One of the main reasons I love Japan so much is my admiration for the Geisha. When I was 18, so about 10 years ago, I wrote my thesis in high school about Geisha. For months I did research about them and at a point I even knew all the geisha names and houses in Kyoto. Of course I can’t remember them anymore, but the love for the Geisha remained.
For the people who are also interested in this part of Japan, or would like to learn more about how to see them in real life and how to wear a kimono yourself, I have decided to put it all down for you in this mini guide.
Where else to start your search for the Geisha, or how they call them in Kyoto “Geiko”, than in their own work and life environment: the Gion district; It is the most famous geisha district in Kyoto with many ochayas (tea houses) where the Geisha work at in the evenings. They also do their errands here in the many shops that provide the necessary materials for their crafts.
I can’t promise you that you will actually encounter a Geisha or a Maiko (geisha apprentence) because they are very quick and sneaky to avoid the paparazzi, which is totally understandable. If you do come across one, please be respectful and take only pictures if she assents.
When I was there I saw 2 or 3 walking by fast in their geta (wooden shoes) or hopping in a taxi. I didn’t take any shots of that.
Pssst: be aware of the so called Geishas, that aren’t real ones. Many places these days offer a geisha make over, and they can look identical. There are some things on their clothes that distinct them from the real ones. The most obvious proof they aren’t authentic Geisha is for instance if they love the attention of people taking pictures of them. Fake ones act like this, but a real Geisha is modest. Another way to know you are dealing with a fake geisha is when they wear a wig. When tourists dress up as a geisha they usually dress them up in colorful Maiko clothing (apprentice geisha). Real Maiko don’t wear a wig, they use their own hair until they are a full-fledged Geisha.
If you are rich, you can get private performances by geiko or maiko in one of the tea houses or restaurants that offer them. Be aware that depending on how long you want it and with which services (with which arts, and how many geiko, instruments,…) it can easily go up in the 4 digits mark.
I also do not have any extra information on how to book one, as many of these tea houses offer the geisha performances to their loyal guests and on invitation only. Lately the rules are less strict, but even now it isn’t easy to book a real private geisha performance.
Lucky for the regular folks like us, there is a place in Gion where they offer short perfomances and other crafts like the traditional instrument the Koto or tea ceremonies, for a little audience. In the Gion Corner they have daily Geisha performances. Check their website for the times if you are interested. The prices are way cheaper as well.
If you are in Japan in April, I highly suggest to book the Miyako Odori.
This is a annual event where the Geiko and Maiko of Kyoto gather and put a hell of a show for a bigger audience. They have group dances, but also solo story telling dances, going from season to season, ending in Spring time where they are now.
They have several shows per day during the whole month. I have to admit I booked my first trip to Japan in April for that reason alone. I saw so many videos about it, and I really wanted to check it in real life.
To book tickets online you can check their site here. If you check out the youtube video you will see some parts of the 2017 show, the one I saw sitting in the first row!
When in Japan, you have to dress up in their kimono at least once! Many places offer kimono services for a couple of hours or a day. You get it even cheaper if you want to dress up with your partner. Depending on the quality of the kimono the prices go up. But renting a standard one for 4 hours, like I did, is more than enough I believe.
We rented our at Akahime, just because I wanted to wear it in Arashiyama Bamboo forest and because their site was in English and very helpful. At site the people were very nice too and they had many kimonos to choose from. They dress you up carefully layer by layer ( yes there are a few). They also do your hair! So check them out.
I chose a bright pink-purple colored kimono with sakura flowers and a light salmon obi (the waist fabric that they turn into a nice bow at the back). If you see closely my obi has a cat print on them. Of course…
Nice spots for photos
North west of Kyoto you can find this very popular location around the mountain Arishiyama. The most famous attraction seen world wide must be the Bamboo Forest. We chose to wear our kimono around here because it is easy to walk there and it makes great shots with the tall green bamboo.
Near the Randen station in Arishiyama you find a man made forest of kimonos pillars.
These cylinder-shaped pillars are made with the traditional Kyo-Yuzen technique, a style of dyeing and printing used to create the brilliantly coloured Yuzen Kimono in Kyoto. Around 600 pillars make up the so called “Kimono Forest”, creating a breathtaking and dramatic entrance to the station, which is sadly too often missed by travelers visiting Arashiyama.
This 155 meters bridge over the Katsura River is a symbol in the area of Arashiyama. The artistic form of the bridge perfectly matches the nature and the river banks next to it. They are super lovely during spring time with the Sakura trees, but also during fall time.
Another popular place to wear the kimono would be the Fushimi Inari temple. We decided not to wear them here as you have to walk quiet a bit and climb up dozens of stairs. Moving around in a Kimono is not that easy, especially if it is your first time. If you are more experienced, this place with the thousands of Torii gates will guarentee you photo genetic shots.