They are an iconic image of Japan, beautifully dressed women in intricate makeup, adorned with a parasol. The modern Geisha of today are artists and entertainers. Today Japlanning will show you where to see them, and how to get to the most famous location for Geisha's in Kyoto.
Geisha’s have a long history in Japan, however today we are going to let you know about the modern Geisha. Today they are professional entertainers who usually are entertainment during banquets, meals and various other occasions. Geisha's live in Okiya, special houses, usually as a group where they are trained in many traditional arts, like Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, dance and playing of various traditional instruments.
They are trained to be perfect in their work, which is to make the guest feel comfortable, in all aspects of the dinner, so they are trained in communication as well.
In the past, girls who were destined to be Geisha's would be sent to Okiya's to live at the young age of 4, however in modern Japan most girls that choose to become a Geisha move into a Okiya from the age of 15. When they prove themselves to be dedicated to their craft and role, they will become a Maiko, which is an apprentice Geisha. In the rank of a Maiko they work, honing their skills and attending to the Geisha's in the house, also cleaning and keeping the house in order, and eventually become Geisha's themselves, but not before being a Maiko for several years.
In Kyoto, which is considered the home of the Geisha, the most famous district to go and see Geisha's is the Gion, where you will find many Okiya, the homes of Geishas. This is old Kyoto, where the streets are lined with traditional machiya houses, stone walkways and traditional lanterns lining the way. These traditional buildings look small from the front, however this is based on the fact that they used to base property tax on the street frontage of your building, so although they look small from the front, most of them stretch far, far back.
In the Gion district, you will find it littered with ochaya (teahouses), shops and restaurants. The Ochaya is where the Geishas and Maiko entertain guests.
This district is a must-see while in Kyoto, day or night, however at night the Gion is a beautiful site in dimmed light from lanterns and the traditional buildings, it feels like being taken back into the ancient Japan.
The Gion is also the best place to spot Geishas and Maiko, due to their homes being in the district, however daily there is a cultural show at Gion corner, which is aimed at tourists. The show is a nice introduction to the Geisha culture with performances of traditional arts and ceremonies like ikebana, and a tea ceremony. There is also a performance by real maiko in the show.
This is the easiest way to see Geisha and Maiko, as the shows in Ochaya's are, for the most part, exclusive to existing customers, which makes it difficult to see one as a tourist (although not impossible). Many tourists wander the Gion at night to try and spot Geishas and Maiko in the street, going between shows or heading home. If you do spot them, please be respectful, as they have complained in recent years about the paparazzi mentality of tourists towards Geishas.
The Gion district is located in Kyoto, in the areas around Shijo Avenue between the Kamo River and Yasaka Shrine. The nearest station to the Gion is Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line, or Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line. Alternativly, you can take the 100 or 206 buses from Kyoto Station for about 20 minutes.
SEEING A SHOW
The traditional "dinner and shows" at Ochaya are notorious for being exclusive. The only way new customers can come and eat and see the show is to have an existing customer be their guarantor. The Ochaya is usually just a plain tatami room where you sit and eat and drink, while Geisha and Maiko perform. Their job is to engage in conversation, play drinking games and show off traditional arts and dances, and keep everyones drinks topped up. The peak of the performance usually entails a traditional dance with music for the guests.
Now how do you get into these shows, or meet a Geisha?
If you would like to partake in a traditional show at an ochaya, you may want to look at staying at one of the many 5 star hotels in Kyoto (such as The Westin Miyako Hotel Kyoto, The Hyatt Regency or The Kyoto Hotel Okura). The tea houses have started to open their doors to foreigners in recent years, and these hotels generally can set you up with the experience. Just visit the concierge of your hotel, or call ahead and speak with them, and they can organise your visit to an Ochaya that they have contacts at.
If this sounds a bit too expensive for you, there is another great option.
The fine folks at www.wakjapan.com, who specialise in cultural experiences in Kyoto for tourists to experience, do these in smaller groups, and many of their offerings even take place in homes.
However the one we’re here to tell you about today is their “tour package” of hiring a Maiko. Through their contacts and reputation, they now offer a unique tour where you start with a guided tour of Gion, where they will explain the history of the Geisha and Maiko as well as the traditional buildings in the area. After the tour you will be taken to a Japanese restaurant, where a Maiko is waiting for you.
Over a light meal you can ask questions to the Maiko about her daily life and what she wears, and you will even have the opportunity to take photos with her. This is a small group experience that you won't find anywhere else.
The WAK Japan Maiko tour is a four hour tour in total, and costs 28,800¥ per person (based on two people booking). To book this tour click here , or to read more on all cultural experiences on offer by WAK Japan please visit their website here.
Geishas and Maiko alike are a cultural mystery to foreigners, and even most Japanese. Few people get to meet one or even seen a real Geisha in the flesh. The Gion district in Kyoto is the most likely place for see a Geisha, however don't worry too much if you don’t, as the district’s sights, sounds and shopping are like a glimpse into old Japan that you will never forget. The Geisha sighting would just be the cherry on top.
Have you ever seen a Geisha? What were your experiences in Gion?
Tell us in the comments below!