Secrets Of Gion: Exploring The Geisha Town Of Kyoto, Japan
January 1, 1970
by Joleen Katherine Lee
Discovering The World Of Geisha
You’ve never been to Kyoto if you haven’t been to Gion. Made internationally famous by the controversially critiqued book and movie adaptation, Memoirs Of A Geisha, Gion hides away the secretive world of the Japanese geisha.
However, it wasn’t Memoirs that hooked me in on this mysterious town. Only after reading Geisha Of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki, an autobiography of the former Geisha that Memoirs is based on, I wished for the day that I could see for myself every sight that the author so beautifully painted in words.
The day finally arrived for me – my first time visiting Kyoto, Japan. It was just before the cherry blossoms season, but it didn’t matter to me. I’m not here for the cherry blossoms, I’m here for Gion.
A Surreal Experience
Just passing through the streets gave me the chills. Every Ochaya (teahouse) and Machiya (townhouse) was how I imagined it to be. I could almost see the stories described in the book come to life.
Even just strolling along the streets is wonderful. Cobblestone paths, traditional wooden houses, people dressed in brightly colored Kimono to get the full experience of this geisha town. But while tourists roam the streets that were once strictly dominated by locals, I can’t help but wonder if a geisha is practicing her dance or tea preparation behind the wooden doors of an Okiya (geisha lodging house).
Geiko VS Maiko
For the sake of understanding, geisha is most commonly used to describe the profession. But not many know that the actual term for those in full kimono, hair ornaments and white makeup that we’re most familiar with is actually maiko – a ‘geisha in training’ or apprentice geisha. When a maiko debuts, it’s a big celebration of public procession and performance. At this stage, she is not supposed to entertain yet until her training is completed.
When a maiko finally ‘graduates’ from apprenticeship, she becomes a geiko – an adult geisha fully qualified to entertain. Her clothes would change to more toned down colors and her hair would take on a more mature style. This stage doesn’t get as much fanfare as the maiko stage, but this is really when they become full-fledged geishas.
Catching A Glimpse Of Geisha
It’s not easy to catch sight of a geisha, less so get hold of one for a picture. Because of their celebrity status, they navigate around inconspicuous alleys to avoid getting stopped by tourists. You’d be amazed how quickly they can walk in those tight kimono and wooden clogs! Before you can raise your camera, they would have probably darted around the corners. A friend of mine managed to grab one for a quick photo but she refused to speak. But that’s what makes the world of geisha so intriguing. We as foreigners will never fully understand it.
But if you want to try your luck, the best time is in the evening, when they slip into Ochaya for their banquet appointments. It’s best not to hold them back though, as they get very busy at this time. Let them do their job!
Watch A Performance
Because of the boom in tourist interest, it is now much easier to watch a geisha performance. There are several ways to do it, with prices running at a wide range. Of course, the more you pay, the more authentic the experience is.
A Private Banquet
Traditionally, only an affluent guest or referral can only book a private banquet session with geisha. And it’s very expensive, so usually only the rich locals can afford it. Since World War II, the doors have opened to foreigners to experience the most classic way of meeting a geisha and watching a performance. It’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but be prepared to burn a hole in your pocket.
Kyoto Cuisine & Maiko Evening
Gion Hatanaka offers authentic Kyoto cuisine with maiko performances while you dine. It’s not a private session and there’s little chance for interaction with a maiko, but it’s the next best option to get the whole food and performance experience for a much lower price.
Every Spring and Fall, geishas put on huge dance performances. The biggest and most famous performance is the Miyako Odori, or Cherry Dances, which happens in April at the Kaburenjo theatre. This is probably the only time you’ll see so many geiko and maiko performing at the same time. They practice the choreography for months, on top of their foundational training they’ve had their whole lives, just to prepare for those special performances.
The most economical way is to watch the performance specially put up for tourists at the Gion Corner. This is a modern concept in a bid to let foreigners understand more about the geisha arts. There will be a demonstration of tea ceremony, flower arrangement, music performance, plays, puppet show and of course, the most coveted maiko dance.
In my opinion, it’s worth every penny. The music is eerily mesmerizing, dances are phenomenal and plays are entertaining even if you don’t understand a word of it. One thing that entranced me was the Edo period language they spoke in a comedic play. It sounds nothing like the Japanese you’ve heard and it’s incredible how they have wholly preserved the language through the centuries. Simply riveting.
Two shows run on a daily basis at 6pm and 7pm. But be there early because the queue starts as early as 5pm. An adult ticket will set you back for about 32 USD. If you have a coupon, you could save a couple of dollars. Do check online before heading over, as they might only have shows over the weekends from December through mid March.
Understanding The Geisha Culture
For the most enchanting experience, first understand the geisha culture before your trip. Look up videos and articles, or read the book I highly recommend – Geisha Of Gion. It’ll set you apart from the casual tourist and you’ll have a whole new appreciation of the architecture and arts that make Gion so magical.