These days, geisha are more a symbol of Japanese tradition than a part of everyday life. Even at the peak of their popularity and prevalence (ending roughly a hundred years ago), they were not accessible to most ordinary Japanese men because of their expense, but in the twenty first century the number of people who use Japan's remaining 2000 geisha is tiny compared to those who used the 80,000 that were around in 1920.
Their dwindling numbers and traditional discretion have given geisha a slightly odd role in the eyes of tourists. They are treated a bit like rare animals or birds are on safaris and bird watching trips, as they dart in and out of nooks and crannies, making no effort to make themselves any more visible to watchers than they need to be, or indeed deliberately avoiding their attention. Like an endangered species in the wild or a bird that has got its migration route wrong and ended up in the wrong place, their rarity only adds to the excitement of spotting one.
Strange though this approach is, I must confess it is exactly what I did when I went to Kyoto. As long as we are respectful and don't giggle, point or impose ourselves upon them if we are lucky enough to spot them, I don't think it is too unreasonable for a tourist to wish to catch a glimpse of a famous and much-loved part of this uniquely Japanese culture. As such, I'll share a few tips.
It is easy to get the impression, through tourist marketing and the reverence shown to it, that Kyoto is a city where time stands still; where we can walk into the ancient mystique of Japan's past and nod cheerfully to geisha as they glide past us on the narrow streets and into wooden buildings. In fact, Kyoto is for the most part a modern, concrete city like any other in Japan, with huge buildings on wide streets. There are a great number of ancient sites too, but we have to head to them one by one; we are not upon them as soon as we arrive in the city.
Geisha tend to work in the old entertainment districts. The most prominent of these is Gion, close to the river. Gion is well worth a visit on its own merit, geisha spotting aside. The area is north of Kyoto's main train station and the closest station is Gion Shijo. From there we can go over the bridge to the narrow Ponto-cho street which runs north along the west side of the river. There are some great little bars and restaurants on this street, and river dining in summer. Geisha can sometimes be spotted here.
The main geisha spotting area is Hanami-koji, the area of traditional wooden teahouses. This is a few blocks east from Gion Shijo, along Shijo Dori and turning right.
The best time to spot geisha is around sunset when they are on their way to appointments, so arriving a little before sunset is best. If you are lucky enough to find one, I have been told that they usually don't mind having their photos taken, if we are respectful and polite. It is worth remembering that not all geisha have the famous white faces. Given that a lot of ladies like to wear kimonos when in Kyoto, it can be difficult to tell who is a geisha and who isn't! The best signal is the mannerisms and behavior. Another thing to take note of is that people may refer to maiko – they are apprentice geisha and we should be on the look out for them too.
An easier if less authentic way to experience geisha is as part of an organized tour or performance which can be arranged in Kyoto. There are also geisha of sorts in coastal resort towns around Japan, but their pedigree is considered lower than those in Kyoto. To anyone interested in geisha as a symbol of history and tradition, Kyoto is the place to go, and head to Gion.
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