When you hear the term Geisha you might instantly picture a Japanese female with a painted white face in a kimono – a symbol that is unique to Japan and its culture, and one of the most aimed-for Japanese experiences.
The book turned movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ was a story that was hugely popular (and controversial) when it was released but unfortunately, it also created a lot of misunderstanding and wrong information about what geisha actually do. Incorrect stereotypes were made worse during WW2 when many women dressed up to look like geisha in the streets. While it’s true that different aspects of life as a geisha has changed over the years, true geisha still exists today in modern Japan.
Who are the geisha?
The term geisha literally translates to “performing artist” – a lot of their training is in the arts like traditional dance, music and games. As well as this, they receive specialized training in social situations such as cultural manners, ceremonies and conversation skills. They also have knowledge about food, alcohol and dining etiquette.
They have had their place in Japanese society for over a few hundred years and have always been highly respected with high social status. Traditionally, their role was considered a lifetime career that only ends if they choose to marry. To become a geisha takes years of training – often from a young age when they live separately from their family and train with other girls. Apprentice geisha are known as maiko.
It was common for samurai and military leaders to hire geisha during meals. Not only was it seen as a symbol of their social status, but it was useful if the leaders wanted to discuss sensitive business or make important decisions as the geisha were highly trained in social situations; they were there to make sure everyone felt at ease.
Today geisha are hired for special events and dinners, usually by politicians and CEOs, because paying for their entertainment services and time is quite expensive.
Meeting a geisha in Japan
Many geisha are still working nowadays in Japan, expecially in Kyoto in the historical district of Gion. Spotting a geisha walking in the alley during the late afternoon is exciting and many tourists want to take photos, often without respecting their privacy and space; this has caused a lot of discomfort and problems in the last years.
If you want to see a geisha in an environment without bothering them, there are different opportunities to add this unique Japanese experience to your trip.
Annual Geisha Show
If you’re traveling in Japan in March, you can attend the Kitano Odori in Kyoto, the annual geisha Show where the geisha and maiko from Kyoto’s 5 geisha districts perform for the general public. Shows are held two times a day for two weeks and tourists can attend. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Drop us an email to reserve them.
In September, Tokyo’s geisha perform in a large-scale show at The National Theatre. The Oedo Vaudeville Show and Traditional Geisha Dance began only 10 years ago, but it is a great occasion to see geisha in Tokyo. This show happens only once and although there are a few same-day tickets available, it is recommended to apply for tickets in advance.
Nagoya Kawabun’s Cultural Night
We have already explained why you should visit Nagoya during your trip to Japan but in addition to this, you should stop in Nagoya if you want to experience meeting geisha!
From Monday to Friday at Ryotei Kawabun, you can enjoy the Kawabun Cultural Night. Five types of cultural activities are offered, among which you can choose to play games and take photos with them. Reservation is required.
Dinner with geisha
If you want to add a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience to your trip in Japan, booking dinner with a geisha is the best choice. What should you expect exactly?
Firstly, don’t worry if you can’t speak any Japanese! Even just remembering to say thank you (arigatou) goes a long way.
Another benefit of a experience dining with geisha is the amazing food. Generally what will be served is known as kaiseki cuisine, traditional Japanese food served as a variety of small dishes with each dish carefully prepared with seasonal high-quality ingredients. Take your time and savor every bite.
During the meal, geisha will entertain you with some kind of traditional music or art. This could include string instruments (shamisen), drums (taiko), bamboo flute or they may perform a traditional dance such as nihon buyo.
After the meal, some traditional party games are played – again, don’t be afraid to participate! Often these games are easy to understand and you can join in regardless of your Japanese language ability.
If you have a nicer outfit saved in your luggage, now is the time to wear it! It’s best to dress up a bit instead of the casual jeans and t-shirt for sightseeing. Don’t stress if you don’t have anything particularly fancy. Comfortable clothes are recommended if you want to participate in the games so you can sit cross-legged on the tatami floor.
Finally, remember to wear clean socks that aren’t full of holes. In Japan, shoes are removed at the door.