Fujiyama (Mt.Fuji) and Geisha are two icons that symbolize JAPAN.
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. So where does one meet them? That’s the problem.
Before talking about the ways to meet Geisha, let me explain a little about Maiko and Geiko, the terms used to refer to Geisha in my hometown of Kyoto. Kyoto is known as the historical former capital of Japan which has over a thousand years history. There remain a hundred Maiko, apprentice Geisha, and 200 Geiko, matured Geisha. A Maiko is under 20, usually starting her career as young as 15 to be a professional in Japanese traditional culture and entertainment. Both Maiko and Geiko go to a special school to learn Japanese culture such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, Japanese traditional music and dance. Maiko are professional artists, yet their charm is in their youth and immaturity. Their appearance emphasizes their youth. For example, they tuck their sleeves in at the shoulder like a child. When they turn 20 and are acknowledged to be skillful in art and service, they become Geiko. They are usually mature enough to listen and talk to the guest and required a higher level of artistry.
Let me give you some tips to actually meet Geisha. It may sound like a dream, but it is possible. What’s more, there are several choices ranging financially from reasonable to expensive.
For budget travelers who want to see Geisha but don’t want to spend much money, Gion Corner is the best place to go. It is a theater where they play a digest version of seven Japanese traditional performing arts: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, koto (Japanese Harp) playing, gagaku (court dance), kyogen (comic play), Maiko dance and Bunraku (puppet play). At the end of the show, a Maiko or two show up and dance a traditional Japanese dance. As the theater was first made for the Tokyo Olympic Games to welcome foreign guests, it has various language brochures and earphone guides. You can experience all the performances for only 3,150 yen (35$) ! The shows are held from March to November, though recently they also tend to have special performances only on weekends during winter time.
Still too expensive? Then the only way to see Geisha is to go to the Gion area and wish for good luck. Gion is where Maiko and Geiko live, so you may come across a Geisha moving from one banquet to another by chance. Hanami-koji, the street in front of Gion Corner, would be good place to wait and see. Be careful not to mistake tourists making up themselves as a Geisha for the real thing!
If you’d like to “meet ” a Geisha, Gion Hatanaka will make your dream come true. They have a special package for meeting a Geisha while enjoying authentic Kyoto cuisine. A few Maiko and Geiko in full make-up will come to the room to show some dances, pour sake to guests and talk to them. You can say “hi” to them in person and take pictures with them. If you’re brave enough to raise your hand, you can even join their party games! It will understandably be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The cost is 18,900 yen (210$). Taking in consideration that Hatanaka is one of the highest ranking ryokans (Japanese inns) in Kyoto whose cuisine usually costs around 10,000 yen (110$), it’s quite a good deal!
If you want to meet Geisha privately, or you want a more authentic experience, why don’t you try Ochaya-asobi, visiting a real teahouse (traditional banquet house)? For a long time, teahouses didn’t accept guests without references from other clients because of security and to maintain their service level, which means it was very hard to get in for a foreign guest. But they have come to open their door to guests recently. If you plan to stay at a five star hotel such as Hyatt Regency Kyoto, The Westin Miyako Hotel Kyoto, Kyoto Hotel Okura, Kyoto Brighton Hotel, or one of the nicest ryokans called Hiiragiya, then you can ask the concierge for assistance. They will make arrangements for Ochaya (teahouses) with which they have contact.
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.