Asia Pacific | Japan | Kyoto | Travel

Kyoto’s Geisha

The vast majority of Kyoto’s geisha live in the Gion district, an area filled with shops, restaurants, and teahouses, where geiko and maiko (apprentices) entertain. They are artists who are held in very high esteem. They are entertainers who are not only hostesses but also musicians, dancers, and poets. Their services are expensive and exclusive, usually requiring an introduction via a referral, although some travel agencies and hotels have started creating packages, still, it is very expensive.

Geisha have a sorted history, people confuse them with earlier versions of courtesans, but the geisha emerged in the 1750-60s as an occupation and were actually forbidden to provide sexual favors (they weren’t supposed to compete with the prostitutes) they were entertainers. The world of the geisha has its roots in Kyoto where the imperial court was, but they are present in other parts of Japan (around 2000 in total), although Kyoto is where you will find the large majority (even if that is only a couple hundred).

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Geisha Paparazzi
Geisha Paparazzi, photo credit Sketchy Impressions

I had read so many stories about the paparazzi-style problems that the geisha have these days (like this NY Times piece), that Mr. Misadventures and I had no intention of “hunting” them down. In fact, we barely stepped foot in Gion, just a few strolls as we were crossing into other neighborhoods.

So we could not have been more surprised to come upon two geisha (the way to tell a geiko from a maiko is the lipstick [if you get close enough] red lips mean she is a full geisha, if only the lower lip is red, she’s a maiko) making their weekly offerings on a Thursday morning in the quiet neighborhood near the Kodaiji Temple.

I had just shopped (ok, buying another scarf) at the most adorable little shop called Dot Dot when I spotted them across the street. I wanted to be as respectful as possible, I crossed the street (we were going to head that direction anyway) and walked behind them heading to the temple.

Kyoto Geisha

I was amazed to see how revered they are by the locals, bowing in respect as they passed. One Japanese woman spoke with them a moment and asked if she could take their photo with her phone. At that point I had passed them, but turned around to look at them and pointed to my camera, they smiled and gently nodded their head, I took a few photos (although they continued to look at the other woman) and bowed to them in thanks.

Kyoto Geisha

It all happened in a second, Mr. Misadventures was still across the street at the store, he hadn’t really registered that it was happening. Although he did capture this shot (which is still great):

KYOTO-Geisha
Photo credit: Mr. Misadventures

I am not a good photographer, I am making baby steps, but I am really proud of the two photos I got because they were under pressure!

More geisha reading:

> Wikipedia
> Beautiful slideshow from BBC News
> Article about the documentary Real Geisha Real Women
> Gorgeous photoshoot images from Jungles in Paris
> More gorgeous photos from photographer Peter Macintosh

How about you? Have you ever seen a geisha in real life?

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49 Comments

  1. Those were great photos, you are doing a great job in taking the best angle, how i wish I am also good as you in taking photos. I am always fascinated by the Japanese culture,

  2. The pictures are wonderful! Nope, never seen one in person but, I noticed the geisha in blue has a cellphone sticking out at the top. 🙂

  3. Great pics, Andi. Kyoto is tops on my list , and seeing the Geishas ranking even higher. I’ve been absolutely enthralled with the idea ever since reading Michael McGee’s ‘of Geishas and Tea Houses’

    1. @Candace, I would have to agree on the exhausting part, their schedule is incredibly rigorous, but they seem so calm and at at peace when you see them in person.

    1. @Nancy, thanks, and as much as you like make-up I am sure you would love how complex their make-up routine is.

  4. I’ve been fascinated with geisha culture since reading Arthur Golden’s book (which is fiction, granted, but still!). Your photographs are gorgeous, and I love how the colors of the tree leaves highlight the rich colors in the geishas’ outfits. 🙂

  5. Beautiful! I love that you “asked” their permission as you took their pictures. I remember thinking it might be cool to get to see a real Geisha up close, but without having any real enthusiasm or expectations…and being overwhelmed with excitement when a pair walked past us. They have such an amazing aura! Great photos

    1. @Lavende, thanks I was so pleased to have encounter them as we were definitely not trying to go out of our way to bother them in their neighborhoods like so many others do. They are so incredibly graceful!

  6. This is so cool, like really, really cool. I would probably be a little starstruck. Throughout school I studied a bit about the Geisha and Japan and even had an exchange student from there my senior year. I was supposed to go there but the trip was canceled from the war. :

    1. @Jessica, I was definitely shy about approaching them, also wanted to show respect and try to not act like “that” tourist. They are exceptionally beautiful.

  7. I dressed up as a geisha for halloween one year when I was little. It was one of my fav costumes!!

  8. No I haven’t seen one, but I think my husband has. He spent 2 weeks in Japan when he was in the military.

  9. I’ve always admired the Geishas. They look like real life porcelain dolls. I have also always been amazed that they have no pimples with all that makeup on all the time!

  10. Those are amazing pictures. I would love to see Geishas in real life. Their costumes are just wonderful

  11. Wow, the beauty and artistry of come countries just simply amazes me. Thanks for sharing your experience with this wonderful culture!

  12. These women are stunning. I’ve always loved Japanese culture. I would love to meet a geisha.

  13. I never knew that there was a difference geishas. I’m happy to leave with the take-away of knowing the difference by the lipstick. You’ve captured great images.

  14. This is an interesting post about the geisha. I did not know anything about them til I had seen something one tv recently about them . This is awesome that you clarified info about them. These are awesome pictures indeed. Thanks for sharing,

  15. I love all of pictures, I had no idea about Geisha til found this, this is very interesting post.

  16. I’ll admit that I truly didn’t know what a geisha was (now I do). I just thought they looked cool! By the way, you took some really wonderful shots.

  17. I love hearing about other parts of the world. And your pictures are amazing. You did capture them at the perfect moment.

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