Kyoto in Japan is one of the best places to see real-life Geisha. This post is a guide on some places where you can go to see them.
If you’re in Japan, seeing Geisha is one of the quintessential Japanese cultural experiences that is on many people’s checklists. Kyoto is one of the best places to find them.
‘Geisha‘ 芸者 literally translates to ‘art person’ and is the name given to artists, usually women, who are highly trained in traditional Japanese performance arts such as dancing, singing, playing instruments, serving tea and entertaining others. Geisha from Western Japan are also known as Geiko 芸妓.
Geisha as foreigners know them (Japanese women in beautiful kimonos with the traditional geisha hairstyle and white painted faces) actually fall into two classes: Maiko (apprentice Geisha) and Geiko (fully trained Geisha).
Maiko are generally distinguishable from fully fledged Geisha by their more elaborate hair ornaments, which often contain jewelry and flowers. In contrast, Geisha adopt much plainer hair ornaments, in some cases none at all. Maiko also typically wear much more prominent and elaborate makeup compared to the more subdued make up that older Geisha wear.
How To Watch A Geisha Performance – Time Your Trip Right
If you want to view an actual Geisha performance, it may be dependent on the time of year that you are visiting Kyoto. At different times of the year, special festivals that include dance performances are held.
If you’re visiting in the peak Cherry Blossom season, there is a festival called Miyaki Odori “Cherry Blossom Dances” which runs every year in April. This is one of the best chances to see many Geisha and Maiko performing in a natural setting for an affordable price. It is a 60 minute long theatre show with dancing, singing and music all carried out by real Geisha and Maiko.
We bought tickets to Miyaki Odori at the beginning of April this year for 4,600 yen per person which included a tea ceremony, and it was great. There are no photos allowed during the performance or the tea ceremony, but the video above gives an accurate representation of what you will see.
Unfortunately, there were no photo-taking opportunities with the Geisha or Maiko, but they did have a photo corner in the theatre venue.
There is also a similar dance festival called Kamogawa Odori in May and again at the end of October and start of November. The official website doesn’t seem to be in English though, but you may be able to use google translate if you want to get tickets.
Taking place in mid March of 2018, a special nighttime illumination was held in Higashiyama district of Kyoto. The event included performances by Maiko according to the website and leaflet. One could speculate that a similar event may be repeated in following years.
The Plum Blossom Festival, Baikasai, is a festival held in February which includes a tea ceremony with Kyoto’s Maiko and Geiko. I’m not sure if this is held every year or not, but it may be worth looking into if you happen to be in Kyoto at this time of the year. It’s held at Kitano Temangu shrine and the day of the festival has previously coincided with flea markets that are held there.
Free Maiko Dance At The Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts
If you are interested in Japanese crafts and get time to go to the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, I’d recommend it! They offer free Maiko performances and paid Geiko performances, so if your Kyoto trip happens to line up with their schedule, it’s a great option to allow you to see Geisha in Kyoto.
This is a free entry museum with no admission charge, and has many exhibits showing traditional Japanese arts and crafts. They even have live artists completing work on display for you to watch.
At least once every month on weekends (and more frequently in peak seasons) they have a free Maiko and/or Geiko performance with no reservation required. You can see the latest schedule here.
Gion Corner – Experience A Variety Of Japanese Shows
Gion Corner in Kyoto offers a very cost-effective way to see Geisha, along with other Japanese performing arts like flower arrangement, Bunraku, Kyogen theatre and more. The downside is that it’s very popular and can sell out quickly, plus you may need to queue to get tickets.
The show goes for arond 50 minutes and costs 3,150 yen per person at the time of writing, but you get to see a variety of performances – think of it as a ‘sampler’ if you will.
Also, the quality of the show may be a little low due to the tourist audience, as some reviews seem to indicate. Nevertheless, it seems a viable option for seeing Geisha on your trip to Kyoto.
Kamanza Maiko Show
I stumbled across this offering when I noticed a poster outside the restaurant Kamanza in Higashiyama area. The official website has more information on the Maiko show. It looks like pricing is from 4,320 upwards.
It seems like an affordable option to see a Maiko show, and seemed to have a decent review. Bookings are required and a minimum number of 5 must attend in order for there to be a show.
Attend A Dinner and Performance Show
This is a more pricey option compared to the previous ones we’ve looked at so far, but it seems quite intimate and most options offer the chance to take photos with the Geisha and Maiko, as well as engage in some conversation with them.
Basically, these experiences appear to be hosted by restaurants and will often include a meal, but it’s likely you’ll be in a group setting with others. You can see a list of options here which range from around 11,000 yen per person and upwards.
Go Geisha Spotting Around Kyoto
Finally, there is also the free option of Geisha spotting, i.e. hanging around known Geisha hotspot areas and hoping for a chance sighting. These will nearly always be brief – usually you’ll see a Geisha getting out of a taxi and going straight into the tea house she’s working at – but their authenticity is cool.
The best spots to hang out are as listed here:
Geiko and Maiko entertain in five small districts in Kyoto called “Kagai,” which literally means “Flower Town.” The kagai areas of Kyoto are Kamishichiken, Pontocho, Miyagawacho, Gion-higashi and Gion-kobu. These areas are also where Maiko and Geisha lead their daily lives and are among the most popular places in Kyoto for sightseeing in the evening.
Real Geisha also appear at night – usually around 5 or 6 in the evening as they are heading to their workplaces for the night. If you spot them out and about during the middle of the day going for a stroll in crowded areas, or even posing for photos with people, it’s more likely that they are tourists in rental costume for the day.
I’ve randomly seen a Geisha (coincidentally, going to the Kamanza restaurant for the evening’s event) getting out of a taxi, and again walking in the main area of Gion.
If you’re lucky enough to see a real Geisha or Maiko, remember to be respectful. Don’t block their way or shove cameras in their faces; it’s rude. Remember that they are human beings too and they’re just on their way to work. Happy spotting!
Do you know of any other places to see Geisha in Kyoto? Let us know about them by leaving a comment below!