Our First Night Looking for Geisha
On our most recent trip to Japan our main goal was to finally make it to Kyoto because (if we were very lucky) I wanted to see a geisha. The exact number of geisha currently working in Japan is not known but it is estimated that there are about 1,000 with the highest concentration in Kyoto. There are about 100 geisha and 100 maiko (geisha apprentice) working in Kyoto.
We booked a hotel near the Gion, Kyoto’s most famous entertainment district where most geisha in Koyoto work. My plan was to go out to the Gion each of the 4 nights we were in Kyoto to just sit and wait and hope to catch a glimpse. Unfortunately our hotel was not as close to the Gion as we had thought.
The first evening we were just too tired and we had an early morning so we didn’t end up making the trip to the Gion. The next night we were too late. Every article we had read had mentioned that we should be in the Gion area around 5:45pm if we wanted to catch a glimpse of a geisha heading to work. Our son had had a late afternoon nap though and we had been given strange walking directions to the Gion.
We found ourselves in the Shimbashi area well after 6pm. It was eerily quiet with only a handful of people walking around. As we walked through the small alleys and side streets you could hear a low murmur coming through some of the glowing doorways as patrons behind the curtained doors enjoyed their meals. On the far side of the Shirakawa river canal large windows allowed us to get a peek into some of the expensive restaurants and clubs.
We then made it over to Hanamikoji Dori. The famous street is less pretty than the Shimbashi area but we had been told that we would have a better chance spotting a geisha there. It was very clear when we arrived though that all the geisha were already at work. If we wanted to try to see one, we would have to wait until their parties ended later that night or try another day. We made our way over to Yasaka Shrine and then called it a day.
Our Last Chance
We didn’t make it back to the Gion until our last night in Kyoto. We took a taxi right to the intersection of Hanamikoji and Shijo Dori and started our search by around 5:20 pm. We slowly made our way down towards Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater (Gion Corner) where visitors can take in traditional performances by maiko for a fee. Looking this way and that, we carefully checked each alleyway. There were kimonos everywhere! We knew before we arrived though that most women we saw in kimono would be tourists. Daily kimono rental is a very popular tourist activity and some places will even make you up to look just like a geisha. There was a lot of “Is she? Is she?” as we walked along. A real giesha or miako is on her way to work though when you spot them in the Gion and so they will not be on the street chatting or stopping for photos.
When we made it down to Gion Corner we weren’t exactly sure what to do next except head back the way we came. There was a large group of tourists waiting at infront of Gion Corner and we thought maybe they were waiting there to see some geisha arrive. When their tour guide joined them though they moved along. Further down the street I saw 3 or 4 men with cameras looking down an alley. These men were not tourists. They were middle aged Japanese men wearing business casual and though they were discrete, they didn’t fit in to the fast and noisy crowds around us.
We decided to check it out. There was a middle aged woman with them. I regret that I never got her name. She spoke a little English and we started to chat about where we were from. They were also waiting for Geisha and the photographers asked through her what kind of camera I was using. I replied “Nikon D90”. They all whispered between themselves “Ah! Nikon. Nikon. Nikon.” while nodding. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. Apparently I had “chosen wisely” and was now part of their group! The woman told us to wait there for about 5 more minutes and then we should move on to the street near the famous Ichiriki Chaya teahouse.
Seeing Geiko and Maiko
I don’t know where she came from but suddenly she appeared! I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. There are signs throughout the Gion reminding visitors to respect and to give the geisha working there space. Some locals in the community even volunteer to patrol the Gion to watch that overly enthusiastic visitors do not act like paparazzi.
I stayed well back until our guide said “Get in there!” and nudged me to the front of our group. The beautiful geisha in front of us stopped only for a second, looked directly at us, gave a small smile and then as quickly as she appeared, she was gone. “Is she a real one?” I asked. “Yes” our guide replied, “a geiko”. While “geisha” is the more commonly used term internationally and in Tokyo, geiko is the term used in Kyoto and other parts of western Japan. I didn’t cry when we saw her but I was embarrassingly close to it and in awe. She was dignified and beautiful!
We quickly headed down the street to wait near the historic 300 year old Ichiriki Chaya tea house. A menacing looking doorman stood in front. Entry is by invitation only and if the doorman doesn’t know you, you’re not getting in. Our guide instructed us to watch for people who were delivering food to the tea house. If you see food being delivered you know that there is going to be a party there that night. More food likely means bigger party. The guests arrived in advance and would be listening to musicians playing before the geiko and maiko would arrive about 10 minutes before 6 o’clock. We looked every which way and peeked in every taxi going by but we were informed that if they did come by taxi, it would only be in the black ones.
Unexpectedly in the alleyway across the street down the side of Ichiriki Chaya a maiko appeared. Taking tiny quick steps she made her way down the walkway…and then disappeared! I was looking right at her. I don’t think I even blinked a moment but right in front of my eyes she completely disappeared. Our guide explained that the maiko I had just spotted had arrived early and so she was hiding until she could make a more appropriately timed entrance to the party.
It was now very clear to us who were geiko and maiko and who were just tourists in costume. The kimono of a geiko costs thousands of dollars. Some are even worth an entire year’s salary! Even from a distance you can see the difference in quality. The kimono of a maiko is colorful, elaborately patterned and has long sleeves. A geiko’s kimono is simpler. Maiko style their natural hair and wear beautiful hairpins whereas geiko wear wigs. Maiko usually have some skin on the back of their necks that remains without makeup but geikos usually wear makeup right to their hairline. The collar of a maiko’s kimono is red but a geiko’s is white. And so on.
Around 5:45pm there were suddenly maiko appearing regularly. While we waited we saw two taxis with several maiko in them go by but resisted the urge to chase them down. We saw about 5 maiko in total go into Ichiriki Chaya. The maiko who had disappeared in the alleyway also suddenly reappeared out of nowhere and made her way to the tea house. They all moved so quickly. In the changing light conditions of the dark street with lamps I would just get my camera set when she would move to another area. They were all exceptionally hard to photograph! Some would give a small glance towards the camera but most didn’t.
Since we visited in February there weren’t as many tourists on the streets as there are during more busy seasons. We luckily didn’t see anyone swarming or harassing the maiko as they made their way down the streets. There were two tourists in Kimono who stood in the alleyway taking photos with their cell phones as a maiko made her way towards us. The photographers who we were with chastised them for getting in the way of the “real” photographers and for bothering the maiko with their cellphones. I also have a series of photos where you can see two men trying to take a selfie of themselves with a maiko and her assistant in the background. When they pass the men you can then see the men in the next few photos following and giggling like school girls. The look foolish but nothing paparazzi like.
Then suddenly at 6pm on the dot the action stopped. Our guide though told us to wait around a bit longer. If more food was seen being brought into the teahouse around 6:30pm it would mean that there would be more guests and more geiko and maiko arriving around 7pm. This was not the case that night. Shortly after 6:30 we all said our goodbyes and each person seemed to go in a separate direction. I’m not sure exactly who that woman was but she was a wealth of knowledge. The photographers with her took me under their wing. I should have asked but I was just so excited about the moment. With their help though and a whole lot of luck, our Kyoto dreams of seeing a geiko came true.
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