Think Japan and one of the images that pops into your head, alongside temples, cherry blossom, sushi and lashings of neon, is geisha. There are all sorts of myths and legends around geisha, partly fuelled by the ‘otherness’ of their elaborate make-up, hair and dress, and by how hard it is to spend time with a real geisha in person.
The true geisha experience is at a teahouse or a private event, where geisha show off their skills at music and dance. As a foreigner you stand no chance of getting a private audience with any of the geisha unless you happen to know an extremely well-connected Japanese businessman or woman. You could attend a public performance in Tokyo or Kyoto—or you can come to Kanazawa and spend a fairly intimate 90 minutes with geisha in a traditional teahouse.
Kanazawa has three well-preserved traditional entertainment districts and a healthy geisha population. The biggest and best chaya (teahouse) district is Higashichaya, to the east. One old teahouse has been converted into a museum and one other, Kaikaro, allows the public in to explore during the day and visit its cafe. Still, there’s little chance of spying an actual geisha, let alone seeing her perform.
But Kaikaro has something else up its (voluminous silk) sleeve. Twice a year, the 200-year-old teahouse throws open its doors to foreigners for a limited run of performances featuring the teahouse’s landlady and two geisha. This, then, is the best way to experience geisha in real life. And unlike some other geisha experiences in Japan, it doesn’t cost a fortune.
What happens at Geisha Evenings in Kanazawa?
The night we went, we were shown into the teahouse’s main room where we got to admire the architecture while the rest of the audience arrived. Lady Baba, Kaikaro’s owner and landlady, kicked off the evening by performing the kigami-biraki ceremony (breaking open a sake barrel) with two geisha—and we all got a splash of sake to celebrate.
Our two geisha for the evening performed a variety of songs on the shamisen, accompanied by dancing. Which is all gorgeous but, unless you’re deeply into geisha culture, 90 minutes of dance has the potential to get boring, fast. Fortunately, the evening belongs to Lady Baba’s chat interludes, where she explains—in English—about geisha history and tradition, and how she runs her business in the modern world.
Kaikaro’s landlady is funny, fascinating and has the entire audience in the palm of her hand within minutes. This, surely, is the real geisha experience: having the pants charmed off you by someone whose job it is to be charming, and not having it feel false.
There’s also the chance for audience participation. Geisha perform taiko drumming, and then volunteers get to beat their own rhythm. Anyone who doesn’t get a chance on stage for drumming has another opportunity later, when Lady Baba and the geisha demonstrate drinking games. You can play to win… but why would you, when the loser gets delicious sake?
When the performance is over, everyone has the opportunity to explore the teahouse. We fully recommend waiting in line to catch a glimpse of the gold-leaf-covered floor of the tea ceremony room.
How to book Geisha Evenings in Kanazawa
Keep an eye on the website to find out when dates are released for booking. There are two sessions a year, each lasting roughly a month, in spring and autumn.
Prices are ¥9,000 for the front row, who also get priority entry and green tea alongside an unrestricted view. The second to fourth rows cost ¥7,500 and fifth and sixth rows cost ¥6,500. When all seats are booked out, you might be able to pick up standing seats in person from the box office for ¥3,500.
Which seats you book will depend on price, whether you want a completely unrestricted view, and also the type of seat you want. The further back you sit, the more ‘Western’ (and raised) the chairs; so if you have a bad back or trouble getting up and down, you might want to consider sitting further back!
The photos on this page were all taken from the end of the third row. There are only around 60 seats per performance, so you’re never too far away from the stage and anyone in any seat can volunteer for the audience participation.
Tickets and schedule for Geisha Evenings in Kanazawa
Tickets for the Spring 2019 performance schedule go on sale January 7, 2019 (GMT+9). The spring run goes from March 29, 2019 and April 19, 2019.
Performace times: Monday to Friday from 18:00-19:30 (doors open 17:30)
Getting to and around Kanazawa
Getting to Kanazawa from Tokyo is fairly easy. It’s only a 2.5-hour journey by Shinkansen or 1 hour by plane. Going by highway bus will take a bit more time (8 hours), but you’ll save significantly on travel costs. Read our full Tokyo to Kanazawa transport guide for more details.
Kanazawa is also a pedestrian and bike-friendly town. Read our getting around guide to plan logisitics for once you’re there.