There’s just something magical about seeing a flurry of vivid, silk kimonos breezing through the streets of Gion in Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto.
The click-clack of wooden geta (sandals) on cobblestones and the tinkling bells from hair decorations accompany the young women, the geishas of Kyoto, that are carrying on one of Japan’s most celebrated traditions.
In this article I’ll give all the tips on when, where and how to see them, along with a few etiquette rules regarding the geishas in Kyoto.
Geishas are known as geikos in Kyoto, but I’ll be referring to them by their more well-known name to avoid confusion. There are also maikos, which are geishas in training and typically wear more decorative kimono and hair accessories. There are a number of geisha districts in Kyoto but the most popular ones are Gion and Pontocho, which are right next to each other in north-east Kyoto. It’s definitely the prettiest part of the city so try to book your accommodation in this area if you can.
Where to Find The Geishas In Kyoto
It depends on where the geisha’s appointment is, but to maximise your chances of seeing them in a small location, Gion is the best place to see them. A lot of teahouses (ochaya) are in Gion and this is where the geisha like to entertain their guests.
Hanamikoji-dori (street) is the best place to find geishas in Kyoto, as there are many geisha houses (ochiya) in the area. This is where they get dressed for the evening’s appointments and where the maiko live. If you search a place called Gion Tokuya, this intersection of Hanamikoji, is one of the best for seeing geishas as they cross from one side of Hanamikoji to the other.
When to See the Geishas in Kyoto
If you head to Gion around 5.30pm, you’ll see the geishas leaving for their first appointments around 5.45pm-6.00pm. Because they’re all leaving at once you generally get to see quite a few of them over that half hour period.
If you have the time, stay around till at least 6.30pm as there will be a slow trickle of them leaving for later appointments.
You can also see them throughout the night if you’re walking around Gion, but at later times you’re relying more on chance.
If it’s raining you’ll probably see fewer geishas as they prefer to take taxis in bad weather, although you may see a few if they’re just going to a nearby teahouse.
Geisha Photography Etiquette
Please be sure to follow these common-sense rules. If tourists bothering geishas becomes a big problem they’ll start taking more taxis to avoid the idiots.
Update Oct 2019: So it looks like too many tourists were bothering the geishas and now a local association has put up a sign saying that you’re not even allowed to photograph them at all, with a ¥10,000 fine, if caught. There’s a bit of conjecture as to whether it’s legally binding, how it will be policed and what area it covers (apparently just the private lanes that come off Hanamikoji). So just be aware of this, if visiting. You could always try your luck in the Pontocho area which doesn’t see the crowd frenzy that is often seen on Hanamikoji.
Personally, I think an education campaign would have been a better idea, having accommodation hand out etiquette pamphlets upon check-in. But I understand their need to do something, some of the scenes I saw were pretty embarrassing.
So if you see them in other areas stick to these rules:
- Don’t ask the geishas to stop for a photo. They’d never get to their appointments if they stopped for everyone!
(Apparently this is now ok, although I can't imagine they'd want every tourist stopping them to ask.)
- Never take a photo of a geisha with their client.
- Don’t touch them. Their kimonos are stunning so look but don’t touch.
- Keep out of the way of geishas. They walk fast and need to get to work.
- Avoid running all the way up the street after them.
- Don’t shove your camera in their face.
- Don’t follow them down small laneways, just get your photos on the main streets. No woman wants to be followed down a small laneway where there are not many people around.
- Don’t block traffic. It may look like a pedestrian area but Gion has a lot of traffic going through it so don’t walk in the middle of the road.
- Don’t block doorways where they might be coming out of or going into.
- Don’t enter the geisha houses or teahouses where they are entertaining.
A Real Geisha Experience
While taking photos of geishas on the street is exciting, it doesn’t pay their bills. So if you can afford it, definitely consider one of the private dinner parties. It may be a bit too expensive to have a one-on-one party, but there are many group options now available that cater to tourists and provide either an English-speaking geisha or a translator. You can ask questions and find out more about them and also get to play geisha drinking games!
If you can afford a one-on-one geisha experience then you’re probably already staying in a fancy hotel and the staff here will be able to assist you in booking an ochaya with geisha. Kyoto Sights & Nights tours also offers a private one-on-one booking with geisha and maiko along with a walking tour.
Yasaka-dori Enraku lets you enjoy dinner with a maiko that includes a dance performance, drinking games and one-on-one conversation time with a translator included.
Gion Hatanaka ryokan provides a large group dining experience with maiko with English commentary. If you have a group of 9 or more they can provide a private banquet for your group.
Gion Corner is a cultural show performed for tourists and showcasing geisha dance (by a real geisha and maiko) and music along with a tea ceremony. You can also see traditional Bunraku puppet theatre, Kyogen (comedic) theatre, Gagaku court music and Koto playing.
The Facebook group, Geisha Japan, is currently setting up tourist-specific meetings so keep an eye on their page for more info as they roll out bookings.
If you’re in Kyoto in April, be sure to check out the Miyako Odori, a spring dance performed in the grand Minamiza Theatre by many geishas and maikos from the Gion district. This dance has been performed for over 140 years and celebrates the four seasons in Kyoto, culminating in the grand cherry blossom scene. Tickets can be purchased at the door. Check here for more information.
Other geisha dances throughout the year around Kyoto are:
Kyō Odori (held daily first to third Sunday in April)
Kitano Odori (held daily between 15 and 25 April)
Kamogawa Odori (held daily between 1 and 24 May)
Gion Odori (held daily between 1 and 10 November)
Some Good Reads
There is so much history and tradition involved in the ‘Flower & Willow World’. It’s worth having a read of a book or two to learn about it and understand the geisha culture better. You’ll also learn about some of the locations you’ll see in Gion which makes the trip so much more interesting. Leave Memoirs of a Geisha alone, while it’s based on the life of Mineko Iwasaki there’s a lot of creative licence in it. Read Mineko’s book instead!
- Geishas in Gion by Mineko Iwasaki
- Geisha by Liza Dalby
- The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby
- Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda
So there you have it! Do the right thing by the geishas in Kyoto and more trainees will come through the ranks and keep the tradition alive.
I wish you lots of geisha sightings!
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