We had a glimpse into the intriguing world of geisha on this night walking tour of Gion, where we
hunted, stalked, spotted a number of Kyoto’s meiko and geiko.
For anyone (like me) intrigued by the culture of Japan’s traditional entertainment district of Gion, a night walking tour is great way to gain an insight into this fascinating world without breaking the bank. We turned up just before 6 pm for our walking tour with WaRaiDo Guide Networks, paid our 1,000 yen per person and joined the group of fellow travellers, excitedly anticipating a glimpse into the life, history and tradition of Kyoto’s geisha community.
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district (or kagai) and is located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the river in the west. Many of the buildings in this area of Kyoto are the traditional wooden machiya merchant houses which were built with narrow facades (5- 6 metres wide) but extend up to twenty metres deep. Gion today is filled with shops, restaurants, and the ochaya (teahouses) where geisha entertain and the okiya (boarding houses) where they live.
Our English-speaking guide, Meiko shepherded our large group of almost 40 through some of the most picturesque backstreets of Gion, explaining the history of kagai and aspects of the life of meiko (apprentice geisha) and geiko (fully-fledged geisha) along the way.
We were told that if we saw any geisha on the tour (by no means, guaranteed) we could politely take photographs of them, as long as they were on their own. If they were accompanied by a client, photos were a no-go to protect the client’s privacy. We were encouraged to show respect in our photography, but I have to admit…our group was more paparazzi than Lord Snowdon. (Click here to see the photo and description for our particular tour on the WaRaiDo facebook page.)
Within minutes, a murmur rippled through our group…maiko, maiko, maiko! The cry went out. As a collective group, we raised our cameras and phones and surged in the direction of the spotted quarry.
There we glimpsed the retreating back of a maiko who had (uncharacteristically) stopped momentarily to allow some other tourists to take her photo. She was now clip-clopping briskly down to the street to her appointment at a party, however equally uncharacteristically, she turned back to our crowd on three occasions, smiling and waving.
Meiko was as excited as we were. She explained that it was very unusual for maiko or geiko to stop for photos, as they are on-the-clock and charging the client from the minute they leave their okiya (boarding house) so move briskly and with purpose. This particular maiko, she told us, was currently the No.1 maiko in Gion (yes, this is a formal ranking which is decided annually).
The fact that she turned to wave back to our group suggested to me (who was at this stage feeling a little like I was on a big-game safari) that she was okay with being papped by a tour group. Geisha are revered in Kyoto, and the attention struck me as being very like Hollywood celebrities would get.
So, what is it that geisha are charging their clients for? We learned that geisha attend parties at tea houses, where they are the entertainment and hostesses for the wealthy men there (mostly men – but sometimes there are women). They sing, dance, play traditional instruments, play parlour games, pour tea and chat with the guests. In other words, they are professional party girls and hostesses, schooled in the traditional arts. Contrary to the widely-held belief about geisha, what they don’t do is offer any sexual services.
The training to become a geisha is extremely rigorous, and very hierachical…with young girls from about 15 years starting as shikomi, or girls in training. They go to classes at a special school as well as doing chores and helping out maiko and geiko in their okiya. The okasan (boarding house mother) then decides whether she wants to take them on as a maiko.
Shortly after our first sighting, the eagle-eyed in our group spied a green clover leaf taxi (the brand of choice for geisha en route to appointments) pull up at a nearby venue – and our group surged in that direction. This time it was a geiko (fully qualified geisha).
Meiko explained that geiko dress more simply that the flashy maiko, as they have ‘made it’. They are also self-employed, and can live in their own home, but use their former boarding house mother as their ‘booker’. While the women are maiko, which is a period of up to five years, all their bookings are made through their boarding house mother who keeps every cent of the booking fees. She, however, also pays all their expenses during that time (hair, make up, dresser, kimono, transport, food, training etc) and actively promotes them to clients.
If I hadn’t done this walking tour, I would probably have walked right past the building above, not realising that it was an okiya (geisha boarding house). However, while we were standing outside, another taxi drew up, and the okasan came to the front door to give instructions to the maiko who got into that taxi.
Likewise, Meiko pointed out this ochaya (above) on the corner of Shijo-dori and Hanamikoji-dori streets – Ichiriki Ochaya. Like most ochaya, this is a very exclusive, invitation only, place of entertainment. The members of this ochaya have longstanding relationships with the establishment, often going back generations, either through family or company ties, and are all very wealthy. It was hard to glean actual figures, but it seemed that hiring a single geisha for a couple of hours of entertainment costs anything from 120,000 yen upwards (USD$1,000+).
Meiko explained that one tradition of ochaya is that the front entrance is washed and left wet prior to a party. Later, when the tour ended and we walked back past Ichiriki Ochaya on our way to a nearby restaurant, I saw a man out with the hose. Sure enough, as we left the restaurant after dinner, we discovered a party had just finished up at Ichiriki Ochaya, and we spotted several more maiko leaving. This time, most were walking with clients, so no chance of photos, but we did get the opportunity to see them super up-close.
It was a good night’s hunting.
There’s still much about the geisha life that I don’t understand and am intrigued about, but I am fascinated to find out more and have added a few great books* to my TBR list:
- Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan’s Foremost Geisha by Mineko Iwasaki, with Rande Brown
- Geisha by Liza Dalby (a non-Japanese woman who became a geisha)
- Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda, translated by G. G. Rowley
- A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice by Komomo, edited by Naoyuki Ogino
Geisha and Maiko of Kyoto: Beauty, Art, and Dance by John Foster
This tour however, provided enough of an insight to whet my appetite and was certainly an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. Definitely a recommended addition to a Kyoto itinerary.
WaRaiDo Guide Networks – Night walking tour of GionWebsite in English: www.waraido.com
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/guide.net There is a fascinating update after each tour of that night’s sightings, or not…
Address: the tour meeting place is in front of Kitaza (178 Tokiwachō (Yamatoōjidōri) Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 605-0079) and tour ends at Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre
Tour frequency: Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (except no tours between Dec 31 and Jan 3)
Tour time: tour starts at 6pm (March to November) and 5 pm (December to February) and lasts about 100 minutes.
Cost: ￥1,000 per person, cash only.
Bookings: no reservation required, just turn up to the meeting place about 15 minutes before the start time
Japanese address of meeting place: 井筒八ッ橋本舗北座ビル Disclosure: * these are affiliate links to Bookdepository.com
Do you know much about geisha? Are you as intrigued by their world as I am?
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