The Insider’s Guide to Geisha Hunting in Kyoto
Japan is pretty much my favorite country. It’s no secret. I’m constantly talking about how amazing this place is and I cannot wait to go back there. Until then, I get to write about it! Well, one of my favorite places in Japan is Kyoto and when you go to Kyoto, you hunt for geisha.
But where can you see a geisha in Kyoto? That’s a question everyone asks.
Seeing a geisha in Japan is like spotting a tiger in the wild in Thailand; viewing them in their native environment is just far more beautiful. It’s magical. Kyoto is the hub of where most geisha sightings occur, although there are parts of Tokyo where you can actually see them too.
But, there’s a magic about Kyoto and the Gion District because that’s where the tradition thrives, so if spotting a geisha is on your bucket list, I suggest you go to Kyoto.
After living in Japan for three years and even traveling to Kyoto a couple of times prior, I never actually spotted a geisha. I didn’t have the time, and my trips were both hurried in nature.
So on my last trip to Kyoto, I made it a point to go geisha hunting in Kyoto. I didn’t care what I had to do. I wanted a photograph of one of these beautiful creatures in her natural element. The first rule of geisha hunting is patience.
It was seriously the best time ever standing there on the corner, waiting to spot a geisha in Kyoto. It’s so exciting and definitely one of my favorite travel experiences. In fact, if this isn’t on your bucket list, it ought to be.
So where do you start? How do you go about spotting a Geisha in Kyoto?
First, you should know that geisha hang out in the Gion District of Kyoto. They are often spotted in a hurry walking along the cobblestoned streets and candlelit windows.
All geishas live in what is called hanamachi, which translates to “flower town.” Hanamachi districts exist also in Osaka and Tokyo, but the most famous is in Kyoto.
What’s the best place to spot a Geisha in Kyoto? What Street Do You Stand On?
I took the advice from a fellow traveler who told me to stand at the corner of Shijō Street (四条通, Shijō–dōri) and Hanamikoji dori and we had luck. FYI, dori means street in Japanese, and Hana means flower.
Shijō–dōri is the busiest street in Kyoto where you see all kinds of shops and restaurants. If you stand at the corner of this street in Gion, you’ll see geisha heading here to catch a cab or head off to work the night. I’ve provided pictures of what this looks like below and the address of the restaurant we stood in front of.
What’s the Best Time to See Geisha in Kyoto?
4:30 to 6 PM is ideal. This is prime time because you can catch both geisha and maiko heading off to tea ceremonies and restaurants nearby. You need patience, though. If you only have half an hour, that may not work.
What Do Geishas Do?
The word geisha literally translates to “entertainer” but these girls are trained in the art of entertaining, calligraphy, tea ceremony, poetry, traditional dancing, and more. Modern geishas today are often hired for ochaya, which means teahouse in Japanese. Ocha is the word for tea and “ya” indicates store. So anytime you see or hear “ya” at the end of a word, chances are it’s a type of store. I just love the Japanese language, it’s so efficient! Anyway, geisha are also hired for ceremonies or to dine at traditional Japanese restaurants.
Maiko Geisha: How to Tell the Difference Between Geisha and Maiko?
It’s really simple to tell the difference between these two. Maiko are younger girls who aren’t yet geisha. They’re still training and they often have flowers in their hair.
Fun Geisha FactsA lot of foreigners mispronounce the word and say “gee-sha.” No!! It’s phonetically pronounced “gay-sha.” Did you know that a geisha’s kimono often costs an excess of $12,000 USD? Geishas are not prostitutes.
Geisha Shows in Kyoto & Meeting a Geisha
These ladies are hustling down the streets and you really don’t want to stop one of them and ask for a picture. Chances are you’ll be turned down and frowned upon. But, if you want to meet a geisha, there are a number of places around Kyoto that offer special dinners.Viator offers an excellent geisha experience in Kyoto. It’s called The Art of the Geisha: Private Dinner in Kyoto. Spots are limited. Your hostess is maiko which is an apprentice geisha. You also get to eat a traditional multiple course kaiseki dinner which is definitely something to do before you leave Japan. Another tour that’s recommended is a walking tour of Gion, but you get to dress up in a legit traditional kimono and a wig and walk around the Gion district for several hours. For those who absolutely love and want to take home amazing pictures of yourself in this gorgeous neighborhood, this is for you. Or if you just love dressing up in costumes, you can’t beat it. Gion Walking Tour in a Traditional Kimono. Maiko Performance with Kaiseki Dinner in Kyoto – this is the last tour I recommend but if you aim to experience culture before you leave Japan, I highly recommend booking a kaiseki dinner. This is traditionally prepared food and yes it’s a little expensive. You typically eat this when you go visit a ryokan which accounts for why it’s so pricy, but it’s so interesting and is a culinary adventure you won’t forget.