Geisha in Kyoto, Japan: How to See a Real Geisha

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.

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Shimbashi side street

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.

Yasaka Shrine

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.

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NOT real geisha

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.

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Sign in the Gion

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.

Ichiriki Chaya tea house

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.

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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.

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Maiko with her assistant


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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Death Defying Winter Wonderland Trip to Koyasan, Japan

koyasan japan
While we were staying in Osaka, Japan we wanted to make the approximately 2 hour daytrip to Mount Koya (Koyasan). In 816 Mount Koya was settled by the monk Kukai in a 800 meter high valley among the 8 peaks of the mountain. The area is home to more than 100 temples and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We were mainly interested in seeing Okunoin Cemetery. We had seen atmospheric images of bright green, moss covered monuments in a large cedar forest. Stretching on for more than 2 kilometers, Okunoin is Japan’s largest cemetery and is home to the graves of more than 200,000 monks. In Okunoin there are no dead, only waiting spirits.

Snowy Weather

We had a two day window to visit Koyasan during our trip but the first day it snowed and we heard it was quite heavy in some regions. Some people said it was more than they had seen in 80 years so we stayed in Osaka for the day. The second day it was also snowing a little bit but in Osaka it was clear. We checked with our hotel before we headed out to see if we would be able to get to Koyasan. When we got to the train station we asked again. We were assured that everything would be fine.

The train trip was uneventful. We could see a few centimeters of snow in some towns we passed. In order to get to Koyasan you need to take a train from Namba Station in Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station at the bottom of the mountain. From there you take a large cable car up to the top. The cable car whisks you up the steep mountain in about 5 minutes. We were really excited about taking it!

Our train suddenly stopped a station before our final stop and a conductor hurriedly came in. He asked us how many of us were going to Koyasan. Considering that there really isn’t much of anything else at that train stop, it wasn’t surprising that all of us were. He looked concerned and got off the train. Then he came back. He told us that because of the heavy snow the cable car wasn’t working. Looking outside the window there was just a light covering of snow but on the other side of the mountain it was another story. Nearly 2 feet of snow had fallen in a short time. We didn’t know this at the time but nearly 40 passengers had been left stranded in the cable car for 90 minutes.

The conductor ran off and onto the train several times while my husband who speaks Japanese and one Japanese woman who spoke English tried to find out what was going on. They then did their best to translate what little information we got to the other passengers. The conductor told us that if we still wanted to go up the mountain they would provide taxis or buses for us. Would the cable care be running later that day? They didn’t know. Would we get a refund for the tickets we had already bought? They didn’t know. If we went up the mountain, how would we get back? They didn’t know. They did assure us though that at the top of the mountain everything was open and running. If the taxi driver ran into difficulty, he would turn back and take us back to the train station.

Taxi Ride from Hell

It seemed like it would be ok so we went and got into the taxi. There had been about 30-40 people on the train with us and half turned back. We didn’t know this though since we were in the first taxi. That was something we also didn’t realize! Right away the taxi was all over the road. Branches were on the road and trees were bent over. Every once and awhile the snow would loosen from the trees and suddenly drop onto the road in front of us. On one side of us was mountain. On the other side was a steep drop off with only a small barrier.

Immediately I asked to turn back. We were told it was just a little way further. The car slid across the road. I searched for my seatbelt and realized that while my husband and son had one, I didn't. The taxi driver insisted that I did. I didn't. He told us the road was too slippery for us to turn around. We saw other cars coming down the road and I insisted that he stop and let us go back down with them but he said that if he stopped he wouldn't be able to get going again. It ended up coming out that on a good day this drive takes about 20-30 minutes. We were not close at all. The taxi was sliding all over the place and I was screaming that he needed to stop. I am pretty sure he had never driven in snow or ice before and the drop off the mountain would surely kill us all. He insisted that the cable car was now running and if we just waited until we got to the top we would be able to come back down in the cable car instead of taking another taxi down. I held my son tight and continued to tell him to let us get out of the car.

The spirits of those 200,000 resting monks must have been looking out for us because when we got to a particularly steep and slippery section of road the taxi couldn’t keep going. The wheels spun on the ice and the back end of the car started to slide to the edge of the drop off. When he paused between revving the engine we grabbed our son and our bags and jumped out of the car. Behind us 3 other taxis carrying passengers from the train had caught up and were now also stuck behind him. He and his friend put newspapers under the tires and told us to get back into the taxi so there would be more weight for traction. They also asked us to help push but each time they tried to push the taxi was sliding backwards. Holding on to my son for dear life I refused to get anywhere near that taxi.

After a while a small private bus came along with 7 seats available. With chains on their tires the driver was able to take us and the passengers from 2 more taxis to the top of the mountain. The driver was listening to my husband’s favorite song by his favorite Japanese band. This was surely a sign that we had been saved! The driver of the bus told us that the cable car was not running. The taxi driver had lied about that as well. We wanted to turn back but the driver suggested we go to the top (which was truthfully close now) and relax a bit first. We made it to the top with no further problems. The final taxi was able to make it up the mountain somehow but the other 3, including ours ended up getting towed.

Okunoin Cemetery


Everything in Koyasan was covered in snow but most of the streets had been cleaned and the buses had chains around their tires so they were running smoothly. The workers at the train station were confident that the cable car would be running again soon. So much time had passed that we really didn’t have time for much sightseeing so we headed over to Okunoin Cemetery right away.


Nine of us from our train ended up at the cemetery: our family of 3, a Japanese couple, a couple from China, 1 student from Australia and a man from Taiwan. The man from Taiwan summed up our feelings very well when he shared that he was really excited about the snow (he had never seen any before) but at the same time he didn't want to die. We didn’t run into anyone else while we were there. We think we are the last group (maybe only group) that was sent up the mountain that day.


Instead of moss covered monuments we were greeted with a winter wonderland. Luckily we had brought our baby carrier with us “just in case”. Our son is 4 and really doesn’t need a carrier but the snow was past his knees in some places.


We didn’t see all the major sites of interest because not all of the pathways were cleared. One of the people we were with also pointed out that we needed to head back to the train station quickly. Once the sun started to go down everything would be getting even icier. We did a quick loop around the main path and headed back. Less than an hour after we had arrived we were leaving Koyasan.

Once we arrived at the cable car station we were informed that it would not be running for the rest of the day. They actually thought it might be out of service for several days and the only way back down was by taxi. Our second taxi driver was less of a macho ass and knowing just how long the trip was actually going to take this time helped our fear a lot. There was some sliding but nothing like before and we were driving into better conditions rather than into worse conditions. Our son though decided that this would be a perfect time to sing for the entire trip. Wanting the taxi driver to be able to pay full attention so we wouldn’t die, we tried everything we could to keep him quiet but he wouldn’t stop singing. Now it’s funny. Then it wasn’t.


Each of us who had made the trip up the mountain made it back down (except for a group of 3 tourists who were staying overnight). While we had chatted away nonstop earlier everyone sat in silence on the train ride back towards Osaka. No contact information was shared. As we pulled up to each of our stops we said our goodbyes and went on our way. Was it worth it? I’d have to say “no”. Koyasan is beautiful and spiritual but I truly feared for our lives. I’d love to go back there some day. Just not in the snow.