Kyoto, Japan Photo Essay, Wander The Map

Geisha Hunting in Kyoto, Japan

The streets were alive with the hum of chatter trickling out from the privacy of the teahouses and restaurants lining the streets. Lanterns were lit and umbrellas were glowing a fiery red.

Kyoto, Japan Photo Essay, Wander The Map

“Hey, those ladies you were talking about just drove by in that taxi”, Micah told me nonchalantly. I shrieked and spun around to only catch a split second glimpse of the high hair and painted white faces as the car rounded a corner. And so my search began.

We were in Kyoto and I was hoping to pass a geisha while we were wandering around the Gion neighborhood, but this tiny glimpse only made me long to see another. The elusiveness of the geisha world has always intrigued me–something about the secretive society that surrounds them makes me want to know more.

So, once we returned to the hotel for the evening, I did a bit of research and digging into the life of a geisha and where/when to have the best chance of spotting one.

A geisha is a highly trained, traditional Japanese entertainer, and the word geisha actually means “artist”—they act as a hostess and their main duty is to entertain male customers by performing arts such as dance, conversation, games and classical music. They are not prostitutes as many people have come to believe. There is a long and varied history that leads up to what a geisha or maiko (an apprentice geisha) is today, and while at one point there were over 80,000, today there are only around 1,000 – 2,000, which means the odds of a sighting aren’t in your favor.

It turns out the odds were in our favor this time, as we spotted three geishas within the couple hours we spent wandering around the Gion area that evening.

The first sighting happened when we were waiting in the Gion district. Micah had to go use the little boy’s room, so he went to find one while I waited on watch duty. I was starting to feel like it was a lost cause, when all of a sudden the crowd began to stir. There was a geisha! I snapped a couple of photos and was tempted to follow her, but I didn’t want to be super annoying–I totally felt like the paparazzi, so I decided it might be time to keep my distance.

Geisha in Kyoto, Japan

But, as luck would have it, Micah just so happened to be walking back at the same time and passed the geisha on his way. He managed to snap an awesome GoPro shot as she walked by! When we got back to the hotel, we found out that we had spotted the gorgeous and famous Mikako.

Kyoto, Japan Photo Essay, Wander The Map

That would have been enough to satisfy me, but later that evening, I got the urge to head out one more time, just because. This time, we made our way to a small street on the western side of the river to see if we could run into any more of the stunning women. Keeping an eye out and walking slowly through the tiny street filled with life tucked secretively behind the curtain lined doorways, I saw what looked to be a geisha in the distance. I picked up my speed, and noticed that it was, in fact, a geisha. I watched as she said goodbye and bowed to her companion; she then stood and waited patiently for him to make his way down the entire alley. I took a quick hip shot as I was walking, and after a small smirk, she ducked back into the house as quickly as she appeared.

Kyoto, Japan Photo Essay, Wander The Map

I was buzzing with excitement, but knew it was time to call it an evening. On our way back to the hotel, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Through a window, I spotted another geisha sitting at an empty bar and having a conversation with a gentleman. I couldn’t resist being a total creeper and snapping a few photos through the doorway. Trying to be a bit secretive, I shot from my hip while walking by very slowly—the photos didn’t turn out very well, but after the luck we had, I couldn’t complain.

Geisha in Kyoto, Japan

We then decided that just maybe my stalking should be done for the day. Either way, I would say the day was a success!

We also spotted a few tourists dressed up as geisha wandering the streets earlier that day, but don’t be fooled into thinking they are real. One easy way to tell the difference is if they are wandering around a touristy area taking lots of photos—a real geisha would never do this. Rather, they are usually en route to an appointment with a determined and hurried click-clack echoing from each step of their wooden shoes.

Geisha in Kyoto, Japan

Tips for Spotting a Geisha:

  • The best areas to spot a geisha are in the 5 geiko areas of Kyoto: Gion Higashi, Gion Kobu, Kamishichiken, Pontocho and Miyagawacho.
  • The best times to see one are early evening when they are en route to an appointment, and I’ve also heard that 10 p.m. – 11 p.m. is another good time as this is when they are typically leaving their appointments for the evening.
  • If you do see a geisha, please be respectful and remember they are real people going about their daily lives! Most understand they have a “celebrity” status and that people are naturally curious about them and their work. But, that doesn’t mean you have a right to be intrusive and harass them. Keep your distance and don’t block their path.
  • You can also now pay to spend the evening with a geisha–what used to be an exclusive, referral only client base, is now open to those with some cash to spend. Many high-end hotel concierge can book you an evening for hundreds to thousands of dollars. But, if you are on more of a budget, you can also see a show at Gion Corner for around $35, or you can visit Gion Hatanaka for around $210 to receive geisha company while you are enjoying authentic Japanese cuisine.

Have you ever been lucky enough to spot a geisha?