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Special experience: meeting a geisha or maiko in Japan

by Elisa Flitter Fever
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Meeting a gracious geisha or maiko in person was a long-cherished wish. The mysterious white mask-like face, the jet black haircut, the demeanor, it intrigues me. For many years, Memoirs of A Geisha has been one of my absolute favorite films and books. How do you meet a geisha or maiko in real life? During my tour through Japan I managed to see both geishas and maikos, including at Miyako Odori. In this article I share my experience and tips.

Geishas and Maikos in Higashiyama-ku and Hōgan-ji Temple
Higashiyama-ku with the Hōgan-ji temple in the background (photo Sorasak)
An apprentice geisha, a maiko, in autumn kimono in Gion
An apprentice geisha, a maiko, in autumn kimono in Gion (photo Tianshu Liu)

What is a geisha? What is a Maiko?

A maiko is a geisha in training. They serve, dance, sing and play traditional Japanese musical instruments for the entertainment of guests. We are talking about a ‘she’ here, because only in the distant past could a geisha also be male. In appearance, maikos and geishas differ from each other in detail, so that it is recognizable whether it is a geisha or a maiko. Or a wanna be.

Maiko means ‘dancing child’. In Kyoto dialect the word ‘geiko’ is used for geisha, ‘woman of the arts’. Contrary to popular belief, a geisha is not a ‘woman of easy virtue’ (yujô). Although in the past professional practice was reportedly not always and everywhere limited to musical acts. In times of war everything becomes liquid? Within Japanese culture, geishas were associated with the elite, adored as top stars.

Een geisha (links) en een meiko (rechts)
A geisha (left) and a maiko (right) (photo Wang Xi)

Geishas are highly educated women with broad general development. Nowadays they often also master the English language. Before a maiko can qualify to become a geisha, she must practice extensively during her training for at least five years. How to stand, bend, kneel, walk, sit, dance, sing, make music, converse, dress, make up, etc. A maiko has no money of her own, no mobile phone and no boyfriend.

Maikos and geishas differ in age, appearance and skills. Some examples:

  • Maikos are usually between 15 and 20 years old, geishas over 20 years old.
  • The kimono of a maiko has a red border (at the neck), that of a geisha is usually white.
  • A maiko wears a red slip (nagajuban) under her kimono, a geisha wears a light colored one (white or pastel).
  • Maikos wear more colorful kimonos than geishas.
  • A maiko only makes the lower lip red in her first year, then both lips red.
  • A maiko wears hairpins with floral strands during her first year.
  • Maikos wear higher sandals (zori) than geishas.
Real geishas or wannabes?
Real geishas or wannabes?

Meeting a geisha or maiko in Japan

Since you are reading this article, I assume you are interested in meeting a geisha or maiko yourself in Japan. And that you wonder how best to do this. In this article I will discuss three options:

  1. On the street (in the right neighborhood)
  2. At a dance performance
  3. At a tea or dinner ceremony

There are still several thousand maikos and geishas in Japan. They often work in tea houses (ochaya) in Kyoto and western Japan, such as Kanazawa. An exclusive tea or dinner ceremony accompanied by a geisha or experienced maiko is not cheap. Well worth it, if I may say so. But of course I don’t know how tight your budget is.

Maikos on their way to work
Maiko’s on their way to work (photo Naveen Kumar)
Spotting a geisha in Kyoto Japan (photo Linus H.)
Spotting a geisha in Kyoto (photo Linus H.)

The cheapest way to spot a geisha or maiko is on the street. You do need a lot of luck for that. Gion, a neighborhood in southeastern Kyoto, is busy because of this. Geishas have been walking around here since the 18th century, to and from their work in the tea houses, for example. But make no mistake, because there are also many Chinese and Koreans walking around, dressed in kimono or yukata. A guided tour and/or a lot of patience will help.

A dance performance to music is also an excellent way to see a geisha and/or maiko in real life in Japan. And not one, but dozens at a time. I would like to tell you more about this special cultural experience.

Freshmen meikos seen from behind in Japan
Freshmen meikos seen from behind
Announcing the geisha maiko show in Kyoto
Miyako Odori announcement (2018)

Performance Miyako Odori

It was not easy to find good information in advance about a geisha and/or maiko dance performance in Kyoto. Moreover, the performance I wanted to see was only held 3.5 weeks a year, around the flowering of the blossom trees in April. Still, I managed to get a coveted ticket to one of Miyako Odori‘s spring performances at the Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza. So lucky!

I received a confirmation of my reservation by email. I had to collect the actual entrance ticket from the theater box office before the start of the performance. When picking up they asked for my ID and order number. Makes sense because the tickets are prepaid online. There was a kind of lunchroom in the theater, where I met a nice French couple.

Attending a tea ceremony and dance performance with meikos and geishas in Kyoto was one of the most special moments of my round trip through Japan.

Dance performance of a maiko in Japan
Maiko dance performance

Maiko tea ceremony

I had ordered a ‘special’ entrance ticket, including tea ceremony in advance. This tea ceremony took place in a separate room before the dance performance in the main theater room. Less intimate than in a living room setting, but no less intriguing to watch.

Faces painted white, bright red lips, neat black hair. One in a purple kimono, the other a black kimono, both with a wide waistband and a kind of flap on the back. Both ladies shuffle across the floor towards the tea table. One kneels and the other moves in calm, graceful movements until she finally pours a cup of tea. How captivating can a cup of tea be!

Tea ceremony maikos Kyoto Japan
Miyako Odori’s tea ceremony

The ceremony continues like this for a while. I am fascinated watching; I’ve never seen anything like this before. How beautiful of these ladies. Geisha training and the practice of this profession require a lot of discipline and perfection. It fits perfectly into the Japanese culture, in which such delicacy is elevated to a graceful art. Magnificent!

My tea ceremony was between 11:20 am and 12:20 pm, and the dance performance started at 12:30 pm. A room was also set up in the theater in which each maiko was presented individually. At least twenty different life size photos printed on cardboard, plus an introductory description.

The shamisen is a special instrument

Dancing maikos

The theater performance consists mainly of dance, but also singing and the shamisen instrument is played. That’s a three-stringed lute. It’s all in Japanese, but it’s clearly about the four seasons. Beautiful, colorful outfits, completely in sync, glide gracefully across the stage in smooth lines. The piece is dramatic, restrained and elegant at the same time. Truly a form of art.

Distant and intriguing at the same time. Perfectionist and graceful. The scene upholds the reputation and mystique surrounding the geisha and the maiko.

Apparently there is a professional video of Miyako Odori on YouTube now:

Miyako Odiri spring performance 2019

The performance in the theater lasted perhaps an hour. I don’t remember exactly. Lost the sense of time for a moment. Perhaps that is also what attracts local businessmen to visiting a tea house. Get away from the rat race at work. Let yourself be carried away in the enchanting world of a geisha. So elegant. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.

Unfortunately, it was not officially allowed to take pictures during the tea ceremony and the theater performance. And I didn’t see anyone doing that either, so it felt extra inappropriate to do it anyway. During the dance performance I had a seat on the balcony. So I apologize in advance for the limited photos of this in this article.

Miyako Odori maiko geisha performance in Kyoto
Miyako Odori performance in Kyoto

Attend maiko performance in Kyoto

Would you like to attend a performance by Miyako Odori? Tickets for the performances in April 2022 have already gone on sale (starting January 6, 2022 at 10:00 AM local time). More than a month later, tickets are still available for almost all performances, the weekend performances are the fastest.

Tip: order your ticket(s) on time to avoid disappointment. Keep in mind that tickets that have already been paid can no longer be canceled or adjusted. It is only highly questionable whether we as foreigners will be allowed to enter Japan by that time (April 2022). Let’s keep a close eye on the news. And otherwise in 2023?

For three weeks, seven days a week, three performances a day. Very spicy for the performing ladies. In 2022, Miyako Odori’s performances will be held at a new location, as the previous location is temporarily closed due to long-term maintenance (earthquake measures). As part of Corona measures, when entering the theater, you are asked to wash your hands, disinfect with alcohol and wear a mouth mask.

  • New Location: Kyoto MINAMIZA Theater
  • When: April 1-24
  • My Special ticket with tea ceremony cost JPY 4,600 (approx. EUR 35). In 2022, a regular ticket will cost JPY 4,000 and a premium ticket JPY 6,000 to 6,500 per person (from 4 years).

Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza
Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza

Spotting geishas and maikos in Kyoto

Just like blossom and Mt Fuji, the maiko and geisha are also such an icon that you must see when you are in Japan in my opinion. If you are just not in Japan at the right time to attend Miyako Odori’s theatrical performance, or if you need more, there are also other options.

In certain areas of Kyoto you can find geishas on the streets. A good guide knows when to go where to see maikos and geishas in person. That is the added value of a good tour, plus that you often get to hear interesting stories. If you want/can spend a little more, book your own tea ceremony. Or make it your own fancy dress party.

Kitano Odori spring geisha performance 2018

Some interesting options:

  1. Geisha Culture Guided Walking Tour of Gion District, Kyoto
  2. Guided Geisha Culture Walking Tour – Kitano (Kyoto)
  3. Tea ceremony with experienced maiko in Kyoto
  4. Maiko tea ceremony and geisha performance in Kyoto
  5. Private dinner with a Geisha in Kyoto
  6. Kimono Photography Tour in Kyoto

Also in Kyoto is Kitano Odori, where meikos and geishas from Kamishichen perform. Here too there is the possibility to attend a tea ceremony with maikos and geishas in advance. Something like Miyako Odori, as described above. This has apparently been around since 1952. But it seems that the Kitano Odori performances in 2022 will again be canceled due to the COVID-19 measures in Japan.

Geishas and meikos by Kitano Odori
Geisha performance by Kitano Odori (photo Onihide on Flickr)

Gion and Higashiyama

If you would like to see geishas and/or maikos in real life in Kyoto, it is recommended to book your accommodation in Gion or Higashiyama. These historic neighborhoods are located next to each other, northeast of Kyoto Station and the Kamo River. Narrow streets and authentic wooden buildings from the Edo period exude charm. There are several temples that are on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Areas where many authentic tea houses are located are also known as geisha districts. Gion’s most famous geisha district is located between Shijo Avenue and the Kenninki Temple. Hanging out at the wooden Tatsumi Bridge in Gion can pay off; who knows, a geisha might pass by on her way to her next appointment. The boutiques on Hanamikoji Street are nice and the restaurants pricey, but consistently good.

Ladies in kimono in a coffee shop in Kyoto
Ladies in kimono in a coffee shop in Kyoto

In terms of accommodation type, I would recommend a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Where to stay? Gion Oyado Kikutani, a nice and affordable ryokan just over a 10-minute walk from the Gion Tatsumi Bridge. Subway station: Gion-Shijo. This is also close to Pontocho Alley, one of the most atmospheric and well-known ‘food streets’ in Kyoto.

There is a lot to see and do in Kyoto anyway, so don’t go for a day but stay a few nights. This way you can get the most out of your visit. And who knows who you might bump into on the street!

Room at Ryokan Gion Oyado Kikutani
Room at Ryokan Gion Oyado Kikutani

Memoires of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical, fictional novel, which was later made into a film. Steven Spielberg was the producer. The film has been both criticized and praised, winning several awards, including at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. It takes place just before World War II.

The story is about a young and pretty Japanese girl named Chiyo, she has bright blue eyes. She and her sister are sold by her parents to a geisha house (okiya) out of poverty. She is trained as a geisha under the pseudonym Sayuri. The owner should call her mother. A harsh reality with a coworker bully.

The American author Arthur Golden is said to have spent at least five years researching before writing the book Memoirs of a Geisha. Quite a few mistakes were made in the filming. For example, the film was not shot in Kyoto and the environment seems busy, while this was not the case.

Furthermore, Sayuri’s solo dance is actually too busy to be a geisha dance. Lots of style mistakes in makeup, hair and clothing. Even the name Sayuri is too simple for a geisha. In addition, the three main actresses are Chinese and not Japanese. But that should not spoil the fun, it remains a beautiful, moving film!

In addition, there is also a book published about the life of a real geisha – Mineko Iwasaki. I still have to read that book, but it seems to be very good and more realistic. I’m curious!

Have you read and/or seen Memoirs of a Geisha yet? And/or have you ever seen a maiko and/or geisha in real life? Or would you like to? In any case, I thought it was a special experience, which I would definitely recommend when you are in Kyoto or West Japan. Have fun anyway. I hope you found this article helpful and interesting. Feel free to share it on social media and/or leave a comment below this article.

Meeting a maiko in Japan haha
Meeting a maiko in Japan haha

More Japan articles

On this website you will find 12 other articles in English about Japan:

  1. Cherry blossom hunting in Japan: Matsumoto castle & Joyama Park
  2. Robot hotel in Japan, the collest and weirdest hotel experience ever!
  3. Kyoto: don’t miss these fun temples near Arashiyama bamboo forest
  4. Onsen experience in Japan: relax at a traditional ryokan with hot spring
  5. Japan: fantastic places beyond the Golden Triangle Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka
  6. Japan: Miyajima Island & Hiroshima, a recommended and wonderful combo
  7. Walk the amazing Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago to experience rural Japan
  8. Riding my bicycle around Mount Fuji, Chureito Pagoda and Lake Kawaguchiko
  9. Tokyo: 25 fun things to do in a mind-blowing metropolitan
  10. Tokyo’s Fun Food Fairytales at themed restaurants and cafes
  11. Visiting the unique Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park in Japan
  12. Japan: what you need to know about the JR train pass

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Last Updated on 02/22/2022 by Elisa Flitter Fever

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