The secretive nature of geishas makes seeing one a rare and memorable event.
Geisha literally translates to “art person” whose purpose is to host and entertain through conversation, song and dance. The term “geiko” is used primarily for geisha trained in Kyoto. The Gion district in Kyoto is deemed the most famous place for geisha culture and provides travelers the highest chance of seeing one.
Originally portrayed by men, geisha first appeared around 1730. By 1750, women dominated the profession. They first started as assistants to expensive courtesans but were feared to be stealing from customers and were forbidden from forming relations or sitting next to customers. As time passed, customers gravitated towards the inexpensive and accessible geisha and by the 1800s, geisha were the most popular hosts and entertainers in Japan.
Training for geisha starts around age 14. Around Gion, visitors can find signs posted in front of tea houses listed with classes offered for the training of maiko, or apprentice geisha. These classes range from dance, tea ceremony, calligraphy and musical instruments.
An instrument that is integral for geisha to learn is the shamisen, a three-stringed guitar that is played with a plectrum (like a guitar pick). This instrument accompanies the dances geisha perform.
Maiko must live in a geisha house (called an okiya) with a geisha mother for five years before earning their geisha title. They are typically between the ages of 15 and 20, although back when this custom began, they started training as early as 7 or 8 years of age.
When walking the streets of Gion, one can tell whether they might be seeing a maiko or a geiko due to some of the differences in how they present themselves. Maiko will usually style their own hair into intricate styles depending on the stage of training they’re in. Geikos will typically wear wigs, and visitors can find shops that sell these special wigs in Gion and surrounding areas.
Maiko’s eyebrows will be colored red or pink, and their eyes will be outlined with either black or red. In their first year of training, only their top lip will be painted red, and from year two onward, both lips will be painted red. Geiko’s eyebrows will only have a touch of red and their eyes outlined purely with black. Both of their lips are painted bright red.
Another differentiating factor is their kimonos. Maiko’s kimonos are often brightly colored with long sleeves and a wide sash (obi) that is tied in a bow on their back and falls to their feet. Geiko’s kimonos are usually solid-colored with shorter sleeves. Their obi are smaller and tied in a square knot.
First-time travelers will not miss the dozens of kimonos that adorn passersbys on the street. It is quite obvious that not all of these people are geisha; in fact, it is likely that they’re all tourists. This is because it is common for visitors to buy and rent kimonos and wear them around Gion.
Many shops in the area offer kimono rentals, which range from 2,980 JPY (about $20 USD) for basic packages to up to 5,980 yen (about $42 USD) for more expensive and elegant kimonos. These places will also sometimes offer professional dressings, hair sets and okobo, which are the traditional shoes geisha wear.
While one can wander the streets of Gion dressed up like a geiko, or maybe catch a glimpse of one. Actually seeing a traditional geisha performance in a tea house is an exclusive and rare opportunity not all visitors will be afforded. They are hired to attend gatherings and can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Even then, people must typically be invited to attend these events.
Upon spotting a geiko, it is very important to be respectful. Do not go up to them and take a picture, but rather, take a picture from a distance or behind them. The most popular times to see them are between 8 and 11 p.m. when they are getting in and out of taxis traveling to and from teahouses.
Geiko’s elusiveness and rich history make them a fascination that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world to the district of Gion. When visiting Kyoto, this area is well worth a visit, especially if a beautiful geiko happens to be around!