How to Spot A Geisha In Kyoto
The Flower and Willow World
The world of the Geisha is at once mysterious, elegant, and ethereal. Many of their traditions and secrets remain under wraps, or in this case, multi-layered Kimono. Yet on the surface, the beauty and nature of these women can still be enjoyed and appreciated in the unchanging streets of Kyoto.
Where to spot Geisha & Maiko
A place called Gion, where some of the last remaining Japanese Geisha still reside, although here they prefer the term Geiko, meaning Art’s child. Their culture and elegance must be respected. An audience with them is not easily attained, deep pockets it’s not just a necessity, but you also need the right connections. Only a referral from an existing client will gain you a chance to enjoy the most illustrious arts in the presence of a Geisha. We are in luck however, Geisha may be mysterious and elusive creatures, but you can still catch a glimpse of them in the streets of Kyoto. You will even an eager Japanese tourist with their smartphone in hand, trying to catch a glimpse of these fascinating women. I was lucky enough to find the right place, at the right time, and spot a few dozen Geisha and Maiko off to an evening engagement.
It all began in the streets of Gion, which is easily accessible from Kyoto central station. Head towards Gion shijo and the cluster of old narrow alleys and humble buildings.
When to spot Geisha & Maiko
The best time to spot a Geisha or Maiko is in the evening when they are heading out of the Okiya to their engagements or to practice their arts. The sun was getting low in the sky, the street lamps were beginning to glow, and we spotted a modest Geiko trotting gracefully down the avenue. In true gaijin style, we followed their footsteps, down winding lanes and alleys. Soon enough we spotted another, this time a young Maiko, a gift in hand; shifting at pace in the opposite direction. We quickly took action and followed her politely.
Tip: do not act like the paparazzi. Respect is key here, do not ever flail around like a crazed tourist. Geisha experience the attention constantly, and they will not pose for you or even acknowledge your existence. No selfies here people, treat this esteemed women like you would a majestic lion on safari. Take in their beauty from afar and stay out of their way
Our Maiko alighted at the door of a house and deposited her gift, swiftly turning to pass us and leave awe in our midst. With a little walking, somehow we managed to find ourselves right in the centre of buzzing anticipation. A whole host of Geisha was meeting at a rendezvous in the middle of town, and we were right there ready and waiting to see them.
How to spot ethereal beings
Don’t expect to just turn a corner and spot a Geisha, it is all about timing, patience, and luck. It might take an hour to find them, and another hour to get that perfect shot. As they are mostly active at the golden hour, this is a perfect opportunity for the best conditions but can create a small window of opportunity.
I had done my research and had harboured an obsession with Geisha history for years, but I still felt amazingly lucky to find myself seeing them all together in one place. A dream come true!
The Maiko, or apprentice Geisha, can be recognised by their red collar, three spikes at the nape of their neck, and a long flowing obi than their superior Geisha. Maiko typically also wear a more elaborate and colourful kimono. I always fall head over heels for a good kimono and obi set, and these ladies did not disappoint. The attention to detail here is purely exquisite.
The type of hairstyle seen on a Maiko is wareshinobu; a complex and intricate design to emphasise the prettiness of a Miako.
My day in Gion holds one of my best memories to date. I probably won’t see such a spectacle again, my stalking abilities paid off this time. Ultimately, I will always hold this particular photo close to my heart. What could be a better amalgam of anachronism and modern culture than a couple of apprentice Maiko enjoying a joke, amid two old Japanese ladies snapping a picture on their smartphones.
The rules around Geisha and photography have changed in Kyoto. Find them here