My Ultimate Guide to Meeting Geishas on Your Solo Trip to Japan
My love for Japan began when I first came across Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. I was young and impressionable, and I immediately associated Japan with a mystery that I was dying to unfold. As I grew up and started travelling solo, I always wanted to travel to Japan. But I was hesitant at first because I thought it would be expensive. But man, was I wrong. When I realised you could jolly well travel to Japan within a budget, I began researching more about the cultures and traditions of a country that was till then a mythical place for me.
Japan is a land of contrasts, and while we think that the true essence lies in the glitzy and glamourous cities like Tokyo and Osaka, there is also an old Japan that resides amongst them. There are many unexpected aspects of Japanese culture that are sure to blow your mind. And among them, one which is probably most talked about is geishas. It is a long-standing tradition that has remained elusive to foreigners and is still shrouded in mystery for them. For a lot of people, the quintessential image of Japan is a graceful geisha, in an exquisite kimono sliding the door and coming into a traditional teahouse.
Geishas are an iconic symbol of Japanese culture that is instantly recognisable around the world. And your trip to Japan will probably be incomplete without a glimpse of a geisha. You can hear the delicate footsteps of geishas in the Gion district during your trip to Kyoto as the geishas walk towards tea houses as dusk falls. Though the number of these Japanese entertainers has fallen drastically over the years, you might just be lucky to see one.
But even if you are not able to and you still want to explore this mystery, I will tell you how you can go about that. Assumptions and rumours around geishas are rampant and so let us first delve into history and try to clear some of those misconceptions before giving you the ultimate experience of geisha culture on your solo trip to Japan.
Who are geishas?
The word geisha literally means ‘artisan.’ Geishas are young girls who prepare and dedicate their life to performing traditional Japanese arts. They put their talents to use at high-end dinners, private parties, and special events. Often misunderstood, geishas are not prostitutes, as portrayed by the West. Rather they are ladies who have trained for years to perfect the art of Japanese entertainment such as fan dancing and shamisen playing. Though the number of geishas has dropped dramatically now, in today’s Japan, they act as caretakers of dying Japanese traditions.
Here are some interesting facts behind the real story of this cultural phenomenon.
The first geishas were men!
In the beginning, it was the men who provided entertainment for people in the pleasure districts of Japan around the 1600s. In fact, the first woman geisha was documented in 1751.
Becoming a geisha isn’t easy at all
Becoming a geisha is a lifestyle choice and one that takes years of training. An apprentice geisha is known as a maiko, and she has to train for three-five years to master the art of calligraphy, playing a musical instrument, flower arrangement, and other social skills. They continue to practice these arts for the rest of their life
Black teeth – a sign of beauty in Japan
While researching geishas before my solo trip to Japan, this was one that really fascinated me. The geishas used to paint their teeth black because that was seen as a sign of beauty in Japan then. The practice was banned in 1870 as a part of the government effort to modernise the country. But then I found out that some geishas still paint their teeth black in ceremonies where a maiko becomes a geisha.
A profession for life
As I said earlier, geisha is a way of life. So you find that geishas keep entertaining people into their 80s and 90s as long as they can. But if you are wondering if a geisha can marry, let me assure you that you are not the only one. This was one of the first things that came to my head too. The answer to this is No. Geishas cannot marry unless they leave the profession. But they are allowed to take lovers and even bear children. Progressive or not? That’s up to you to decide.
Where do geishas live?
The former Imperial capital of Kyoto is where you have to visit to experience the geisha culture. The city is considered the birthplace of the geisha culture. But after I came to Kyoto, I got to know that geishas are actually called geiko here, and young women, aged between 15 and 20, who are apprentices are called maiko.
But hey, it’s not like any young girl in Japan can wake up one fine day and become a geisha. First, they have to find an okiya, which is a shared boarding house where all the maikos live and train. The okiya is run by an okasan or the mother of the house, and she has to be willing to sponsor the newbie. The okasan can shell out close to 10 million yen to train a maiko. So only a chosen few make the cut. Crazy facts, right?
But how can you experience the geisha culture in Japan?
As I said earlier, a trip to Japan isn’t complete without spotting a geisha. But if you don’t want to leave it to chance, you can even book or hire a geisha and enjoy the beautiful performance. There are many ways to go about it. But no matter what you choose, always remember to follow the basic etiquette and be respectful to the ladies. When you are in Kyoto, you will see that you are asked not to haggle geishas on the streets, and you are also prohibited from clicking pictures with them. Remember, they are not just objects to entertain you, so follow the rules and be a decent human being. But also remember to enjoy the geisha experience in Japan.
1. Go maiko or geisha spotting in Gion
Well, to be fair, if you want a geisha experience in Kyoto, you will have to be ready to shell out the hard bucks. This is one cultural experience in Japan that doesn’t come cheap at all. So if you are travelling to Japan on a budget but still want to fulfill your dream of having a geisha experience, this is the best way. Just wander around Gion during dusk when a geisha or maiko makes their way to the teahouse.
Even if it gets a little dark, you can spot a geisha right away after all their bright silk kimonos shine bright. But again, do not chase them and hound them for pictures if you do spot one.
2. Opt for a geisha district evening walking tour
Walking around the Gion district at dusk may not always yield results, so you can opt for the next best thing: an evening walk tour. Here you don’t have to just stroll around hoping to spot a geisha. But you can actually listen to a knowledgeable guide and know a great deal more about the tradition. Don’t worry, there are options to have an English-speaking guide.
While this experience comes for a fee, it is extremely nominal.
3. Enjoy an interactive dinner with a maiko
Hiring a geisha is not as easy as it sounds, and sometimes no amount of money can get you a geisha experience. It is because usually, you need to be invited to the tea houses where geishas perform, and most often than not, it may be difficult for a solo female traveller to get that invite or someone local who vouches for you.
But fret not. An interactive dinner accompanied by drinks is just what you may need. Some places organise these lovely dinners especially for visitors with the company of a maiko. But if you are really lucky, they might even bring a geisha for the evening.
Dinner usually consists of a multi-course delicious meal or even a full-fledged kaiseki dinner. You will be offered a copious number of drinks and unlimited tea while you prepare yourself for the traditional show. Here you can not only enjoy the performance, but you can also talk to your entertainer for the evening. Don’t worry, there will be interpreters to help you out. But do not ask embarrassing questions. The price for this experience will cost you around 200$, which will cover both your food and drinks. So maybe not a bad deal, huh?
4. Enjoy a tea ceremony presented by a maiko
A tea ceremony is an age-old Japanese tradition that has been prevalent for centuries. The elaborate tea ceremony in Japan is a treat to the eyes and must be experienced whilst in Japan. But if you have a maiko serve you matcha, there’s nothing like it.
The tea ceremony is one of the first things that a maiko learns how to perform. You will also have an allotted time to speak to the maiko so you can know the person behind the ceremony and also know a little about the tea ceremony itself. The prices for this experience will be around $100, and it can be even less than this if you opt for a group party instead of a private one. Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya is a great place for this experience.
5. Go for an annual geisha and maiko performance
Many traditional performances in Japan do not require you to know Japanese to enjoy it. Take the bunraku theatre in Osaka, for instance. The annual performance of maikos and geishas is one such. There are five Geisha districts in Kyoto, and each has its own performance. Choosing this for your ultimate geisha experience on your solo trip to Japan is highly recommended. It is because here, you take your experience to the next level. You are not allowed to record or take pictures of the performance so let me paint a picture for you. Imagine a burst of colours, traditional music, and dance. The only downside here is you cannot personally meet the maikos and geishas. But would you not rather remember them as precious art makers?
The price for the show, depending on the area, will cost you around $50. There are five annual shows that take place in Japan, four of these happen in spring while one can be enjoyed during the fall season in November.
6. Enjoying a private dinner or tea with a geisha or maiko
This is the ultimate geisha experience you can have while on your solo trip to Japan, but let me warn you, it won’t come cheap. Also, getting into such an elusive private dinner like these requires a lot of good luck, and well, you need to dig deep.
But if you do finally make it to one of these soirees, congratulations because you are envied by many across the world, including me. Just kidding!
At these private shows, you can get these geishas and maikos perform just for you. You can talk to them, enjoy a traditional dance or get mesmerised while they play their shamisen. As an added bonus, you can also ask to be a part of the traditional tea ceremony, and the geisha or maiko will happily oblige. The price for this wonderful evening can range from $500 to $1000, but it will be absolutely worth it if you can make this happen.
7. Experience the Geisha life yourself
While meeting and seeing a geisha perform is definitely fantastic, nothing beats getting dressed up as one for me. This will also be an amazing memory for you, and you can have some cool pictures to carry back home with you.
The price ranges from $100 to $300 depending on what package you choose. You can dress up in bright kimonos and have your face painted just like a geisha. But that’s not all. You also get to wear a wig and even have an absolute OOT hairstyle and ornaments in your hair, just like a geisha. After the dressing part, you are taught how to walk, sit and behave like a geisha. Remember to click loads of pictures to commemorate this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
So, if you are planning a trip to Japan, you must include a way to experience the geisha culture because, much like everything else, this is so unique to Japan. But remember, no matter what, always be respectful to them because they are the true keepers of Japanese heritage and culture.
An introverted blogger who is looking to make unforgettable solo travel memories with one short life.