Elegant kimono, smooth white make-up and that classic demure look—seeing a geisha in Japan is rare, but not impossible. Here’s where to see geisha in Kyoto, as well as geiko and maiko.
As keenly associated with Japan’s ancient capital as swords are with samurai, the beautiful geisha (or geiko) of Kyoto are among the most sought-after sights of any visitor. While there are countless girls walking the streets of Gion dressed in kimono and make-up, they are seldom the real deal. 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 are geisha?
Known as geiko in Kyoto, geisha are high-class and greatly respected entertainers, trained for years in traditional instruments, dance, parlor games and more. They attend dinners and gatherings at ryotei (traditional restaurants) and ochaya (teahouses) and entertain the guests with their skills. Unsurprisingly, an evening with a real geiko will set you back hundreds and hundreds of dollars—but, as you’ll see, there are ways to see geisha in Kyoto without spending your life savings.
Geisha, geiko and maiko: The differences
While they’re known as geisha in Tokyo, in Kyoto the correct term is geiko, meaning “women of art” and suggesting longer and more impressive training than their Kanto counterparts. Geiko have to spend at least five years in training as a maiko (an apprentice geiko) and continue to train throughout their careers, maintaining the highest of skills in all fields, from flower arranging to conversation; traditional dance to parlor games. Employed to provide entertainment at dinners and events, they are highly respected, and there are currently believed to be around 100 fully-fledged geiko and a similar number of maiko in Kyoto today.
To help you tell the difference between geiko and maiko, there are a few hints in their appearance:
Maiko begin training at around the age of 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. They often use their own hair with plenty of bright hairpins and adornments, and have brightly colored kimono with longer sleeves and an obi (sash) left long at the back. Maiko may also wear higher wooden sandals and have more skin left uncovered by make-up just below the hairline on their necks.
In contrast, geiko typically wear toned-down kimono with shorter sleeves, flatter sandals and have a wig, with fewer hair decorations. Although it may seem less exciting to see a maiko than a geiko, they can actually be more beautiful to photograph, and both are unfailingly stunning.
Where to see geisha in Kyoto: Local celebrations and festivals
There are countless festivals in Kyoto, and many of them involve geiko and maiko—sometimes both! Either sitting aloft on carts or distributing beans for setsubun, they have roles in many local events, and these can be a great chance to see the stunning outfits.
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.
- Yasaka Shrine Setsubun | Feb 2nd – 3rd | Catch beans from geiko and maiko in this annual event
- Heian Jingu Setsubun | Feb 3rd | More geiko throwing out beans to waiting crowds at this festival
- Baikasai | Feb 25th | A plum blossom celebration and tea ceremony at Kitano Tenmangu
- Higashiyama Hanatoro Festival | Early to mid-March | The illumination event includes a stage performance
- Heian Jingu Reisai Festival | April 15th – 16th | A fantastic performance in the shrine grounds
- Kaname Inari Shrine Festival | May 10th | A small Higashiyama festival with plenty of geiko (link in Japanese)
- Kyoto’s Gion Festival | July 1st – 31st | Geiko and maiko take part in multiple aspects of this event
The streets of Kyoto’s five hanamachi
Another option for seeing geiko in the city is to try and catch a glimpse as they make their way to appointments in the early evening. There are five traditional hanamachi, meaning “flower towns” in Kyoto—these are the areas with a long history of geiko culture.
The five hanamachi areas are:
- Gion Higashi
- Gion Kobu
- Kamishichiken (near Kitano Tenmangu Shrine)
There you’ll find: ochaya (special teahouses), ryotei (traditional restaurants) and okiya (where the geiko and maiko live).
As the businesses rely on specific local okiya to provide geiko and maiko, they are often close enough to walk and sometimes arrive by black cab, especially in bad weather. This means you have a good chance of seeing them if you’re in the right place at the right time, although you certainly won’t find yourself alone. Many keen photographers gather and there are even signs warning people to leave them be. While photographs are not prohibited, it is important that people respect their space and don’t interrupt their journey.
Tips for spotting geisha
The best times to visit are between 5:30pm and 6pm, and the geiko and maiko usually arrive after 5:45pm for events. One of the best hints is to keep an eye on the ochaya that are having food delivered. While they are teahouses, they offer more food and options for entertainment than their regular counterparts, so evening meals and parties are often held in them. If you stick around and look for more deliveries, it is likely some places will have events starting at 7pm too. Head to Hanami-koji-dori, which runs parallel to the Kamo River, or try the Shijo-dori end of Pontocho for the best chance of sighting success.
The annual Odori dance performances
Every year, each of the five geisha districts in Kyoto holds a public dance show 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, with some offering tea too.
There are usually multiple performances each day and they run for a week at least, so although it is competitive, it is completely possible to get tickets online, at convenience stores, or at the Tourist Information Center in Kyoto Station (depending on the district).
Kitano Odori | Late March – Early April, 2020
The performance by geiko from Kamishichiken contains three parts: a short play, a series of dances and the Kamishichiken serenade. One of the more recent performances, it began in 1952 to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of nearby Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. You can have a look at their Japanese-language site here for domestic orders, alternatively try travel agents or the Tourist Information Center in Kyoto station. Tickets are around ¥4,800 with a tea service for each person.
Miyako Odori | April 1st – 27th, 2019
This is a fantastic dance performance involving maiko and geiko from different districts, and is known as the Dance of the Capital. It was started shortly after Tokyo became the capital, to raise local spirits, and has been a popular event ever since. Although it has been held at the Kaburenjo Theater since 1873, it was moved to the Shunjuza Theater during renovations. Tickets are available for around ¥4,000 to ¥5,000 and there are three shows a day (12.30pm, 2.30pm and 4.30pm). Unfortunately in 2019 no tea service will be available.
Kyo Odori | Early April, 2020
A performance from the Miyagawacho district, this one started in 1950. It is held at the Kaburenjo Theater and has a performance of seven scenes, often considered to have a similar style to Kabuki theater due to the area’s strong links to the art form. The final act involves all of the performers and is truly a sight to behold, with a color and flower theme for the geiko. The tickets for this event are some of the most affordable, starting around ¥2,200 per person for a second-level seat or ¥4,200 for a first-level seat (without tea). Add an additional ¥600 for tea ceremony which takes place before the show. Note that the booking site is in Japanese.
Pro tip: You can meet maiko and catch performances at the Maiko Theater, near Miyagawacho, all-year round.
Kamogawa Odori | May 2020
Featuring dancers from the Pontocho area, this event also takes place in the Kaburenjo Theater (just off Pontocho). A special side-stage allows for a more immersive experience, and the show features historical stories and costumes. Prices vary depending on seat level and optional tea ceremony performed by a maiko but range from around ¥2,300 – ¥4,800. Tickets will be made available in batches from Feb 1st online, April 1st on the theater phoneline and April 8th online again.
Gion Odori | November 1st – 10th 2019
The only autumnal dance event, the Gion Odori is held at the Gion Kaikan, with two performances a day, just as the leaves begin to turn. First held in 1894 as the Mima Odori, it is one of the smallest districts and the experience is considered more intimate and personal, adding a distinct charm compared to the larger versions earlier in the year.
Traditional performances at Gion Corner
Based in a theater at Yasaka Hall built for the welcome ceremony of the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, Gion Corner is an affordable place to get a taste of some of the most traditional aspects of Japanese culture. During a 50-minute performance, you can enjoy a series of displays highlighting a variety of skills, including tea ceremony, puppetry and a maiko-performed dance from Kyoto.
The show includes the following:
Kyo-mai dance: A traditional dance from Kyoto, this is performed by geiko and maiko.
Tea ceremony: See the ryurei style of tea ceremony.
Ikebana: Traditional flower-arranging techniques, often using seasonal themes.
Koto: A traditional six-string musical instrument played using plectrums worn on the fingers.
Gagaku court music: Indigenous music and dance performed at the Imperial Court, shrines and temples.
Kyogen theater: A comedic play depicting aspects of everyday Japanese life, which was often performed as an intermission between Noh Theater acts for light relief.
Bunraku puppet theater: The original form of Japanese puppetry, this is honored on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
They also have a maiko gallery, where you can see the hair decorations and accessories of maiko and study their intricacy and beauty. Tickets cost ¥3,150 per adult, ¥2,200 for students between 16-22, ¥1,900 for children between 7-15, and free for those aged six and under. There are often discounts available for foreign guests, taking the price down to ¥2,500 or less. Performances are held at 6pm and 7pm every day, although during the off-season (late December – early March), they are only held from Friday to Sunday and on national holidays. You can reserve tickets online.
Other ways to see geisha in Kyoto: Special 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, and although it can be rather expensive, some options are a little more budget-friendly.
At the higher end, options include an all-you-can-drink private session with geiko and maiko at a teahouse (from ¥49,000), and a private dinner with games and drinks (from ¥52,222).
A more generally affordable option is a performance by maiko, followed by a kaiseki dinner and some games, which is priced from ¥15,000 and can be booked online.
This article was originally published in May, 2018. Last updated in January, 2019. While we do our best to keep things up to date, information is subject to change.