Wandering through the streets of Kyoto, you may just be lucky enough to encounter two of the historic city’s most iconic figures – the maiko and geiko. These are the names given to the traditional entertainers known in the West, and in other regions of Japan, as geisha. So how might you see a geiko or maiko on your trip to Kyoto? Let’s take a look at some of the basics and discover where to catch a glimpse of these fascinating traditional performers.
Understanding Maiko and Geiko
In a nutshell, maiko are apprentice entertainers, while geiko (geisha) are accomplished artists who have graduated from their maiko training. These women train diligently in traditional arts like dance, singing, and playing instruments like the shamisen. In a modern world, they play a crucial role in preserving traditional Japanese arts. Though the maiko and geiko of Kyoto may serve visitors at exclusive teahouses, or ochaya, and other locations on an invitation-only basis, you may sometimes see them on the way to their appointments, lushly dressed in rich kimono, with powdered faces and elaborate traditional hairstyles.
Where to Spot Them
As a Kyoto visitor, your best bets for maiko and geiko sightings are in the downtown Gion and Pontocho districts, which are still home to active ochaya to this day. In total, there are five geisha districts in Kyoto, and while you may be more likely to catch sight of one walking down their streets, be sure not to bother them as they go on their way. Remember to be courteous, and adhere to photography guidelines (these are often posted in the street in areas like Gion).
Practical Tips for Tourists
Timing is everything. The best times to spot maiko and geiko are in the early evenings. Gion and Pontocho have some excellent teahouses and restaurants where you might get lucky. Of course, you can also consider engaging in traditional experiences via booking – in downtown Kyoto, there are a few businesses offering tea ceremony and private traditional dance performances with maiko that are available to visitors.
Instead of waiting for a lucky street sighting, you can also see a traditional performance in all its glory if you visit Kyoto during the season for its annual dance performances that showcase the grace and skill of the maiko and geiko. Each spring, four shows are put on in Kyoto’s geisha districts, and beautifully illustrated posters advertising each will go up around town during the season, advertising, variously, the Miyako Odori (held in April, see here for English information and tickets), which is the largest, and has been performed annually since 1873; the Kamogawa Odori of Pontocho (held in May, see here for English information and tickets), the Kitano Odori of Kamishichiken (held in April, see here for English information (mixed with Japanese) and tickets), and Kyo Odori of Miyagawacho. In November, there is also a smaller performance called Gion Odori, which is performed by the geisha of Gion Higashi. These performances are extremely popular, so be sure to purchase tickets in advance. It’s a quintessential Kyoto experience to attend, and sure to be unforgettable.
Though the city of Kyoto is full of incredible temples and gardens, it’s a unique charm that lies in the living traditions of maiko and geiko. As you explore the city, keep an eye out for these cultural ambassadors, and the unique atmosphere they bring to Kyoto’s timeless streets.