Elegant kimono, smooth white make-up, and that classic demure look — geisha are, by nature, charming. Actually seeing a geisha in Japan is rare, but it’s not impossible. And if you are going to see one, Kyoto is your best bet. Here’s our advice for how and where to see geisha (or geiko, rather) and maiko in Kyoto.
Just as swords are associated with samurai, so are geisha (or geiko) associated with Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. They are one of the most sought-after sights — to the point that working geisha have reported feeling harrassed (more on that below). This doesn’t mean you can’t see one; just be cool about it.
Read on to find out where to spot geisha on the streets of Kyoto, at festivals and annual dance performances, and through special bookable experiences.
First of all, what are geisha?
Known as geiko in Kyoto, geisha are high-class, greatly respected entertainers, who have trained for years in traditional instruments and dance, parlor games and conversation, flower arranging and more. They attend dinners and gatherings at ryōtei (exclusive traditional restaurants) and ochaya (teahouses) and entertain guests with their skills. There are currently believed to be around one hundred fully-fledged geiko and a similar number of maiko in Kyoto today.
An evening with a real geiko costs hundreds and hundreds of dollars (at least!). Fortunately, there are others ways to see geisha in Kyoto.
Geisha, geiko, and maiko: What’s the difference?
While they’re known as geisha in Tokyo, in Kyoto the correct term is geiko. Both terms have similar meaning, and can be translated into something like “person of the arts.” Geiko have to spend at least five years in training as a maiko (an apprentice geiko) and continue to train throughout their careers.
How to spot a maiko
Maiko begin training at around age 15 and become geiko at 20, meaning their youth and “innocence” are key indicators as to their position. These elements are highly valued and are therefore emphasized in their outfits; they have a more playful and bright appearance when compared to the more demure geiko.
Maiko wear brightly colored kimono with longer sleeves and an obi (sash) left long at the back. They often use their own hair for elaborate hairstyles that are ornamented with bold hairpins. Maiko may also wear higher wooden sandals and have more skin left uncovered by make-up, just below the hairline on their necks.
The geiko/geisha difference
In contrast, geiko typically wear toned-down kimono with shorter sleeves, flatter sandals; they may wear a wig, with fewer hair decorations. Although it may seem less exciting to see a geiko, it’s the geiko who are the true deal — the ones who make a career of it. (Many maiko choose not to become geiko).
Another thing to know: Many of the women you see walking the streets of Gion dressed in kimono and make-up, often they are just tourists having a dress-up. They may look the part from afar and happily pose for photographs, but once you’ve seen a genuine geisha, you’ll understand the difference.
What else should you see while exploring Kyoto? Here are our recommended top sights.
Kyoto’s five hanamachi: Where to see geiko in Kyoto
Kyoto has five hanamachi, which means “flower town.” These are the districts that have a long history of geiko culture and will have ochaya, the “teahouses” where geiko entertain; ryōtei, the exclusive traditional restaurants where geisha attend banquets; and okiya, the houses in which geiko and maiko live.
Kyoto’s five hanamachi:
- Gion Higashi
- Gion Kobu
- Kamishichiken (near Kitano Tenmangū Shrine)
Since geiko and maiko tend to live and work in the same areas, they can sometimes be spotted walking on the streets to an engagement — or slipping out of a black cab in the rain.
Now, we understand that a photo of a real live maiko or geiko is a pretty awesome souvenir. And unfortunately everyone agrees, which means some young women have found themselves mobbed paparazzi-style on their way to work.
The city has put up signs begging tourists to be more respectful. More recently, the Gion’s district council banned photography on private streets — most notably on Hanami-kōji — with fines of up to ¥10,000. We suggest you follow these rules, and if you see geisha elsewhere, it goes without saying that it is important to respect their space and don’t interrupt their journey.
Want to learn more geiko culture? This highly-rated private walking tour through Gion, Kyoto’s largest geisha district, visits some cool local spots.
Tips for spotting geisha
The best time to visit a hanamachi is between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., as the geiko and maiko usually arrive after 5:45 p.m. for events. One of the best hints is to keep an eye on the ochaya that are having food delivered. While ochaya means “teahouse” it’s not like a cafe for tea; it’s more like a banquet space for entertaining and food is typically ordered in.
If you stick around and look for more deliveries, it is likely some places will have events starting at 7 p.m., too. Head to Hanami-kōji, the street running parallel to the Kamo River, or try the Shijō-dōri end of Pontochō for the best chance of sighting success.
Pro-tip: While Kyoto may be your best bet for geisha-spotting, it’s not the only city with geisha districts. Kanazawa has pretty tea districts to explore as well as popular geisha evenings. Kanazawa is not as well known as Kyoto, so is typically less crowded.
See geiko and maiko at festivals in Kyoto
Kyoto has countless festivals, and many of them involve geiko or maiko — and sometimes both! Whether sitting aloft on carts or distributing beans for setsubun, they play many roles in local events.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some ideas for either specific festivals, or shrines and temples that have affiliations with geiko and maiko. As is routine for events, do check in advance if they are going ahead.
- Feb 2nd–3rd: Catch beans from geiko and maiko at Yasaka Shrine Setsubun.
- Feb 3rd: More geiko throwing out beans to waiting crowds at Heian Jingū Setsubun.
- Feb 25th: Baikasai is a plum blossom celebration and tea ceremony at Kitano Tenmangū.
- April 15th–16th: Heian Jingu Reisai Festival has a fantastic performance in the shrine grounds.
- May 10th: In Higashiyama, the small Kaname Inari Shrine Festival has plenty of geiko.
- July 1st–31st: Geiko and maiko are a big part of Kyoto’s biggest annual event: Gion Festival.
Kyoto’s annual Odori dance performances
Every year, each of the five geisha districts in Kyoto holds a public dance show. This is where you can see geiko and maiko performing in an incredible display. Tickets are relatively affordable, starting from as little as ¥3,000 per person. Sometimes you get tea service, too.
The performances usually run for at least a week, and there are usually a couple of performances each. So while getting tickets is competitive, it’s not by any means impossible. Increasingly you can reserve tickets online, but otherwise you can sometimes purchase them at convenience stores, or at the Tourist Information Center in Kyoto Station (depending on the district).
Note: While the Odori events have started again, they may have reduced capacity or be cancelled. While we do our best to ensure information is up to date, please check in advance with event organisers before making plans.
This performance by geiko from Kamishichiken contains three parts: a short play, a series of dances, and a finale featuring the “Kamishichiken serenade.” One of the more recent performances, the Kitano Odori began in 1952 to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of nearby Kitano Tenmangū Shrine.
There are two shows daily, one at 2 p.m. and another at 4:30 p.m. Tickets, on sale from January 10, cost ¥6,000, or ¥7,000 with tea service. They can only be purchased directly in Japanese, but you can try the tourist information center in Kyoto Station (or a travel agent).
|Advance sales: ¥6,000
This performance by dancers from Miyagawachō is held to welcome spring in Kyoto. The highlight is the finale, which features all the geiko and maiko dancers of the district on stage together, in gorgeous spring kimono.
Kyo Odori is currently being staged at Kyoto Art Theater while the traditional venue is under renovation. There are three shows per day, at 12:30 p.m., 2.20 p.m. and 4:10 p.m. Tickets cost ¥5,500 and can be purchased from February 6 online in English. A limited number of tea service places are available each day, on the day, for ¥1,000 (in cash).
|Advance sales: ¥5,500
This performance by the dancers from Gion Kōbu is known as the “Dance of the Capital.” It was first held shortly after Tokyo was named the new capital, to raise local spirits — and has been a popular event ever since.
Miyako Odori is held at Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō — kaburenjō is the name for a hanamachi’s performance space. Tickets start at ¥4,000, making this one of the cheaper shows. It’s also one of the easier ones to get tickets for, since there are three shows per day (at noon, 2:20 p.m., and 4:40 p.m.) throughout the whole month of April. And you can buy them online in English.
Dancers from Pontochō perform at Pontochō Kaburenjō in this final performance of the spring Odori season, a tradition dating to 1872. There are three performances a day at 12.30pm, 2.20pm and 4.10pm. Tickets are on sale from April 1. Pricing depends on seat level, and whether or not you add on tea service.
This performance by the dancers from Gion Higashi is the only autumn Odori — held just as the leaves begin to turn. It’s another long-running show, first staged as the Mima Odori in 1894; it’s also among the smaller and more intimate performances.
Tickets go on sale from August 1 and can be purchased online.
Miyako no Nigiwai
Comprising of over 60 maiko and geiko from Kyoto’s five hanamachi, this joint performance is an annual highlight, held over a weekend in June. Tickets start at ¥6,500, and go on sale from April 25.
Traditional performances at Gion Corner
Gion Corner is an affordable place to sample traditional Japanese culture. Within one 50-minute show, you get to enjoy a variety of different performances, including dances performed by geiko and maiko.
The show includes the following:
- Kyo-mai (Kyoto-style traditional dance), performed by geiko and maiko.
- Tea ceremony, in the ryūrei style.
- Ikebana (traditional flower-arranging), often using seasonal themes.
- Koto, which is a traditional six-string musical instrument played using plectrums worn on the fingers.
- Gagaku, a traditional kind of music and dance performed at shrines, temples, and the Imperial Court.
- Kyōgen, comedy theater depicting aspects of everyday Japanese life and typically performed during the intermission of a Noh play.
- Bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theater), which is honored on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
There is also a maiko gallery, where you can see hair decorations and accessories.
Performances are held at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. every day from March 13, and on a reduced schedule during the off-season (December to March). You can get tickets on the day; we recommend getting there early to avoid disappointment.
Tickets cost ¥5,500 per adult, ¥3,850 for those aged 16–22, ¥3,300 for children aged 7-15, and free for kids 6 and under. There are often discounts available for foreign guests.
Gion Corner is in, well, Gion, so it’s centrally located and easy to get to. The theater is in Yasaka Hall, which was built for the welcome ceremony of the Tokyo 1964 Olympics.
Other ways to see geisha in Kyoto: Bookable experiences
If you don’t happen to be in Kyoto during any of the events, there are always opportunities to book your own dinner or show with experienced geiko and maiko. The prices and inclusions for these types of experience vary a lot, but here are some of our top recommendations.
Lunch or dinner with a maikoFrom ¥7,900 per person
This experience is the most budget friendly option and gives you the chance to see a maiko perform. Lunch or dinner is included, along with a small gift from the maiko. You can even opt to upgrade your seat for a better view. However, keep in mind that no English language support is included in the experience.
Gion tour and maiko performanceFrom ¥16,500 per person
A great mid-range option, this experience includes a walking tour of Gion with an English-speaking guide. You’ll visit a number of key attractions in the neighborhood while learning all about its fascinating history. Then you’ll take a tea break and watch a geisha show. You can upgrade your package to include lunch.
Private dinner with a maiko or geisha¥37,051 for two people
For a most intimate experience you may want to opt for this private dinner with a maiko or geisha. It starts at ¥37,051 for a casual dinner for two people and a short visit from a maiko (but not a performance). You can upgrade if you’d like a half or full kaiseki course, or even a full private tea house experience. This experience also includes a tour of Gion with an English-speaking guide.
Read about more top Kyoto experiences here.
This article was originally published in May, 2018. Last updated in March 2023. While we do our best to keep things up to date, information is subject to change.
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