Spotting a real geisha in Kyoto’s Gion district can feel like you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. In the evenings, tourists and photographers and tourists usually go out to the Gion district in the hopes of spotting geiko or maiko, as they discreetly move from one social engagement to another.
The Gion district in Kyoto is considered to be the most exclusive in all of Japan. With streets of old-style houses (or machiya), it feels like one is stepping back in time. It is here where geisha entertain high profile clients in Japanese tea houses (or ochaya) with classical music, traditional songs and dance, games, cocktails and conversation.
The world inside of the ochaya is exclusive and closed off to the majority of people. To get a glimpse of real geisha is special. More times than not, the maiko spotted walking along the historic streets of Gion are people who have paid to dress up as one for the day. So, it was a real treat for me to see not one, but several geisha.
It just so happened that I was there during an annual spring dance festival that takes place at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater, called Miyako Odori. I had no idea of the festival beforehand; otherwise, I would have arranged to see the show. But, I was fortunate to see some of Kyoto’s real geisha after happening upon them exiting from the back of the theater.
In between sightings and turning into the paparazzi (or the tourists they try to avoid), I was told by another traveler who had attended one of the shows that each year 20 of the best geiko and maiko are hand-picked to perform at the dance festival. If you’re planning to travel to Japan during April, then this show may be worth while or if you want to photograph real geisha in Kyoto, go and hang out by Miyako Odori when they host the festival.
*Originally published on May 3, 2014