There has been a lot of misconception about Geisha and the world they live in, particularly for outsiders who deem these women with thick white based make-up, red lipstick and dress in well-ornamented kimono as old-class prostitutes. I am not sure if the idea came from a movie or some tell-all book about how a western woman went to Japan and become a “modern-day geisha”, but surely, there is a cloud of mystery about them and endless curios questions like- How one become a Geisha? Are they still around these days?
I will not be able to fully answer the first question, so I better leave it to Wikipedia. But if you are keen to see an authentic Geisha and maybe hoping to be entertained by one, I suggest you visit Kyoto where they are commonly called as Geiko (term for Geisha coming from Western Japan). One popular district which oftentimes refers to as “geisha district” is Gion. With rows of traditional teahouses, Gion is Kyoto’s most expensive and most exclusive dining area. If you are a budget traveler, don’t worry, you can still eat at McDonalds and just go to the district to walk around, take some souvenir photo and just enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere.
The area of Gion is mainly popular for tourist hoping to see Geiko outside and doing their daily routines. You are lucky if you see one but don’t be disrespectful and act like paparazzi following them around, zooming your lenses and hoping to document their every move. I actually went there during daytime to check the Shirakawa Area and I didn’t see one but when I went back at night for the schedule performance at Gion Corner, I was happy to see a beautiful Geisha standing in front of a restaurant and allowing tourist to take her photo.
They say that one of the ultimate Kyoto experience is to be entertained by a Geiko while dining at a teahouse; entertainment which includes serving your drinks, performing traditional music and dances or engaging you in a light conversation but these services are for those with money and connection, which oftentimes are old rich dude who I can only guess enjoy this type of entertainment and appreciate this kind of women’s beauty, as if reminiscing on their past. For salary men like us where travelling is often on budget basis, there is an alternative where we can submerge ourselves to Japanese traditional performing arts for a price of 3,100 Yen at Gion Corner. Additional tip, make sure to take the voucher at the Kyoto Station Tourist information for a 10% discount.
There are 2 schedule performances per night (7:00pm and 8:00pm) and ticket can only be purchase 30 minutes prior the program, so you better make sure that you will be there ahead of time, on my case I was there waiting around 6pm and manage to get the front most seat. Gion Corner offers tourist with seven kinds of performing arts which includes tea ceremony, flower arrangements, the comedic Kyogen theater, the Koto zither, Gagaku court music, the UNESCO’ acknowledge masterpiece of Bunraku Puppet Theater, and the highlight of the program- Maiko dancing (maiko is a student geisha or often referred to as “dance girl”).
While waiting for the performance to start, you can check the small gallery right outside the theatre showing the different geisha hairstyle and a video showing how one became a Maiko and later on became a Geiko. I was surprise to learn that there is some sort of an annual oath taking ceremony where becoming a Geisha is a lifetime commitment and one should vow to follow the rules and obligation that comes with it. Come to think of it, if you will be entering the prostitution profession, would you take an oath to have it as a life time career?
If you fancy on dressing up like a Geisha for a day, well you can if you have the time and 10,000 Yen. There are variety of stores offering this service and with the option of having a photography session either in the studio or outside with the temples and shrines as the background.
In its truest and purest concept, Geisha is about being an “artist”- entertaining by performing various Japanese classical arts on music and dance. Unfortunately, the concept of being a Geisha has been shrouded by negativity, maybe because of the troubled past and present of pleasure districts in Japan.