01 May 2012

Geisha and Maiko of Gion Kyoto, Japan

Hands up if you haven't seen "Memoirs of a Geisha"...Shame on you! Well, your just going to have to read this post and then go and see it.

Gion in Kyoto is home to Geisha (Geiko) and Maiko. They are NOT prostitutes as some people mistakenly believe. They are artist. They are dancers, musicians and conversationalist.

A Maiko in Gion, Kyoto

Seeing one, for me, was like seeing a celebrity. I didn't expect that i would react in such a way. The first time i saw a Geisha/Maiko A and i were walking had stopped at the traffic lights on Shijo-dori near Gion. I felt A tap me on the shoulder to point out a girl that literally made me catch my breath. I wasn't expecting to see one so soon! All the guide books say how difficult it is to spot one. But there she was, a white painted face, a demure and shy expression and a lovely kimono. I hardly had time to catch my breath before the lights changed and everyone else noticed her too - poor thing, she was actually chased by tourists wanting to get a photo of her as she scurried across the road. I was still stunned. I know that A got a kick out the look on my face. And that look didn't change any of the other times i saw a Geisha or Maiko.
I never had my camera ready and i refused to chase them like other inconsiderate tourists. So, call it karma, but one night while meandering through the streets of Gion, A and i stumbled across a Maiko (though originally i thought she was a Geisha because of her white collar). She was outside a restaurant at the end of her engagement and was posing for photos with the patrons. That gave me enough time to whip out my camera and hit record...

She was the second Geiko i saw in Gion. I only saw 4 others after that and that was on my last night in Kyoto - and even then, they appeared out of nowhere and in seconds were gone. Here is a tip, if you do go to Gion, go in the early evenings, get off the main strip and get into the alleyways, that's where you'll have the best chance of seeing a Geisha or Maiko.

Outside of seeing the Geiko casually in the streets of Gion, i was lucky enough to be in Kyoto at the beginning of the Miyako Odori. I bought myself a ticket and sat spellbound during the entire performance. All the Geisha and Maiko were stunning in their costumes, each movement intricate and delicate, everyone perfectly choreographed. I didn't understand any of the stories but i still enjoyed every minute and was dismayed when it ended all too soon.

Before the start of the performance, there is a tea ceremony where a Geisha pours tea and people who have forked out some extra Yen get a cup of tea, a sweet and, to take home as a gift, the plate the sweet was served on. The place was crazy with people all wanting a look at the Geisha and to take photos (including me) so you'll have to forgive the angle of the video i took of part of the ceremony. Do note the movements of the girl next to the Geisha when she picks up a cup of tea.


Here are a few photos i snapped of the ceremony too.

Miyako Odori tea ceremony
Miyako Odori tea ceremony
Miyako Odori tea ceremony
Miyako Odori tea ceremony
Understandably, no photos or filming was allowed once the performance started but beforehand it was ok...and it was a lovely theatre - look at the stage curtain and all the paper lanterns!

Miyako Odori stage
Miyako Odori theatre
I do remember seeing a Geiko with (presumably) her patron and a young lady (his daughter maybe) attending the dance. She was impeccably dressed in a spring kimono and held the attention and curiosity of all who saw her. Some even en devoured to talk to her but she was always polite and quickly resumed her station by her patrons or his daughters side. I am simply guessing he was a patron of hers or maybe that he was a guest of honour by patronage to the Miyako Odori, but i do know that he must have been incredibly wealthy to invite a Geiko out for such a period of time and also afterwards i noticed they ducked into a restaurant not far from the theatre. With only around 100 Geiko left in Kyoto, their time is precious and in demand. Lucky (and wealthy) is the person who can afford to spend any significant amount of time with one.

I have to say that the allure of the Geisha world is not diminished by seeing it in person rather than reading about it or seeing movies based on it. It really is a world of its own and if you ever find yourself in Japan, do make the trip to Kyoto. Even if you don't see a Geisha or Maiko, walking the narrow streets of Gion definitely evokes that aura of mystery, secrets and a hidden world.



  1. Thanks for stopping by Carole. I hope you get the chance to visit soon! It really is worth it.