There are many unexpected aspects of the Japanese culture that will blow your mind. Some of the first things that come to mind are the cleanliness, the feelings of honor and duty the people have, and the way they survive anything that life throws at them. But an equally interesting element you must learn is how to experience the geisha culture in Japan.
I know probably most of you read or watched “Memoirs of a geisha” at some point in time. It was a nice read, I have to agree. But you have to learn, before your trip to Japan, that not everything you see in movies is true. So, for this purpose, I have prepared a FAQ section, to get you started.
FAQ about geisha and maiko in Japan
What is a geisha girl?
The term “geisha” literally means “person of the arts”. They are girls that prepare and dedicate their whole lives to performing traditional Japanese arts. They are seen as movie stars in Kyoto and quite frankly, they are quite close to being that.
Curious to try some traditional Japanese arts at home? Try Kirie, the Japanese paper cutting art! This fellow blogger wrote a great beginner’s guide that will get you started.
How did geisha appear?
While this culture emerged in the pleasure quarters in Japan in the 18th century (the only areas where courtesans were allowed to work), today there is a very strong difference between a geisha and a prostitute. Also, in the 18th century, prostitution was not seen as a “dirty” job, it was a socially acceptable fact that men were not faithful to their wives, and the wives were very aware of this as well.
The first geisha were men, having the job of entertaining customers that were waiting for their time with the most gifted courtesans. One of the first emerging geisha were teenage girls called “odoriko”, and their only job was to dance. When they grew up and weren’t looking like teenagers anymore, they called themselves by many names, geisha being one of them.
Over time, some rules forbid geisha to sleep with customers, as to preserve the business of courtesans. Geisha became more of a trendsetter and fashion icon in the Japanese society, and over time became protectors of traditions, while the whole country started to have more and more Western influences.
Do geisha sleep with customers?
No, they don’t. They just entertain them with their arts. This misconception appeared due to actual prostitutes labeling themselves as geisha when sleeping with American soldiers in WW2. Probably most of them had no idea about the Japanese culture in general, so they just accepted this term as the one for a prostitute.
What do you need to study to become a geisha?
Well, first of all, you become a maiko. A maiko is an apprentice geisha and can start preparing herself after finishing high school. Then, you start training in the traditional Japanese arts, like dancing, playing the shamisen, or singing.
How much does it cost to become a geisha?
Huge amounts of money! Young girls (around 18 years old) usually go to geisha houses called okiya, and if they’re accepted, they will live there while they study. For this time, the house mother is responsible for her well being, and pays for everything, including, but not limited to: food, board, kimono, obi, classes.
How much does a geisha earn per month?
They rarely know this, as all the money goes to the owner of the okiya, while she is still living there. Some maiko pay their dept until the end of their apprenticeship, and some don’t, so they stay there and until they finish with this. Look at it as a student load, if you wish. Only you finish it earlier if you work hard enough.
How do you spot a real geisha?
You rarely see a geisha “in the wild”, and you can usually recognize them by the way they have their hair. Plenty of women can put on a kimono or do their make-up like a geisha or maiko, but none of them will be able to simulate the hairdo, which is provided by a hairstylist specialized in this.
How do you differentiate between a maiko and a geisha?
This one is even easier. The ladies with brightly colored kimonos and flowers in their hair, those are maiko. Geisha have their kimonos mostly black, with maybe just a touch of white, and they look less spectacular than maiko. This is because their arts are already at a high point, and don’t need flashy colors to make themselves unforgettable.
How much does geisha clothing cost?
I bet you didn’t even think about this one just until now. Well, kimonos are works of art. They are unique and manually painted, so they are pretty special. A kimono can cost up to 100.000$! Now you understand how much money is the house mother investing in her maiko?
What are geisha not allowed to do?
The strangest thing for most people is that geisha are not allowed to have a cell phone, and they shouldn’t use any new technology whatsoever. This is mainly to keep their aura as traditional as possible. On the other hand, they are allowed to have romantic relationships but rarely do, as their schedules are usually too busy for that.
How can anyone experience the geisha culture in Japan?
Well, fortunately, there are plenty of options you can try. They have a pretty big range of prices as well, especially when it comes to enjoying a maiko or geisha experience without any other people around. Do take this into account when starting to work on your budget. You can read my budget guide for a 2 week trip to Japan for reference.
You can choose any of the options below, but keep in mind that, no matter what you choose, you have to be respectful to the ladies. When we went there, there was already a law that prohibited people to take pictures on several streets of Gion, and we all know rules appear for a reason.
While reading this post, you will notice that I don’t have many pictures with geisha or maiko. I only have one, in fact, and that one was taken at the geisha experience we choose for our trip. And this is the case because I respected their right to privacy and acted like a decent human being. So, you know, be like me :).
1. Go maiko and geisha spotting in Gion
This is probably the most common way of experiencing the geisha culture in Kyoto. We have heard so much about these ladies that even seeing one in real life will feel like a great success. Just wander around Gion at dusk and try to spot a geisha or maiko on her way to a nearby tea house.
No matter how dark it already is, you will spot a maiko right away. Their kimonos shine like they’re disco balls due to the amazing paintings on them. You really cannot make this up, it is THAT visible when it’s the real deal.
But, again, do not hunt them down like they’re witches or something. They are people, like you and me. I saw a maiko in Gion at nighttime (and plenty more during a day tour we took), but I didn’t take any pictures of her. I wanted to ask her for permission but was too shy to do it. But I hated the people with paparazzi cameras running after the girl, chasing her like she did something wrong.
2. Take a geisha district evening walking tour
Compared to the above option, this one is quite an enhancement. You won’t be just strolling around, hoping to see a geisha or maiko on her way to work, but you’ll listen to a knowledgeable person explaining you everything you want to know, or things you didn’t even know you want to know about this culture.
While this is not exactly free, as you will have to pay for the guide, the price is below 20$, so I would consider this as one of the best options available. These guys offer a wide range of geisha and maiko experience tours, and this is one of them. Check it out to see if you can find an option that suits you.
3. Enjoy a maiko makeover in Kyoto
This experience is a pretty cool thing to do, and it can make you understand exactly what a maiko or geisha is going through every day of their life. It will also create an amazing souvenir for you to take home: a real-life experience and some cool pictures to prove it.
The price range varies around 100-300 $, depending on what package would you want to choose. For this experience, you will have the full makeup a geisha wears daily. Also, you’ll have the hairdo that is specific only for them, or you’ll wear a wig if this would be more comfortable for you. Of course, you’ll also have a hair ornament that will match your figure.
You will also get the chance to wear the full outfit that a maiko wears, and this is more than just a kimono thrown somewhere in there. It all has to fit properly with the theme. When everything is done, you can start with the photo shooting, where you will be also taught how to sit, smile, look, and behave like a geisha.
And in case of having gentlemen seeing this as their worst nightmare, like being similar to a very long shopping day but without keeping the clothes, they can also be transformed into a samurai, if they wish. This way, everyone can be happy with this experience.
Makeover places in Kyoto:
- Maiko and Geisha Makeover Experience in Kyoto
- Maiko Transformation Studio Shiki
- Maiko Geisha Makeover Studio Yumekoubou
4. Enjoy an interactive group dinner with a maiko performance in Kyoto
This experience is quite special as there are not many places that allow this. Usually, if you want to see a geisha performance in Kyoto, you have to be invited to a tea house by a regular customer, who vouches for you, like saying “yeah, she’s a cool guy/gal and doesn’t behave like an animal in public”.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people in the places I travel to, so being recommended by a local would have been impossible for me. But some places organize these special evenings when even tourists can enjoy a very nice dinner, some drinks, and the company of a lovely maiko or geiko.
The dinner usually consists of a multi-course meal and in some cases, it can be a full kaiseki dinner altogether. If you have dietary restrictions of any kind, you should inform the organizers in advance, so they can arrange your dinner beforehand. You will, of course, be offered plenty of drinks and unlimited amounts of tea, so you will feel in the mood for this amazing geisha or maiko show.
As far as the spectacle goes, you will enjoy a dance performed by a maiko, which she has practiced daily for the past few years probably, so you will see all her work put in a few beautiful minutes. You can also have a conversation with her, while she strolls from table to table, entertaining guests.
You will have a translator provided for these activities, so don’t worry, your conversation will be pretty cool. You will also be entertained by the maiko with specific games and a photo shooting and will be amazed by her conversational arts, even if you don’t speak the same language.
The price for this experience is around 200 $ and it includes dinner and drinks, so it’s not that expensive if you take into account the real opportunity of talking to a maiko. The most known places where you can enjoy this experience are:
5. Enjoy a tea ceremony presented by a maiko or geisha in Kyoto
The tea ceremony has been part of the Japanese culture for centuries. While matcha tea has been initially used by monks to be able to stay awake for longer, it has easily become a symbol of the ladies and gentlemen living in these special lands. The tea ceremony is not only about tea, but also about connecting with each other and with the nature surrounding us.
The tea ceremony is one of the first things a maiko learns how to perform when starting her apprenticeship, so it’s the best place where you can enjoy both experiences at the same time. You will sometimes have a small period allocated to also talk to her, so you get to know the person behind the ceremony, but remember this time is specifically allocated and should not be replaced by the time she needs to perform the ceremony.
The prices for this experience are in the area of 100$ and can be cheaper if you opt for a group party instead of a private one. A few places where you can enjoy the tea ceremony provided by a geisha or maiko:
6. Watch a maiko and geisha show in a theater
This is a pretty interesting approach to see a maiko performance. It’s a combination between a dinner and an actual show put together in a more formal environment. You can enjoy your dinner or can watch a maiko perform the tea ceremony while you enjoy some sweet treats.
The only downside is that this is pretty new, and the information available is scarce. I found something when I was looking into this before we went, but the site is mostly in Japanese. Take a look at these sites, maybe they will put more information there over time. And, of course, you can always email and ask for more information.
7. Go to an annual maiko and geisha performance show
There are a few traditional dance performances that happen in Kyoto. They are performed by geiko and maiko from different areas, as there are five geisha districts in Kyoto, each district having its show. This is the approach we have chosen, and I can assure you it was worth it.
You are not allowed to take pictures during the show, so I can only present you with this picture of an empty stage before the show started. You don’t need to speak Japanese to enjoy it, as it is an explosion of color, music, and dance. The only downside is that you cannot interact with the geisha and maiko.
But, to be honest, I think it’s better this way. I want to remember them as precious art makers that are intangible for us, the plebeians. I would feel so clumsy next to such a sophisticated and elegant lady, I would feel nervous all the time.
The price for this show is in the area of 50$ per person, for one hour, one hour and a half show. And, again, it’s beautiful. Best investment for this trip, I swear! To this, you can add a tea ceremony which will happen before the show, if you also want to experience that. The tea ceremony costs about 5$, so it’s not a bad investment I would say.
As I said, there are 5 annual maiko shows in Kyoto, four of them taking place in the springtime, and the fifth being the one we enjoyed, that took place in November. I told you November is the best time to visit Japan!
It means “dances of the Old Capital” and has been held in the Kaburenjo Theater since 1873. You can find more information here:
It is performed by geiko and maiko from the Kamishichen area and it began in 1952. It takes place in late March, early April, and you can see it at the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theater. More information and reservations you can find at:
This is the youngest of the shows as it started in 1950. It is considered to be closer to the Kabuki theater as it has more scenes than dance, plus what is said to be the best show finale in the world. It’s also one of the most affordable ones, as the tickets start at 24$. Considering that it takes place right in the middle of April, I would call this a bargain.
This geiko and maiko district has also another performance established for October, in an event called Mizue Kai. This takes place at the Miyagawa-cho Kaburenjo Theater. So, there is more than one performance that happens in the fall. One more reason to ditch the overcrowded Spring season.
You can find more information here:
This performance is held by the geisha and maiko from the Pontocho district and takes place in the Kaburenjo theater. It’s another pretty affordable show, as the tickets start at about 25$. Also, it takes place in May, not April like to other ones, so it might be worth looking into it if you’re planning to travel to Japan in May.
You can find more information here:
This is the only traditional dance performance that takes place in Autumn, and it’s a pretty old one, as it started in 1894. It also is smaller compared to the other ones, so you have a feeling of intimacy in the showroom. We had our seats in the middle of the room and we didn’t feel like we were too far away from where the cool things were happening.
You can find more information here:
8. Enjoy a private dinner or tea with a maiko and/or geisha
This is like the best of the best in regards to getting to know the geisha culture in Kyoto. This is how they used to do it for centuries, and it’s the highest way of knowing it. If you can get to this point, congratulations, you are going to be envied SO much by everyone.
Not many places will allow tourists into their private shows, so you’ll have to dig deep to find one such pace for you. And then you’ll have to dig even deeper for the shit load of money you’ll need to accommodate it. But I am so sure it’s worth it, I would have done it myself if I wouldn’t be so cheap.
At a private geisha show, you get to have the lovely ladies all to yourself. You get to talk to them, enjoy a geisha playing the shamisen, and a maiko performing a traditional dance, maybe even learn a bit how to perform the tea ceremony. You will also enjoy a delicious Japanese dinner of the highest class, so nothing will be too good for you that evening.
Of course, prices range wildly from 500 to 1.000$ per guest, so be prepared to fork up that amount if you wish to have these amazing ladies for yourself for two hours. But, again, this is how the thing’s supposed to be, so you’re getting a once in a lifetime experience for your money.
Where can you reserve a private dinner with geisha and maiko:
If you’re planning your trip to Japan, you must include a way to experience the geisha culture. It’s probably part of why you have decided to go there. Let’s be honest here, we all know that Tokyo is this huge city and that Japan is this modern country, but deep in our hearts, we’re going there to see brave samurai and delicate geisha and maiko.
So, how are you going to experience the geisha culture in Japan?