To many tourists an image of a Japanese geisha is still coated with mystery and enigma. At least I definitely had that feeling, so of course I really wanted to get a glimpse on their very special culture. Fortunately, Kyoto has the most geisha in all Japan, so it was a good place for trying to unravel the mystery of geisha (or geiko, as they call them in Kyoto).
For many years and decades a geiko-hosted dinner and her performance was a luxury and a privilege that tourists could not even think about. But the recent multiplication of tourist influx to Japan encourages geiko to provide their services to foreigners too, and nowadays it is not an impossible task to meet a geiko or even hire her to host you at dinner.
There are multiple ways for Kyoto visitors to get an understanding of geisha history and see what modern geisha look like. What you choose must depend on your itinerary, time allocation, and, of course, your budget 😉
Option #1: walk around Gion (free)
Most of Kyoto’s geiko and maiko live and work in Gion, the most historical district of the city. Every day they entertain their guests in traditional “ochaya” tea houses in the very center of Gion. Since a typical dinner starts around 6-7 pm, a bit before this time there is a decent chance to spot them as they elegantly walk through a boring crowd of tourists in their bright kimonos which make them look like exotic birds or butterflies.
Of course, in this case you won’t see a geisha perform (all of them are taught dancing and music). At most, if you’re lucky, you might notice how they greet their guests at the tea house entrance but you won’t actually experience what the entertainers’ work is about. And if you’re not in luck, you might not spot them at all (or not be able to tell them apart from tourists dressed as maiko). On the other hand, this option is for free and does not need any booking unlike all options below.
Option #2: see a performance at Gion Corner (inexpensive)
This option will suit you if you would like to see some geiko art and have a small budget for that. The Gion Corner theater keeps and promotes traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana, tea ceremony, zither play and, of course, maiko dance.
In April Kyoto hosts Miyako Odori dance festival which is a great opportunity to watch an impressive large scale geisha performance which involves dozens of maiko and geiko. The festival takes place in Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater located right next to Gion Corner.
Option #3: dinner with a geiko (expensive)
In the end, the main duty of a geisha is not public performances but entertainment for tea house guests which could include pleasant conversations, music, dance show or drinking games. Typical ochaya clients are high-rank Japanese businessmen and officials, and until recent this kind of experience was unthinkable to offer to a foreign tourist (and, to be honest, to regular Japanese as well). But now there are so many tourists in Japan that some tea houses realized it is very profitable to offer introduction to the geiko culture to anyone with deep enough pockets.
A dinner with a geiko these days is easily bookable on many websites. The price will differ depending on the length of the dinner, the number of maiko or geiko, privacy (options range from a table in a restaurant to reservation of the entire ochaya just for yourself), but also the group size (price per person non-linearly declines with each additional guest). Because of that, the total price can be anything between $200 to $1500 per visitor (but I can imagine it can get even higher).
In case you’re interested, we booked here and went for a private room in a restaurant (but not a private tea house). This felt like a reasonable compromise: for a twice smaller price we still had the undivided attention of the geiko. Apart from the dinner and geiko presence, the packet also included a Japanese-English interpreter (SHOKINGLY geisha don’t speak English) and a small walking tour around Gion focused on geisha history and culture.
Geiko are incredibly skilled at making sure their guests feel comfortable and engaged at all times. Every little detail of the outfit, all gestures and movements are precise down to a centimeter and absolutely charming. Manners of geiko are with no doubt an art on their own. Most of the communication went through the interpreter, of course, but it was really hard to tell whether the geiko understood English: a split second was enough for her to tell by our body language and facial expressions which reaction we expect and instinctively executed it even before the interpreter started to translate (after the translation followed a second reaction, to the meaning of the conversation :D).
I guess meeting a geiko as a tourist is quite different from how it usually goes at ochaya. Most of the evening was filled by a Q&A session where we could ask her any questions about culture, learning, the job and everyday life. A demo of typical entertainments included a drinking game (it’s super difficult to win against a geiko!) and a formal dance.
With geiko intertainment the dinner ended in a blink of an eye, and I have no regrets about the money paid: this was a truly unique experience and an opportunity to dive into this important part of Japanese culture.