Unlike Samurai, Geisha are still alive with their white-painted faces, traditional Japanese hairstyles and fabulous kimonos. If you have a chance to meet one, it will definitely be the highlight of your trip to Japan.
Geisha are highly skilled entertainers who appear at high-end dinners, private parties and special events to add a special touch to the proceedings. They are NOT prostitutes, despite various silly rumors and portrayals in certain books and movies. Instead, they are ladies who have trained for years in the traditional Japanese arts to become the perfect entertainers.
Kyoto is the heart of Japan’s geisha world. In Kyoto, however, fully-fledged geisha are properly called geiko (pronounced “gay-ko”). Young ladies, usually between the ages of 15 and 20, train for five years to become a geiko. During this period, they are known as maiko (pronounced “my-ko”). Knowledgeable insiders estimate that there are about 100 geiko and 100 maiko in Kyoto. Other cities, like Tokyo, have some version of geisha, but they don’t usually undergo the strict training that defines Kyoto’s maiko and geiko. The best places to see geisha in Kyoto are Hanami-koji-dori in Gion (the section between Shijo-dori and Kennin-ji Temple) and at the Shijo-dori end of Pontocho. The best time to see them is around dusk (early evening), especially on weekends and holidays.
Even if you cannot catch a geisha dance or afford geisha entertainment, you can still see geisha in Kyoto. Please understand that Kyoto’s geisha have been finding it really difficult to deal with the hordes of “geisha spotters” who prowl their districts trying to get a glimpse or a photo of them. It’s really important to keep in mind that the geisha you see in the geisha districts are usually on their way to an appointment and they cannot stop for a photo. But, more importantly, please remember that these geisha (just like most people) don’t appreciate being mobbed by strangers. Please treat the geisha with respect and do not impede their progress!
Maiko and Geiko are a mystery even to Japanese. Not many people have seen or met them in person. I hope you get to enjoy seeing them in some way to get a glimpse of the jewel in the crown of Japan.