Geisha’s (contrary to how they have been reflected in Western society) are skilful entertainers who make appearances at high-end dinners, auspicious events and private parties. They undergo years of training (usually around 5 years) to perfect the art of Japanese entertainment.
Gion in Kyoto, Japan is one of the most renowned places to find these magical women. The area provide visitors with a more traditional side of Japanese culture, with old wooden townhouses, teahouses, shops and restaurants with a few modern bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels found nearby.
Young women between the ages of 15 and 20 enter training as Maiko. Once they complete their training they become known as Geiko. Maiko usually wear colourful kimono’s with longer sleeves and use extravagant hairpins in their hair while the kimono’s of Geiko are more plain with shorter sleeves. Geiko also tent to wear unadorned wigs over their own hair.
Geiko and Maiko often appear at events together and an appearance by them could cost around $900 or more depending on the restaurant that is frequented and the beverages and food ordered. One can only arrange Geisha entertainment by being introduced by an existing patron of a Geisha house. During these events Geisha serve food and drinks, dance, sing and perform music and converse with their clients.
Some restaurants offer Maiko evenings where groups of patrons can enjoy a Japanese-style dinner while being entertained by a number of Geisha dancing, playing drinking games and mingling with guests.
There are 5 annual Geisha dances held in the spring and autumn. Tickets for these performances can be bought through high-end hotels or directly from the box offices. Miyako Odori is the biggest Geisha dance, held daily in April. Kyō Odori is the second biggest dance, held daily from the first to the third Sunday in April. Kitano Odori is held in intimate surroundings every day between 15 and 25 April. In the Pontocho district you can see the Kamogawa Odori every day between 1 and 24 May. Between 1 and 10 November the Gion Odori can be experienced in a smaller venue.
Geisha spotted in the streets of Kyoto area usually on the way to an appointment. They have had difficulty dealing with tourists requesting pictures in the past and policemen now patrol the area to ensure that they are left relatively undisturbed- and make it to their appointments on time!
For the best time to spot a Geisha, visit Hanami-koji-dori and Shijo-dori around dusk- especially on weekends and holidays.
Tourists who would like to add to the experience can undergo a ‘Maiko henshin’- a Maiko transformation. Some places offer to do your make-up and dress you in a full Geish garb (including the iconic kimono), and even takes you to some scenic areas to take photo’s. Chances are if you see a Geisha during the day that it is really a tourist who underwent this transformation.
The Gion Matsuri festival is held every year in July. During this time the streets are closed off to everything except pedestrian traffic and are lined with street food vendors. During this time some of the private homes open their doors to the public where they then exhibit their precious family heirlooms.
Visiting Kyoto is like stepping back into history. It is steeped in culture and offer visitors a sense of serenity and authenticity- along with the potential to catch a glimpse of a Geisha.
*A version of this article first appeared at www.zafigo.com