geisha japan
Credit: Feather and the Wind

With their beautifully distinctive features and overall elegance, the graceful geisha is what many travellers hope they'll see for a complete Japan experience. Geisha are professional entertainers who perform for guests and are highly skilled in the art of dance, music and conversation. Public sightings are quite rare and if you're visiting Japan in the hopes of spotting one, here are three things that will increase your chances of seeing a geisha.


Geiko, maiko or tourist?

geisha japanFeather and the Wind

You'll probably see dozens of women walking the streets of Japan's top cities wearing kimonos, but a second glance will reveal they’re actually tourists in costume. Several kimono rental shops and photo studios cater to foreign travellers who want to dress as geisha and have their photos taken.

Once you’ve filtered out the tourists, you hope to spot either geiko or maiko. Geiko is the word used for geisha in the Kyoto region, while maiko refers to a geisha in training. A maiko is a young apprentice who often accompanies a geiko and studies for years before becoming a geisha herself. The easiest way to tell them apart may be to look at the way their hair is styled; maiko usually wear elaborate flowers. 

When and where to go to spot geisha

If you're in Kyoto, your chance of spotting one of these beautiful artists has already increased, since this region is said to have the highest concentration of geisha in all of Japan.

There are several options for those looking to make an investment in the experience. They range from exclusive tea ceremonies to private dinners which are best organized by a tour company, or with the help of an experienced local.

A more affordable substitute would be to attend one of the shows at Gion Corner which serve as an introduction to Japanese culture.

geisha japanFeather and the Wind

With some patience and planning, you just might see geisha free of charge in the early evening on the streets of Gion, a popular geisha district in Kyoto.

Your best bet is to head to Hanamikoji around dusk on a weekend or holiday, to spy one as she makes her way to work. I was able to see two beautiful maiko as they walked into Gion Corner Hall just before 6 p.m., and two later in the evening walking with their male companions. The sightings are so brief that you'll want to cherish the moment. 


What should I do if I see a geisha?

geisha japanFeather and the Wind

I can’t even count the number of face-palm moments I witnessed in the span of ten minutes. Paparazzi tourists shamelessly asked maiko for posed photos, or ran after them as if on a hunt for Pokémon, literally screaming to their friends, “Here comes another one!” And unsurprisingly, shoving a selfie stick in her face is also not well received.

Geisha are aware of the attention they garner and photos are expected, but don’t block their path as they’re walking. This is not Disneyland and geisha are not costumed characters. Respect their personal space and remember that they’re working and should not be confronted.


Have you spotted geisha in Japan? 
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