One ~ another, they round the corner and shuffle into the room swiftly and also quietly, only developing the slightest of sound together their tiny steps satisfy the tatami mat. The minute they enter, the atmosphere changes; their presence raises hairs on arms, and everyone automatically goes quiet, in awe that the beauty beauty that has actually just arrived. Top top this specific evening, we room honored through the presence of two geiko and also one maiko.

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In Kyoto dialect, geisha are referred to as geiko (gei way “art” when sha converts to “person” and ko to “child”) or maiko. The former must it is in older 보다 20 if the latter is between the eras of 15 and 20. Some even go through the phase of shikomi for about six months to a year before ascending come maiko status, in i m sorry training begins only after completing junior high school. Over there are 5 hanamachi or kagai (geisha districts) in the old City—Gion Kobu (the largest), Miyagawa-chō, Ponto-chō, Kamishichiken (the oldest), and Gion Higashi. These are house to what is right now estimated to be about 73 maiko, 186 geiko, and 132 ochaya (teahouses used for entertainment by geisha), according to the Kyoto timeless Musical arts Foundation. To clean the air prior to we dive in a small deeper, the misconception that geishas room the identical to prostitutes have to be immediately thrown out. Once the culture first came right into existence in the Edo period, females in “pleasure quarters” dubbed themselves geishas, but those actions are no much longer practiced—this contains the principle of marketing one’s virginity for a maiko’s mizuage ceremony.


Traditionally, one is can not to go into an ochaya to it is in entertained by geiko or maiko uneven an existing customer has referred them and they’ve collected a rapport v the okaasan (meaning “mother,” however which also refers to the owner of one ochaya or okiya, a lodging home for geisha). The was formerly unheard of for foreigners to enter an ochaya unaccompanied, but due to economic difficulties some establishments have loosened their constraints for the sake of keeping their business alive.


If you’ve ever had friends travel to Japan, you’ve probably heard your laments of exactly how impossible it was to certain dinner appointments at sought-after restaurants. For this reason imagine trying to break into the guarded, mystery society of geiko. A secret to also the Japanese, here, the ultimate type of currency is not exactly how much girlfriend have, but rather that you know, and making the acquaintance of one ochaya patron is prefer hitting the jackpot. Happy for me, ns was continuing to be at the 4 Seasons Hotel Kyoto, a residential property that’s just as breathtaking as it is connected. The staff eventually put me in touch through Kenji Sawada, the CEO of exclude, Kyoto, who is a patron that Man and also visits ochaya three to four times a month in the summer and winter and two to three times a week during spring and also fall.


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Man is own by a fourth-generation geiko recognized as Masami. Consisting of five floors—in i m sorry the very first three kind the ochaya and also are offered to entertain while the top two floors are for her 2 understudies (geiko Masaki and also maiko Masano) and herself to live in, comprising the okiya fifty percent of her business—the 11-year-old facility is an atypical build given that such teahouses room usually no more than two stories. Just one dinner is hosted per floor at any given moment, despite all three having actually multiple rooms, and sometimes they are able to squeeze in a group after supper because that a drinks-only work (there’s even a karaoke room ~ above the 2nd floor for such occasions).


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We room seated in the biggest room top top the 2nd level, dispersed along a long table with a sunken floor for leg space. One by one the geiko and maiko present themselves and also hand me their hanameishi, a company card in the type of a narrow rectangle-shaped sticker through their moniker (given come them by your okaasan) printed on it. The an initial woman I meet goes by the surname of Masaki. She is beautiful, needless come say, in a marine blue kimono v a silver- obi belt. Her face and neck, prefer the various other two, are covered in white makeup, and also her lips room painted a deep crimson red, v the same hue marking the outer corners of her eyes. But unlike the various other two, she was never a maiko. Formerly at university examining business and also media, she functioned at man part-time as a bartender and also admired Masami—who she adoringly describes as her sister—so lot that she chose she wanted to end up being a geiko and also began her training in ~ 20 (she is now 26). Throughout the night she makes tiny talk with me—in enhancement to laying a linen napkin over my lap as soon as the an initial course arrives and making sure my glass is never empty—and patiently answers, often in English, my questions. The moments that a translator requirements to help I have the right to hear her repeating the linguist’s native in an effort to enhance her vocabulary and pronunciation—her voracious desire to find out is admirable and also endearing.


I next meet Masano, a young maiko in ~ the age of 16 in her very first year of maintain (signified by having actually only she bottom lip painted red), who simply joined the okiya critical year and also debuted in December. She had actually been invite to a teahouse as a guest as soon as she was 14 and was so impressed by the maiko the evening the she had collection her psychic on becoming one. Her impressively symmetry hair, i beg your pardon is done every week and takes about two hours to do, is adorned v a variety of pins and an elaborate floral ornament well-known as hana kanzashi (another sign of her very first year in training), while the back of she neck is only partially extended in white—herein lies two distinctive attributes that identify a geiko indigenous a maiko: The previous are allowed to stay wigs, which often cover the nape and thereby perform not have to reveal strips that unpainted skin, which is intended to administer the illusion of elongation, and they likewise tend to have actually fewer and also simpler equipment in your hair. Kyoto-born, her parents taken what the life of a maiko entailed and gave your blessing for she to go after her wish. As soon as asked if she plan on becoming a geiko (only about fifty percent of maiko continue with furthering their career), her face instantly lamp up, an earnest laugh spreads across her face, and she enthusiastically states yes. She go to institution or has private great one to four times a week and spends her other days self-practicing or cleaning the okiya. V two days off a month, no cell phone, maybe TV as soon as a week, and also only acquiring the opportunity to view her family and also friends 2 to three times a year during special holidays, it makes me wonder what her proclivities because that such a way of life are. But then again, i suppose details decisions that I, or anyone else, have actually chosen to do could likewise be likewise scrutinized.


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Masano (left) and also Tomitae. Here, two more differences in between geiko and maiko space shown: The former’s under collar is hard white, and also her obi is folded into a square-like shape, fairly than hanging under her back.

Photo: Courtesy of Christina Liao

Lastly, Tomitae, a 21-year-old geiko in a royal purple kimono through an orange obi belt, comes about to present herself. She has been obtained from another okiya in Gion Higashi and has gone through several years that training, firstly together a shikomi for 6 months prior to she became a maiko in ~ 16. Once one that the guests exasperates around how small time he had actually to execute his hair, running his hands v his coif, she instantly whips out a pocket winter from the folds of she obi. Together with the hand glass, she has additionally tucked far a fan, company card holder, powder compact, and loose memo file wrapped roughly a pouch that’s adorned through a netsuke charm of her okiya’s family crest. (The last item is only lugged by geiko, in i beg your pardon the files are supplied to create a keep in mind or plunder a gift in.)


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The night is filled with lighthearted conversation and jovial drink games, but the pinnacle of the evening space the performances. I’m so focused on Masaki and also the shamisen that she is tuning that i don’t even notification when the lights dim. Tomitae come out very first to enact “Spring Rain,” a seasonal number, prior to Masano joins her to dance “Gion Kouta,” the most popular in Kyoto. The breakable gestures room minimal and also subtle, yet incredibly graceful through a deliberate precision. Knees constantly bent to part degree, there’s definitely a level of toughness that is involved. Every so frequently they bend your necks and slightly tilt your heads; a pan unfurls and is slowly swayed earlier and forth; hands space tucked right into the kimono armholes, placing the furi (the piece of towel that hangs listed below the sleeves) top top display—all the when Masaki strums her string instrument and sings in a soothing, low-pitched voice.


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Masaki, Masano, and also Tomitae do “Gion Kouta.”

Courtesy that Christina Liao

I lid off the night through a quick talk v Masami. Before I’m even summoned come the head that the table, the wait of sophistication and also maturity she exudes is nearly intimidating, paired with an indescribable allure. She has a for sure tone however a calm and also steady voice. I discover that she never ever had traditional training, yet given the she thrived up in a family members where she grandmother and also mom to be geiko, there wasn’t a particular need for such schooling. Because that the lucky few, Masami will still execute as a geiko, although just two job in the summer and 10 work in the fall. Otherwise, she’s liven running Man and overseeing Masaki and Masano while in search of two more maiko to add to she family.


At the end, ns can’t help but be astounded by just how such one old tradition have the right to still thrive in this modern-day day. And also while the practice is frequently misunderstood and also misconstrued, what this women carry out is a kind of art, and they space a symbol of Japan—not just embodying that heritage and culture, yet its incomparable hospitality together well. Can not to wed until they’ve favored to retire, the takes unwavering determination and also discipline come renounce what countless deem together a “normal” lifestyle. It might not be entertainment the you or I room accustomed to, however it’s a practice that part women, like Masami, have devoted their resides to. And while whether or no they’re laughing at your jokes since conviviality is their project or if they space genuinely charmed comes right into question, you leaving an ochaya in blithe spirit, and that’s yes, really the point, isn’t it?

Dinners through geisha can price upward the several thousands of dollars. Because that those who aren’t rather willing come splurge, below are some other means you have the right to see geiko and maiko in Kyoto:


The lobby of 4 Seasons Hotel Kyoto, whereby a maiko performs every Saturday and also Sunday night.

Photo: Ken Seet / Courtesy of 4 Seasons Hotel Kyoto

Weekend Maiko Performances in ~ the four Seasons Hotel KyotoKyoto’s newest hotel and also the chain’s second endeavor in the nation (following four Seasons Hotel Tokyo, Marunouchi) just opened critical October and is make its note in the ancient City. Contemporary and chic, the the kind of ar you desire to see and be seen, together is obvious when friend spot every one of the high-society ladies dining at its establishments at any type of given time that the day. Advertise its captivating beauty beauty aside, four Seasons Hotel Kyoto master weekly maiko performances ~ above Saturday and also Sunday nights, whereby she dances in the lobby for about 10 minutes before making she rounds through the restaurants to greet guest or proceeding come the teahouse ensconced in the hotel’s 800-year-old pond garden come play drinking gamings for the remainder that the hour. However if you execute want to arrange for an ozashiki asobi, they can do that for you together well.

Attend yearly Dance FestivalsEach kagai puts on its very own dance every year, along with a special performance that combines geiko and maiko from all 5 hanamachi. This six yearly events space the perfect opportunities to suffer a team of these masterful entertainers for a small fee—just make sure you time your trip accordingly.


One-Stop Shop in ~ Gion CornerTouristy? Yes. Yet if you on a time crunch and also want to capture a glimpse of multiple classic Japanese performing arts, climate Gion edge is the many convenient option.


Tourists regularly rent kimonos come wear around Kyoto. Here, 3 Japanese girls pose because that a photo in Gion.

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Photo: Courtesy the Christina Liao

Walk approximately GionLastly, if you have the time to spare, stroll roughly the five kagai roughly 5:00 p.m. Come 6:00 p.m., or so late in the evenings about midnight, in an attempt to record a glimpse that them as they head out to an ochaya or space heading earlier to their okiya, respectively. Provided that the Gion district has actually two hanamachi, it’s more than likely your ideal bet of see geiko and also maiko. If she lucky and really tuned-in, you might even an alert one shopping on her day turn off at traditional stores choose Kintakedo, yet keep in mind the she i will not ~ be in she expensive garb and full hair and makeup. Otherwise, weave your means in and out the the picturesque next streets and also alleyways that room filled with machiya townhouses, however make sure you keep your eyes peeled, it is in patient, and also have your camera at the ready.