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Kyoto’s Geisha

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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).

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):


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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Geisha in Kyoto Geisha in Kyoto Geisha in Kyoto Geisha in Kyoto

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