Although you can find Geisha throughout Japan, the city of Kyoto is considered the heart of geisha culture. Known as Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district draws visitors to its shops, restaurants and teahouses where geisha entertain.
What is a geisha you may ask? Geisha are professional entertainers who attend to guests during private parties, dinners and other special occasions. Having trained for five years, these women are highly skilled in various traditional Japanese arts such as dance and music – and put guests at ease with their conversation, drinking games and performances.
It’s estimated that there are around 200 geiko and maiko in Kyoto. Whereas fully-fledged geisha are locally referred to as geiko, those still undergoing their training are called maiko. To help you plan your visit to Gion and see these iconic ladies, here’s our guide to Kyoto’s geisha district.
Where to see geisha
Located around Shijo Avenue, Gion can be found between the Kamo River and Yasaka Shrine. Whilst many visiting Gion hope to spot a geiko or maiko on their way to an engagement, these are the places to go to experience their service and traditional arts.
Stretching from Shijo Avenue to Kenninji Temple, Hanami-koji Street is the most popular area of Gion. Its pretty streets and side alleys are lined with traditional machiya houses. These properties feature narrow facades but extend up to 20 metres back as owners were previously taxed on street frontage.
Many of these preserved houses now function as restaurants and serve traditional Japanese multi-course haute cuisine known as Kaiseki ryori. However, the most exclusive places to dine are the ochaya or teahouses, which are found between the restaurants. Here you can experience a traditional tea ceremony and be entertained by Kyoto’s famous maiko and geiko as you sip your cup of green matcha tea.
Whereas the services of geiko are expensive, Gion Corner provides a more accessible and affordable way of experiencing Japan’s traditional arts. Here you can see 50-minute introductory shows featuring seven kinds of performing arts, the most notable being the kyo-mai dance with real maiko dancers.
Gion Corner is popular with both foreign and Japanese tourists alike, with a show costing less than $30. Alongside dance, you can see puppet theatre, classical comedy, a tea ceremony and flower arranging.
Best time to visit
Gion can be visited year-round, however for your best chances of spotting a geiko it’s best to head to the district in the early evening. At this time, Gion is at its most atmospheric with bright lanterns and the bustle of the bars, restaurants and teahouses.
Most of the geiko who live in Kyoto’s geisha neighbourhoods tend to leave for their evening engagements around 5:45 pm. If you’re in Gion at this time, you may be lucky and witness them flitting around the backstreets on the way to their appointments. There are also two important celebrations to consider when planning your visit to Gion:
Spring is one of the best times to visit Gion as this season marks the blooming of Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. These beautiful flowers add to the district’s scenery, making for some great photography.
The month of April also observes one of Kyoto’s biggest annual events. Known as Miyako Odori, the event started in 1868 to raise spirits when the capital of Japan was moved to Tokyo. Miyako Odori sees the city’s geisha perform daily cherry blossom dances and it’s well-worth visiting Kyoto at this time.
Gion is also well-known for one of Japan’s greatest festivals. Held in July every year, Gion Matsuri is a spectacular event with the highlight being the yamahoko parade. Yamahoko are decorated floats that are carried during Japan’s Shinto festivals and reach up to huge 25 metres high.
The celebration has a history stretching over a millennium and in 2009 was placed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Time your visit to Gion with the festival for a fantastic taste of Japan’s traditional culture.
Many visitors to Gion aim to get a photo of a geisha as they make their way to their appointments. However, in recent years there has been an increase in complaints about tourists behaving like merciless paparazzi rather than showing respect. If you’re looking to photograph Kyoto’s geisha then there are certain rules and etiquette to follow.
Do give geishas space
Be careful not to block a geisha’s way when you’re taking their photo. Rather than standing in front of them, take your shot from either the side or back and leave their path open. A geiko or maiko’s time is precious and you don’t want to be responsible for them being late to an appointment.
Do organise a private shoot
If you’re looking for the perfect portrait shot, then your best option may be to organise a private shoot. There are plenty of photo tours on offer with professional photographers to guide you.
Don’t be obtrusive
When photographing geishas going about their business, it’s important to be as mindful and discreet as possible. Don’t use the flash or a selfie stick and avoid running after them or vying for their attention. Geishas are deeply respected members of Japanese society and unlikely to pose for a photo with you.
Don’t fall for the fakes
It’s not only Japanese tourists that can become a geisha for the day. Any visitor is able to have a professional makeover and photoshoot of themselves in a traditional kimono, wig and with the iconic geisha makeup.
Looking to visit this famous geisha district? We visit Kyoto on all of our Japan group tours.