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How to Spot a Real-Life Geisha in Kyoto

When I started researching for Kyoto, the number one thing I wanted to do was spot a real-life Geisha in Kyoto! I read every blog post I could find and followed their tips and you know how many Geishas I spotted? None! They weren’t where they said they would be!

But then we decided to go out to dinner near our hotel and it happened! I spotted her turning a corner and then we followed a safe distance behind just in time to see her bow and gracefully slide into a black taxi. It was magic and I was ready to see more.

So where are all the Geishas really and how can you see a real one? After stumbling upon the first Geisha and having a real Kyoto Geisha experience, we ignored the tips and ended up seeing at least 20 Geishas multiple nights in a row! So here’s how you can do it too.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

I highly recommend staying at Gion United Hotel from Airbnb. It was exactly between the two areas I wanted to be in, but it was pure luck that it ended up being one street away from the real Geisha district that I couldn’t find online.

I also put together a 7-day Itinerary with everything we did in Japan! You can read it here.

A Geisha in a black taxi
Can you spot her?

It was clean and they even provided clear umbrellas. They also had kimonos in our room.

Where to see Geisha in kyoto: THE GEISHA SCHOOL

While we happened upon the geishas by accident, you don’t have to wonder where to find Geisha in Kyoto. Geisha spotting in Kyoto (some call it Geisha hunting, but I don’t really like that phrase!) is easy if you know where to look! Here’s what you should do:

Head straight to the Geisha school

Here’s the location on Google Maps:

The Geisha school is located right in the heart of the modern Geisha district for the most obvious reason: the girls live close so that they can walk to school each day.

Geisha School

Be Patient and Wait

If you stand right in front of the Geisha school and watch the doors of the nearby Geisha houses then you will most likely see a Geisha. Surprisingly, there were hardly any tourists in this area.

The Black Taxi Street

If you’ve already seen Geisha leaving their houses, there are two other areas immediately in front of the Geisha school where you can also see them. The street in front of the Geisha school which looks like this:

2 Geishas in Kyoto

and the street that that street leads to, which I call: The Black Taxi Street.

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A geisha getting in a black taxi in Kyoto

As I mentioned briefly before, this is a street where many geishas go after they leave their houses to be picked up by taxis. Here is the approximate location on Google Maps:

What to Look for: The Geisha Sign

While we happened upon the geishas by accident, you don’t have to! The houses that they live in and the street where they usually get picked up in taxis all have something in common: a symbol!

If you look closely at the traditional house sign you will see 3 red circles interlocking:

An Okiya (Geisha House) in Kyoto

It means that it is a Geisha house, also known as an Okiya. You can also see these marks on wooden blocks in front of the house. The blocks tell us the last names of the families that live in the Okiya.

the Geisha sign on an Okiya

If you look carefully at The Black Taxi street, you can see that the same symbol that was found on the geisha houses in Kyoto can also be found on the street lamps on this street! It feels like a part of the past is still alive and you’ve just been let in on the whereabouts!

The Geisha sign (three red circles overlapping)

What Time to Go Looking

The best time of day to go looking for Geishas is from 5:00 pm to about 7:30 pm. According to some of the Geisha experts that I spoke to, you are less likely to see a Geisha on a Monday night and more likely to see one on a national holiday.

A geisha walking down a street in Kyoto

In order to get the best pictures and to spot the most Geishas, I went three nights in a row. I was able to spot Geishas each night! This Japan Geisha experience was the highlight of my trip to Japan!

How to be respectful & take pictures

The experience of spotting a real-life Geisha in Kyoto is magical. It felt like you glimpsed a fairy. They appear quickly and speed away even quicker.

2 Geishas walking down a street in Kyoto

One VERY important thing to remember is to not spoil this magic by being an obnoxious tourist. The Geishas aren’t Disney Princesses and they most likely will not be nice to you.

Some will smile or nod, but as they pass you they will be quick and serious.

Don’t try to take a selfie with them. I asked some of the tour guides and they informed me that the geisha don’t mind you taking photos of them but there are definitely boundaries that you need to keep in mind.

A Geisha (maiko) in Kyoto

Make sure to never block the way of a Geisha. Keep a respectful distance as you would with any stranger. You don’t want to scare them and don’t run after them.

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Like I said before, the best pictures and experiences I had while spotting Geisha in Kyoto were when I forced myself to stay in front of the school and just wait for the right moment.

Taking a Geisha Tour in Kyoto

We didn’t take a walking tour, but I listened in while waiting to spot Geishas leaving their Okiyas and I even asked him a question or two about the culture. The people who were on the tour recommended it and the guide was very knowledgeable on the subject.

You can find these tours by googling “Geisha Night walking tour.”

Another way to learn more about Geishas is to start a conversation with some of the other Geisha spotters. It becomes obvious while you’re in the area who the people are that come frequently.

They know exactly where to wait and usually have large cameras with them.

How Modern Kyoto Geisha culture works

Although I am definitely not an expert on the subject, I did learn quite a bit while we were in Geisha spotting in Kyoto about how modern Geishas work!

Most people, especially after watching “Memoirs of a Geisha” believe that Geishas are just fancy prostitutes. However, that is no true. Although back in the day there was some crossover, like when Geishas would sell their virginity to the highest bidder, these days that practice is illegal in Japan.

A Geisha opening an umbrella in front of an Okiya

Today, it works a bit more like this: a girl around the age of 14, usually from outside Kyoto (this surprised me, most Geishas in Kyoto aren’t local!) comes to Kyoto on vacation or a school trip and sees a Geisha. She decides that she would like to become one, and then applies online on a website like this.

Mothers & Okiyas

Then, after her parents give approval, the young girl gets in contact with a “mother.” A “mother” is the woman who owns a Geisha house, which is called Okiyas. The mother interviews the girl and tries to gauge how mature and ready the girl is.

5 Mothers and a Geisha
The mothers are dressed in blue kimonos in this photo

The mother invests a lot of money into the girls’ schooling and has the girl live in the Okiya, so it is very important that she doesn’t accept just any girl. Unlike in the past, if the girl decides to leave the Okiya without finishing her schooling, nothing happens. The mother only loses her investment. In the past, the girl would be considered somewhat a slave until she paid back what the mother had invested in her.

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Once the mother decides that the girl can come and live in the Okiya to start her schooling, the young girl starts working towards becoming a “Maiko” which is an apprentice Geisha.

You will also often hear “Geiko” in Kyoto instead of Geisha since that is how it is said in Japanese. Once the girl has been trained and gone on appointments with a Geisha, she will eventually become one herself.

What does a Geisha do?

Well, it’s a bit hard for people like us to grasp because it is very cultural. But basically, they go to school to learn traditional dances, how to play instruments, how to wear the kimono properly and how to keep conversations going.

A geisha getting in a taxi in Kyoto

They are hired to entertain at parties and events, but not just anyone can hire a Geisha for an evening. In order to do that, you need to have an intimate connection with the mother of an okiya. Once she approves, then an appointment will cost you about $900.

How to tell the difference between Geisha and Maiko in Kyoto

When going out to spot Geishas, it can be difficult to tell between Geisha and the apprentice Maiko.

Obviously, there are also going to be a ton of tourists also dressed up as Geisha, but those are pretty easy to cancel out: they usually have cell phones and most of them look like they are in a lot of pain from the traditional wooden shoes they are wearing.

Real Geishas in Kyoto make walking in difficult shoes look absolutely seamless. They usually wear less bright colors. Their faces are painted as well as the back of their necks.

Maikos generally wear brighter colors and if they are going out with a Geisha, they will walk behind them.

A Geiko and Maiko walking down a Kyoto street

GEISHA SHOW IN KYOTO

Although we didn’t experience this ourselves (we only had a few days and I liked going out and spotting Geishas better!) you can also go to a Geisha show. Technically, the girls who perform in the shows are Maiko and the shows are a way for them to continue their training.

You can read more about the different shows and experiences on this blog!

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How to Spot Real Geishas in Kyoto