocho Alley and Hanamikoji-dori (around 5-6PM) so you can try your chances there.
I managed to catch a glimpse of a real maiko when I was walking through Gion (on my way to Gion Corner). It was all unplanned since I was just following the fastest walking route shown to me by Google Maps! I was mindlessly going through narrow streets when ‘lo and behold, I saw a maiko emerging from a nearby alleyway who proceeded to stand on the corner, seemingly waiting for her taxi. From what I remember, it was around the Tominagacho area; my friends told me that it was possible that the maiko I saw had visited a nearby shrine/temple before going to work (which they usually do).
TIP: Don’t expect to see geisha and maiko in their full regalia around Gion during “Obon Festival”, the annual Buddhist event for commemorating the souls of one’s ancestors, because they don’t work at that time. This happens during the middle of August.
ETIQUETTE: Should you ever see a geisha or maiko as you go through the alleyways of Gion, be respectful. Taking a quick photo is fine as long as you don’t get in their way; but of course, it’s also more tactful if you ask for their permission first. Also, NEVER ever touch them and their kimono nor pull them back to make them stop and pose for you; that’s just plain rude BUT also because you have to remember that their kimonos are INCREDIBLY expensive. A famous geisha once said this: “We are not Mickey mouse and this is not Disney World, we are not here to entertain the public, we are here to entertain our patrons.”
- Go and watch the show at Gion Corner in Kyoto. This is a theater that presents regular one-hour shows of 7 performing arts in Kyoto — one of which is the well-known kyo-mai dance performance by maiko dancers. There are 2 shows everyday at 6PM and 7PM [see schedule here] with prices for adults at 3,150 yen ($30~ or Php 1,400). I went to this show and I loved it! (A lot of people on TripAdvisor left such bad reviews for this show, but that’s mainly because they didn’t read their pamphlet beforehand so that they can understand the rest of the 6 Japanese performances that are apart from the well-anticipated maiko dance.)
- Go to Azuma Odori in Tokyo. A dance performance by the geisha of Shinbanshi, Tokyo are held annually at the Shinbanshi Enbujo Theater in May. (For more info, go here).
I hope this article helped in making you gain more insight about the mysterious yet captivating world of geisha and their apprentice maiko. It took me a while to finish this up but I really enjoyed writing it… and I hope you enjoyed it as well!
If in case though that this is the first time you’ve heard of Japan’s geisha, it is therefore also my hope that you’ve now discovered a great appreciation for their wondrous traditions.
P.S.: If you are more knowledgeable about geisha than me and that I’ve accidentally made a false statement above, do let me know in the comments below. After all, I understand that this tradition maintains an air of mysteriousness and anonymity since it adds to their overall ‘allure’; therefore, there might be some conflicting facts online and in some materials and interviews. Regardless, I’m quite confident with the accuracy of the things above especially after doing long hours of research and then conversing with a true-blue geisha to verify my facts. Let me know!
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Hey there! I am Aileen Adalid.
At 21, I quit my corporate job in the Philippines to pursue my dreams. Today, I am a successful digital nomad (entrepreneur, travel writer, & vlogger) living a sustainable travel lifestyle.
My mission? To show you how it is absolutely possible to create a life of travel too, and I will help you achieve that through my detailed travel guides, adventures, resources, tips, and MORE!
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