Wandering the streets of Gion, the narrow streets and side alleys ways were inviting in their subdued orange glow – igniting a well-known district in a layer of mystery. Blood-red lanterns with their pretty dove patterns marked out traditional teahouses, restaurants buzzed with the low hum of customers and the laughter of businessmen echoed in the secretive air, which whispered nothing except curiosity in a place where you wandered slowly and paused only in hope of a sighting, before moving on.
“Look behind you, now” I heard, as I was leisurely photographing the old wooden houses which stand as a preservation of the old Japan. I longed to see what was behind them, and what tales they could tell.
And there she was.
The brief eye contact through the delicate face of white; the elaborate design and bold colour of the robe which moved only in time with the elegance of the small, rapid steps; the clear sound of the wooden shoes hitting the cobbled stones in a composed rhythm. In the electric atmosphere, I was transfixed as I eagerly followed, mesmerised by a figure whose company is only for the invited.
I scrambled with my camera settings, knowing I only had a matter of seconds to capture my childhood dream of seeing such a respected figure in person as the door opened and the sound of the raucous crowd emerged. Before realising what was happening, and snapping out of awe, the door slammed shut and the sound of company was muted.
And she was gone…
Kyoto – a place identified not only with the ‘old’ Japan and UNESCO World Heritage temples, but also with the most beautiful and revered entertainer of all – the Geisha.
A Centuries old form of entertainment, Geisha and Maiko (the apprentice Geisha) are performing artists in Japan held to high esteem – female entertainers who are not only hostesses, but also classical musicians and dancers. Some begin their daily training at a very early age, whilst others choose to enter the profession later in life. Either way, you train for life, unless you leave your Okiya – the place where you live, train and are indebted to under contract.
Hired to attend parties and private gatherings at ochaya (teahouses) and ryōtei (traditional Japanese restaurants), no one knows where a Geisha will be called to work and the exclusivity of their company means they are not a common sight. Not only do you have to pay the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of dollars but, in many cases, you must be invited by another person. Therefore, to behold one within the old streets of the ‘Geisha District’ of Gion in Kyoto, as they make their way to work, is a very special sight indeed.
I’ve been obsessed with visiting Gion since my early teens after reading Memoirs of Geisha, more than once. It was a world and culture I could only imagine and, at such as young age, Japan was a far away land that I could only dream about. As much as I loved Tokyo, I was more excited about Kyoto, and one of the first things I asked when I arrived at my hostel was: “Where can I see Geisha?” They will, of course, tell you what they know.
Seeing Geisha is not guaranteed and if you are successful with a sighting, it will most likely be that of a Maiko. As many local people told me: “you have to be lucky” and that’s really what it is.
My first attempt was to try in the early evening after 8pm, where I wandered for approximately one hour and a half with no result. I covered a lot of land and there was no hint of an appearance. On the second night I asked fellow bloggers Kate and Mario, who had just arrived in Kyoto that day, if they would like to go ‘Geisha Hunting’ as I liked to call it, and they were more than happy to join in, this time concentrating on one main street next to the river after 10pm.
Typically it happened when we were not paying attention, and just as I had heard from other people’s’ tales, it happens so quickly, as if you have seen a ghost. Despite walking with small and dainty steps, they are quick – they know that everyone wants a glimpse of them. If you think you can stop one to ask for a photo with them, think again. I’ve heard of that happen ONCE. The Geisha will be out of your sight before you’ve even had the chance to adjust you camera settings and pick your jaw up off the floor.
But you will never forget the moment. Here’s a few tips on how you can see a Geisha in Kyoto…
What is the Best Time?
I was told that Geisha and Maiko can start work from as early as 8pm, although the general consensus was that anywhere from 10pm – 11pm would give you a higher chance of an appearance.
Where is the Best Area of Gion?
Gion is now a mish-mash of old narrow alleyways and a modern shopping district with a whole host of department stores. Two areas remain the main hubs where the Geisha are called to work – the narrow and mysterious lantern lit street of Pontocho-dori to the west of the river and Hanamikoll-dori on the opposite side, near to the beautifully preserved Shimbashi Street. The main sightings are of them getting out of a taxi or walking the short way directly to the teahouse.
I was also informed that the small temples and shrines in this area are where the majority of Geisha go to pray before work and many have been spotted here in full make-up and outfit.
Linger in One Spot.
Stand for 20 minutes, wander within a small perimeter of the street and be patient. It may just happen, especially if you can sense an atmosphere.
Don’t Overlook the Cracks in the Walls
Listen and peer into the cracks of the doors down the small, off the path alleyways – you never know what night be on the other side. One reader told me that’s how she got lucky with her Geisha spotting.
Go to a Tourist Performance
The Miyako Odori host daily dance performances by Maiko for around 11,000 yen (around £80). Pricey, but I preferred being on the look out to see them in their natural setting.
Know the Difference Between a Giesha and a Maiko
Geisha normally have more subdued and less elaborate clothing, hair and makeup, whereas Maiko are more colourful and bold – the robe is usually patterned, hangs low at the nape of the neck and the obi (the waist tie decoration) is normally more embellished and long, sometimes hanging as low as the ankles. They are striking and not easy missed. I even saw one from the back during the day in a local neighbourhood, except when she turned around she had no makeup on. Fail.
When Am I Most Unlikely to See?
During Obon, the annual Buddhist event for commemorating one’s ancestors, Geisha and Maiko do not work. Therefore, travel to Gion during these dates means Geisha spotting is a potential failure. Obon is an annual Buddhist event for commemorating one’s ancestors via the lighting of lanterns and normally takes place in mid-August in Japan. It’s best to check with your guesthouse owners and other locals if any other festival or commemorative event else is taking place while you are there.
Seeing a Geisha, or in this case a Maiko, really made my time in Kyoto. Not only was it a dream come true, but the electric atmosphere the Maiko’s presence created was something that will stay with me always. Whether you have a vested interested in seeing one of these special entertainers or not, it’s an insight into an incredible preserved Japanese tradition that creates as much a mystifying culture for us as it does for the people they entertain.