Know your… geiko
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.