Know your… geiko

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents -

No trip to Ky­oto is com­plete with­out see­ing its famed geisha

With their snow-white faces, blood-red lips and per­fectly sculpted hair, geisha are an icon of Ja­panese cul­ture. But if you’re in western Japan, par­tic­u­larly Ky­oto, the cor­rect term for them is geiko (or maiko if they’re still in train­ing). Still, re­gard­less of nomen­cla­ture, they’re a big draw for vis­i­tors to Ky­oto, your pick as Top City in Wan­der­lust’s Reader Travel Awards 2018 (see p131).

Where can I see geiko?

All across the city. Ky­oto has sev­eral geiko dis­tricts that date back to Japan’s Edo pe­riod (1603-1868), a boom era for the coun­try’s arts and en­ter­tain­ment. Here, ochayas (tea­houses) – the most ex­clu­sive of geiko haunts – and sea­soned restau­rants act as check­points for the ladies as they scoot be­tween jobs. It’s th­ese A-to-b tran­si­tions where you can be most hope­ful of catch­ing a free glimpse of th­ese be­guil­ing per­form­ers, es­pe­cially in Gion – the city’s big­gest geiko district. Or head to the Pon­to­cho restau­rant area, where machiya (wooden mer­chant houses) lie on the banks of the Kamo­gawa River – a fine spot for see­ing ki­mono-clad blurs rush past.

But what can I ex­pe­ri­ence?

A tea­house cer­e­mony is the quin­tes­sen­tial Ja­panese ex­pe­ri­ence, where vis­i­tors are en­ter­tained by tra­di­tional dances, fed and given an in­sight into ‘geiko life’. How­ever, you can’t just book a slot – lim­ited num­bers of geiko (geisha num­bers across Japan have shrunk from around 80,000 in the 1920s to un­der 2,000) are one hur­dle, but you also need to ‘know some­one’ to get in­vited. Many tour op­er­a­tors are well con­nected though, so you can eas­ily set up an ex­pe­ri­ence through them.

Gion also of­fers other op­por­tu­ni­ties to see geiko per­form in April, when the Miyako Odori dances take place. Then, geiko per­form del­i­cate rou­tines in pub­lic to cel­e­brate the bloom of the city’s cherry blos­som trees.

Any tips I should know?

Upon see­ing your first geiko, you’ll want to take a snap. How­ever, while you are al­lowed to take one, don’t di­rectly ask her or get in her way – they shouldn’t be dis­turbed as they shut­tle be­tween ap­point­ments. Plus, those that do stop will­ingly for photos are prob­a­bly not le­git any­way. But how­ever you see a geiko, it’s sure to be a spe­cial part of any Ky­oto trip, and a large part of why you picked this iconic Ja­panese hub as your top city.

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