Japan’s geisha (also called geiko in Kyoto or geigi in Kanto area near Tokyo) are referred to by most as ‘living pieces of art’ and their world is seen as elusive. Nonetheless, one thing is for sure: they practice a certain discipline and embody a certain elegance that can enamor just about anyone! (Niigata Geisha)
Because of their beautiful appearance as well as their awe-inspiring culture, a lot of people dream of meeting a geisha up close in a formal ozashiki (dinner banquet); however, the price for that could be quite expensive. It starts at about ¥20,000 yen (about $175~ or Php 8,600~) per geisha per person… and that’s only for 1 hour! That doesn’t even include the high dinner costs yet at a ryotei (restaurant) or ochaya (teahouse) — one of the few places where geisha can accept ozashiki bookings.
That being said, a lot of people just resort to visiting Kyoto to try their luck and catch a glimpse of geisha on the streets as they make their way to work (a rather difficult feat because they choose NOT to be spotted by the crowd; plus, there are even tourists who dress up like geisha so they’re easily confused for the real ones). When that doesn’t work, others just settle into watching them dancing from afar on the stage in Gion Corner for a few minutes.
…So, what if I told you that I know of a rare opportunity where you can meet, play, watch, and even talk to a geisha for about an hour for just ¥3,000 yen ($26~ or Php 1,300~)?
Yes, I do! You simply need to go to the city of Niigata which is just less than a 2-hour train ride away from Tokyo!
Niigata’s Furumachi Geigi Experience
Niigata, a leading port town back in the Edo period, is absolutely one of the amazing underrated destinations in Japan that holds a LOT of exciting activities and landmarks, one of which would be the program: Niigata Hanamachi Chaya.
This program offers locals and tourists alike the chance to be entertained by Furumachi geigi — the geisha of Niigata — up close in the refined Saitou Villa for an hour at a very affordable cost. The style of the affair would be much like a dinner banquet but less the meal as they would instead be serving tea and sweets.
I had the chance to experience this myself and I absolutely recommend it!
Furumachi which literally means “Old Town” is the name of the central business district in Niigata and it is actually also regarded as a hanamachi or geisha district.
In fact, for years it has ranked alongside Gion in Kyoto and Shimbashi in Tokyo as one of Japan’s three (3) main geisha entertainment districts, and that remains to be true up to today.
» Niigata Geisha Hanamachi Chaya Program
I arrived at Saitou Villa around 2:00PM together with my Japanese guides from the Niigata Tourism Board. After talking with the receptionist who checked our booking, we were quickly told to go into a hall on the 2nd floor of the villa.
The moment that I stepped into that room, I saw the view of the gorgeous garden below from the windows and it just took my breath away — there were such striking splashes of red, orange, and yellow! My companion must have seen my expression so he assured me that I will have time after the program to explore the garden.
With a smile on my face, I looked at the rest of the people who were sitting down on the tatami floor. There were about 20 of them and all of them were Japanese… right then and there, I realized that this wasn’t a well-known activity yet for foreigners like me. With such a thought, I truly felt like I found a pot of gold that I wouldn’t mind sharing!
Within minutes, the receptionist downstairs came up to the front of the room and talked more about the geigi that were performing that day. My companion translated it all for me and I found out that the Furumachi geigi’s traditions date back to 300 years and there are currently about 12 geigi in their okiya (geisha house).
The geigi that were going to perform for us that day were named Kahori and Yoshino, and they
walked (more like “floated” since they were so graceful) into the room each wearing a beautiful furisode kimono, the iconic geisha hairstyle, and white shiro-nuri makeup.
Since I’m such a sucker for Japanese culture, I identified them both as senior maiko (geisha-in-training) given the style of their lipstick and hair ornaments.
After a brief introduction, they swiftly launched into graceful performances of several dances which they call Nihon-buyo. All throughout those dances, they were being accompanied by shamisen (string instrument) music and by traditional singing of 2 other senior geigi who were in simple kimono, sitting by the side of the ‘stage’ (referred to as jikata).
» Geisha Party Game
Once that was done, the geigi started to talk as they introduced a typical ozashiki asobi (party game) that they wanted to play with us. The game they introduced was called “taruken” — it was basically a ‘rock-paper-scissors’ kind of play that involves a drum placed between the players.
The rest of the geigi will sing the rock-paper-scissors tune in Japanese and the winner for every turn has to beat the drum twice while the loser has to turn around once on the spot. If someone fails to turn around or if someone loses thrice consecutively, the round ends.
It might sound like a simple game but it was a lot of fun! You just simply get drawn in and anyone is free to go up against the geigi — just come forward. Don’t be shy! After all, it can be quite an experience.
I explained the rules very well now but I actually didn’t understand it much during that time because I was rather focused on documenting the event. When there came a point that they started to look for the next player, they ALL looked at me and urged me to go to the front (most likely because I was the only foreigner in the room, and I wholly know how the Japanese LOVE to make sure that they involve outsiders in their culture).
For sure I wouldn’t have hesitated at all — BUT like I said, I wasn’t really paying any attention at first! Still, I didn’t want to be some sort of party pooper so I went in front, ready to make a fool of myself (haha).
…Yet ‘lo and behold, after several successful turns, the beautiful geigi before me stopped and I looked at her in confusion.
She giggled and said, “You won!”
I was floored. For 2 reasons:
- The geigi before me CAN speak English.
- And I won without even knowing what the hell I was doing.
Right then and there, everybody started clapping and laughing.
Now, how’s that for a win?
» Interview Portion
After this game, one of the geigi started to explain more about their get-up: from their elaborate hairstyle to their makeup, to their obi (sash belt) and down to their kimono. You can learn more about that as well on a post I made before, found here.
When they’re done doing the explaining, everyone was free to ask more questions, so don’t hesitate to raise your hand if you come by here!
Before they bid farewell, the geigi told us that we’re free to take a commemorative photograph with them and for sure, I grabbed that opportunity.
Everyone fell in line and waited their turn as we watched fondly at how they elegantly positioned themselves and their clothes on the floor in such a glamorous manner… all in preparation for taking a photo with each of us.
…A part of me definitely felt that these Niigata geisha before me were worlds apart from me when it comes to femininity and grace!
» Saitou Villa
Now, we had the time to enjoy the rest of Saitou Villa so we headed down to the first floor, and it was there that we were given matcha (powdered green tea) and Japanese sweets whilst we enjoyed the garden before us.
…It was so amazing! A definite great way to end the magical show that I had just witnessed!
TRIVIA: The Saitou Villa is a summer villa that was built back in 1920 by a wealthy merchant in Niigata named Kijuro Saito IV. He was a zaibatsu (business conglomerate) who made his fortune operating kitamaebune (shipping route) cargo ships.
The whole of this villa’s land is about 4,500m2 — including the garden, the main house, a storehouse, and a teahouse. Today, it is a place used to welcome honored guest in Niigata such as public figures, and celebrities, but more as a place that’s preserved and revered as a valued cultural building.
I took my sweet time strolling through the garden, admiring the autumn leaves and gawking at the genius of the landscape’s design… The Japanese surely have a knack for aesthetics!
Niigata Geisha Travel Guide
» How to get to Niigata
By plane: If you’re coming from South Korea, Shanghai, Taipei, or Guam, it’s possible to fly directly to Niigata. Otherwise, there are also domestic flights coming from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Sapporo.
By train: There are several trains that get to Niigata, but your best bet especially when coming from Tokyo is to take the “Toki” or “Max Toki” shinkansen (bullet train) on JR East’s Joetsu Shinkansen line. It takes just about less than 2 hours and costs about ¥10,500 one-way ($90~ or Php 4,500~).
It’s best to purchase a JR East pass or Japan Rail pass for this if you’re staying in Japan for a long time and planning to jump from one place to another — after all, these passes offer unlimited free travel on JR train lines. Anyhow, your train costs can go lower if you take the Moonlight Echigo from Shinjuku (but it takes 6 hours: leaves at night and arrives in Niigata early morning) for ¥5,900 each way. This can go lower for ¥2,000 during Seishun 18 promo season which is usually around March 1 – April 10, July 20 – September 20, and December 10 to January 10.
» How to reach Saitou Villa
By bus: From the Niigata Station Bandai Exit Bus Terminal, either:
- Get on the “Niigata City Loop Bus” (or “Niigatashi Kanko Junkan” bus) that picks up people in stall #2. Get off at “Hoppo Bunka Hakubutsukan Niigata Bunkan-mae (Iriguchi)” and walk 2 minutes towards Saitou Villa.
- Get on the C20, C21, or C22 “Hamaura-cho” line bus that picks up people in stall #7. Get off at “Nishi Ohata” and walk 6 minutes.
By taxi: Just tell your taxi driver that you want to go to “Saitou Villa” or show these characters…
If he doesn’t know, say that you want to go to “Kyuu Saitouke Bettei”. If he still doesn’t know (which is highly unlikely), say “Ikinariya”, a popular authentic Japanese restaurant in Nishi Ohata-cho that’s near Saitou Villa.
If you need further help, just use the directions feature in Google Maps — I find this as a very helpful tool if I want to reach a certain place from a particular location. (However, Google Maps doesn’t work offline if you want routes or transportation schedules, so I recommend that you get a pocket WiFi or a SIM Card to stay connected online).
» How to book a spot in the Niigata Geisha show
See the schedule of their shows at Saitou Villa here. Take note that their Niigata geisha shows are NOT available every day so watch out for the schedule. This page is in Japanese, so it’s best to use Google Chrome to translate the page.
Once you have decided on a date, you can…
- Call the Niigata Visitors & Convention Bureau at telephone number: 025-223-8181 from 8:30AM to 5:15PM on weekdays to inquire and book. If you can’t speak Japanese, ask for an English-speaking person to assist you.
- Book online by purchasing the ticket in this link. It will be a credit card transaction and you can apply until 15:00, three (3) days before each show day. (The website is in Japanese, but just open the page in Google Chrome so the page gets automatically translated for you. You can also use Google Translate.)
- Walk-in during the show day itself at Saitou Villa — however, there won’t be an assurance that you will have a spot. Just come and secure your spot by 9:00AM to 12:00NN. You can also call Saitou Villa at telephone #: 025-210-8350.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If the above booking process and links don’t work for you, you can always just email the tourism board (Niigata Visitors and Convention Bureau) via [email protected] and mention my blog post. If you want a translator for the Niigata geisha show, it is possible that they can provide one for you too. Hope that helps!
» Other details & fees
Fee is ¥3,000 yen ($26~ or Php 1,300~) for adults and ¥2,700 for elementary or high school students. It already includes:
- Entrance fee to the Saitou Villa and garden
- The whole geigi show (from 14:00PM to 14:45PM)
- Dance performance
- Attire and make-up explanation
- Photo-taking session
- Matcha (green tea) with Japanese sweet/confectionery
Please take note that you cannot enter the geigi performance room anymore if you’re late. During the whole program, you’re free to take pictures but you can NOT use a tripod or selfie stick. (The whole room can take about 30 people max).
If in case you only want to enter and visit the Saitou Villa (without the geigi show), entrance fee is ¥300 for adults and ¥10 for elementary and high school students. For groups of 20 and more, it can go down to ¥240 for adults and ¥80 for elementary and highschool students. (Pre-school kids can get in for free).
Meanwhile, if you have more money to spare and want to book a geisha in private for a formal dinner banquet in Niigata, go to this page for more details. (The website is in Japanese, but just open the page in Google Chrome so the page gets automatically translated for you. You can also use Google Translate.)
» Where to stay in Niigata
» Helpful Japanese phrases
Hello: Konnichiwa (Kohn-nee-chee-wah)
Thank you (normal): Arigatō. (Ah-REE-gah-tohh)
Thank you (less formal): Arigatō gozaimas (Ah-REE-gah-tohh goh-zahy-mahs)
Thank you (informal): Dōmo (DOHH-moh)
Yes: Hai (Hai)
No: Iie (E-eh)
Goodbye (long term): Sayōnara (Sah-yohh-nah-rah)
Goodbye (informal): Ja ne (Jahh neh)
Excuse me: Sumimasen (Soo-mee-mah-SEN)
I’m sorry: Gomen nasai (Goh-men-nah-sahy)
Is there someone here who speaks English?: Dareka eigo ga hanasemasu ka? (Dah-reh-kah ey-goh gah hah-nah-seh-mahs kah?)
Help!: Tasukete! (Tahs-keh-teh!)
Cheers!: Kanpai! (Kan-pie!)
• • •
Even if geisha / geigi / geiko don’t number as many as they used to be, these culturual icons of Japan who are deemed as highly skilled in the arts still absolutely thrive today — and it’s surely a must to meet them when you’re visiting the country!
Sure enough, they may be mostly available only to that of the rich and the wealthy Japanese locals, however, there has been more opportunities lately that enable normal tourists like us to get a glimpse or a try of their amazing culture and practice. With that fact, I suggest that you grab hold of opportunities like this program in Niigata City! You definitely won’t regret it and it will be such a memorable experience for you.