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. Opposite Gion Tokuya is the large geisha house Tama, so you might find some geishas leaving and entering here. My favourite spot is moving between the two blue circles as a lot of geishas come down a very small laneway here and so you can get a nice photo without many tourists in the shot!
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’re finding it particularly exciting – trust me, it’s a buzz! – 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.
It’s pretty simple just:
- Don’t ask the geishas to stop for a photo. They’d never get to their appointments if they stopped for everyone!
- 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, use the zoom on your camera to get closeup shots.
- 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.
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.
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)
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.
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
With the Good Comes the Bad
Now, I do have to mention the downside. Everyone wants to see the geisha in Kyoto. Everyone. And I don’t blame them!
The first two visits I had to Kyoto were in 2009 and 2011. Back then, Gion was popular and you’d see a few photographers hanging around (including me) hoping to get a nice photo of a geisha or maiko on her way to work.
But now. Wow, is it different!
Japan’s rising popularity as a tourism destination has brought the crowds and lots of large, walking tour groups that move through the streets of Gion as one, like a charging bull with a flag on a stick. Social media and advancing technology now allow anyone with a phone to become a photographer. So when the geisha head out, the cameras come out en mass.
Now, I completely understand that I’m one of them. I get it. Gion is a stunning part of Kyoto, with small streets and laneways lined with traditional wooden houses that permeate tradition and charm. To be able to then get a photo of one of Japan’s most popular symbols in such a beautiful location is a big tick on the photo bucketlist when visiting the land of samurai and sushi.
How Do They Feel About It?
I often wonder how the girls feel about having their photo taken and I often have the internal struggle of ‘is it ok to take their photo?’ I look at in this way; geisha have been celebrities in Japan for centuries. They are written about in newspapers columns, have fan groups around the world who know everything about them. They are also used as ambassadors in both tourism and even entertaining diplomatically. Any girl thinking about becoming a maiko (trainee geisha), would have a good understanding of the limelight they’d be entering.
The makeup and costume they wear also serves as a mask to separate them from their personal identity, if you saw them on the street without all this, they wouldn’t be bothered. Sometimes I spot them in Gion without all the glitz. They usually have a plain kimono on, well-coiffed hair and no makeup. Just another person in the crowd. I won’t photograph them then, I’m just here for the colour and theatrics!
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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