There’s a great deal to do on a trip to Kyoto. Once the capital of all of Japan, it is now a slightly more laid back destination, famous for Buddhist temples, lush gardens, and tremendous natural beauty. One of the real highlights for a lot of visitors, however, is the chance to see actual geishas moving about certain parts of town.
While it’s impossible to prove such a statement, I would make the argument that geishas are among the most misunderstood cultural staples in the world. Because their traditional image involves a painted face, and they’re sometimes still associated with ancient Japan, some believe geishas were essentially theater performers from a past era. And unfortunately, some who have never actually read up on these fascinating women fall into the complete misconception that their work is akin to prostitution (which is not at all the case).
These misconceptions come from pop culture. Ironically though, that same pop culture often gets geishas right, for the most part – people just don’t look closely enough. Take Westworld for instance. The cryptic HBO drama made a splash just this summer by depicting a whole world based on ancient Japan, and included geishas as key cast additions. As a recap of the main episode in this thread noted, the geisha’s primary role was to entertain men through singing, dancing, and playing instruments. That’s not a perfect description, but it does speak to the idea that sex work is not implied, and appears to be an accurate characterization of how geishas were used in the show.
Or take something a little more lighthearted like an internet game called Geisha Wonders. In terms of gameplay this is a simple slot machine with Japanese and geisha-related symbols, and at first glance it looks like nothing more than a reach for what Westerners will understand to be a Japanese theme. Even this game, however, speaks to the reality of geishas, discussing their traditional roles and pointing out rightly that they exist to this day. It’s a game that at a glance might feed into the general fictionalization of these fascinating women, but which actually portrays them quite nicely.
Once you understand that geishas are actually interesting historical and cultural figures in Japan, as well as that they’re still working in present day Kyoto, it’s easy to see how they can become a priority on your visit. Unfortunately, actually seeing a geisha perform is a long shot for most visitors to Japan. Booking a geisha to help serve and/or perform during a dinner, for instance, can cost $900 or more – and even if you have that money to spend, you’ll likely need a personal introduction from an existing client to book the evening. That is to say, you can’t simply order up a geisha. There are some more reasonable options however, which tend to involve sitting with others to enjoy geisha entertainment together. And there’s always the remote possibility that you could be invited to a private event by someone who has already made the arrangements (but if you’re operating at that level you probably don’t need to be reading this!).
As for simply spotting the geishas in Kyoto – which sounds a little bit strange but is assuredly worth it – there are specific places and times to aim for. Typically your best chance at seeing a geisha is at dusk, when she might be on her way to a booking. And the recommended places to try to see one are Hanami-koji-dori (in the Gion district of town) and at Pontocho’s Shijo-dori end. As is commonly recommended in guides to this kind of sightseeing (for lack of a better word), however, it’s very important to be respectful if you try to see a geisha in action. These women are in the somewhat unfortunate position of having become tourist attractions in and of themselves, and frequently have to deal with people gawking, trying to get photos, and generally being obnoxious. It’s important not to slow them down, and while it’s okay to take a picture, you should do so without any distracting flash and without interrupting anything.
It might all sound like a lot of effort to go to in order to see the real life versions of people you’ve seen in films and on television. But it’s almost inexplicably thrilling, and it’s a uniquely Japanese experience. As one account from a tourist who spotted a geisha put it, you will never forget the moment.