A noble samurai, a swift ninja, and a blushing geisha might come to mind when thinking about traditional Japanese culture, but only one of these people still exist in modern times. Geisha study the ancient arts of flower arrangement, music, dance, tea ceremony, and more to entertain their patrons. From the tips of their ornate wigs to the hems of their trailing obi, geishas embody the spirit of ancient Japan and Japanese beauty.
Getting the chance to meet a geisha isn’t as easy to do as other experiences for travelers, but with the right planning—and connections—it's a unique opportunity that you can't miss. In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about geisha and how you can get a chance to meet or see one on your next journey to Japan.
Young women who decide to become geisha begin their professions on one of several paths.
In Kyoto, many newcomers begin their careers around the time they graduate junior high school. Apprentice geisha (maiko in Japanese) wear colorful kimono, long obi, and glamorous buns.
Maikos are required to live in okiya (teahouses) with other apprentices to further their immersion into the culture. They take classes during the day and work at night to practice their wit, humor, and storytelling abilities with customers. At 20—the age of adulthood in Japan—a maiko's transition to adulthood is celebrated in a ceremony called a mizuage where her bun is cut off.
*Note* I’d like to quickly address all those who read or saw Memoirs of a Geisha. You might remember Sayuri’s mizuage involving an auction for her virginity. In reality, this was not a widely accepted practice for maiko at any point in time, and would never happen in today’s world.
Following a mizuage, maikos begin to wear wigs like geisha, but they haven't completely graduated from their training yet. Usually, within a few months to a year of further training, a maiko goes through another ceremony called an erikae. During this, maikos trade their red collars for white collars and become full-fledged geisha.
Not everyone goes through the process of becoming maiko. Some women become geisha after they attend high school or university, although they will still undergo training depending on their skills. Unlike maiko, geisha aren’t required to live in okiya and lead independent lives. Their income usually depends on entertaining, opening a business, or training new maikos.
As important as it is to know what a geisha is, it’s essential to understand what they are not. They are not sex workers. In the 16th century, male and female entertainers known as geisha (yes, there are male geishas but only a handful exist today) began working in the same pleasure quarters as oiran, who were high-class courtesans. However, the geisha didn't sleep with patrons. They put on music and dance performances before the customers met the oiran.
Another facet to this misconception is the relationship geisha used to have with men known as their danna. Training to be a geisha requires using kimono, makeup, instruments, and time to master skills, all of which come at a high price. A danna was a man of great means who would financially support a geisha’s livelihood. Their relationship, however, wasn’t inherently sexual nor romantic.
Speaking of romance…. If I remember my Memoirs of a Geisha right, the book ends with the main character saying something to the effect of “A geisha isn’t a wife.” That statement isn’t entirely true, and Arthur Golden made it seem as though Sayuri must resign herself to this world for life. In reality, they have the freedom to marry, raise families, or retire at any age.
In Kyoto, geisha who wish to wed must stop practicing, but this has little to do with appearing “available” to their clients. This strict rule is only enforced because a geisha is expected to be married to her work, and a husband could distract her. However, Kyoto women can enter civil unions and raise children without giving up their careers. Outside of Kyoto, geisha have been known to get married, start a family, and continue working.
Don’t feel ashamed if you’ve held some false impressions. Many Japanese people don’t quite understand the culture themselves. For example, (extreme) feminists in Japan often make the assumption that these women are exploited. However, most modern geisha assert that they feel quite liberated and independent. Success in this industry takes a great deal of business sense, artistic talent, and a high level of education to carry on a conversation with customers of varying professions and lifestyles.
The most traditional and immersive way to interact with a geisha or maiko, is to hire them to act as hostesses for a meal. Although these events are quite desirable, they tend to be difficult to access for foreign travelers as you must go through a third party—like our well-connected staff at All Japan Tours. Small groups of 2-5 people might hire one or two geisha or maiko, but larger groups usually hire more.
To begin dinner, your hostess will pour you a glass of beer, but she won’t pour one for herself. According to Japanese customs, you are to pour her beer for her, and she won’t move to take a sip until you toast her and begin drinking. At this time, it’s customary to tip her with an envelope of cash. Typical gratis amounts to 3,000 JPY (about US $30) for each entertainer. During your meal, she’ll lead the conversation and might tell a few anecdotes to keep the flow going. After dinner entertainment often includes a musical performance and traditional Japanese drinking games.
Buddhist monks adopted the graceful tea ceremony from China thousands of years ago. Each purposeful movement, from the whisking of the matcha powder to the passing of the teacup, requires strict adherence to tradition and hours of practice. No one knows this better than the geisha and maiko who perform it on a regular basis.
Most Japanese people who attend a tea ceremony kneel on cushions or a tatami (rice straw) floor. Depending on the number of people participating, the entire process can take up to an hour. If you’re unaccustomed to sitting on your knees, try to find a facility that provides chairs.
Since 1872, different districts that house maiko and geisha in Kyoto have put on public performances of traditional Japanese dance. Most take place in the spring over the months of March, April, and May. The most accessible among these is the Miyako Odori which runs through all of April. The Gion Odori runs in early November and is the only performance that takes place in the fall.
Tickets usually range between 1500 JPY (about US $15) and 4500 JPY (about US $45) depending on seats. Odoris also offer optional tea ceremonies before the shows where you’ll have a chance to see the dancers and musicians up close.
*Note* The word "Odori" as in "Miyako Odori" (都をどり) is usually written in old Japanese and doesn't use the character "お".
If you’re in Kyoto outside of the geisha events season, you can always go to the Gion Corner Performance Art Show to get a small taste of geisha and Japanese culture. The one-hour shows take place every day except for public holidays and exhibit tea ceremony, flower arrangement (ikebana), performing arts, and more.
The traditional geisha dance kyomai is the highlight of the show, and it’s performed by real maiko. After the show, be sure to check out the Maiko Gallery where you can watch videos of dances and see maiko hair accessories. If you’re lucky, you might get a chance to take a picture with the maiko dancers!
In the Gion Geisha district of Kyoto (and other geisha house districts), look out for the Hanamachi (flower towns) that have streets lined with geisha tea houses. If you’re lucky, you might get a chance to see a geisha or maiko dashing from her home to work. Most maiko and geisha work at night, so you can increase your chances by walking through these streets between 16:00 and 18:00.
Be warned: Tourists going “hunting for geisha” have exponentially increased in recent years and some haven’t been on their best behavior. Mobs surrounding the women, grabbing their kimono, and rudely flashing cameras have caused geisha and maiko to resort to taking backstreets and racing to taxis in secret. The Gion neighborhood in Kyoto banned photography of any kind to combat this problem, and they strictly enforce it! If you're lucky enough to spot a Geisha or Maiko, keep a respectful distance and leave your camera out of the equation.
Many shops in Kyoto offer the chance for travelers to learn the beauty secrets of geisha. For a reasonable price, you can get a full geisha makeover. Experts will teach you how to dress like a geisha, and they’ll paint you with the same white face powder geisha and maiko use for makeup. By reservation, some shops provide photoshoots or allow you to walk around the streets of Kyoto in full regalia.
If you do step out in the streets, be prepared for an onslaught of fellow travelers vying to take your picture. You won’t fool any of the locals, but gullible tourists might mistake you for the real thing! If you aren’t camera shy, lean into it and have a little fun.
To see geisha on your next vacation in Japan, check out our experience tours!