The first time you see a geisha is quite a surreal experience. The porcelain like white make up, crisp bright kimono, waxy black hair and general doll like appearance is truly a sight to behold, a technicolour fantasy against the usual city backdrop of shopping malls and traffic lights. Scenes from Memoirs of a Geisha come flooding back, Chiyo and her friendship with Pumpkin, mooning hopelessly over the Chairman before settling for Nobu, and all the rest of it.
Anyway, the trouble with geisha spotting is, it’s hard to tell if you’re witnessing a real or a fake one. I use the word fake in not a negative way at all, because without the ‘fake geisha’ – Japanese tourists who come to Kyoto and pay to get decked out in traditional costume as part of a girls or couples day out, or even simply a solo vanity project – you wouldn’t see at least 20 variations of Japanese traditional dress all before lunchtime. Nor would you be able to take your much needed geisha photo – more on this later.
What’s so nice about the tourist geisha is how they are positively beaming with happiness and excitement to be doing something they clearly have been looking forward to for a long time. Some as I said are in couples, posing for photos that might be for a wedding, birthday or anniversary, the man also dressed in customary attire and gallantly escorting his wife along by the elbow as she totters along in full geisha garb, including dangling hair accessories, bucket style floral miniature handbag and sock feet delicately placed in the flip flop style clog shoes.
The girls day out types hit the streets arm in arm, stopping to take pictures of each other and selfies (geish-elfies?) on their iPhones in front of temples, cherry blossoms, ice cream stalls, cafes, or wherever takes their fancy. A group we spotted in a restaurant were treating themselves to a full ceremonial feast and bowed to each other as they left.
As it’s all for show, they are only too happy to stop for photos and even expect that they will be photo-jacked, or that they will be asked repeatedly by passers by to pose for a photo with complete strangers and even children. They bask in the compliments of their adoring public.
So where are the real geisha, you ask? Tucked away in their geisha houses, pouring tea and playing the shamisen? They are around all right, but more of a nocturnal occurrence. Well at least at night, you can be more sure that what you are seeing is the real deal.
How do you know? Well, head to the Gion area from dinner time onwards and you’ll see. A single geisha in a group of non-geisha who look like they are going somewhere specific is probably the real thing. As is a lone geisha shuffling quickly down the Ponto Cho traditional restaurant street, jingling loudly in a rush to her next appointment. Or, as we were lucky enough to spot, a pair of seemingly identical geisha accompanying an also seemingly identical pair of local businessmen on a night out, giggling uproariously as they said their goodbyes to the men who stumbled into a late night taxi.
According to our Lonely Planet guide there is geisha etiquette you should keep to. You shouldn’t ask to take a picture as they are usually too busy either with clients about to entertain them with dinner, drinks, dance and music, or on their way to such an occasion. You also shouldn’t touch a geisha. Unfortunately for me I read this section of the guide book only after I had committed both of the aforementioned faux pas. Lesson learnt.
There are of course plenty of other ways to commemorate geisha culture in Kyoto. If you are somehow well connected to someone who knows someone, or are staying in a high end hotel, you can try to arrange a geisha dinner.
For the rest of us, there are more conventional ways to soak it all up. There are a handful of trendy bars in Gion situated in converted old geisha houses, such as the understated, sleek Finlandia bar.
The Miyako Odori shows in Gion Corner run all through April and allow you to witness first hand the cultural talents of geisha, with the one hour show featuring dance, singing, and musical instruments such as shamisen, flutes and drums. Just to see the ornate costumes alone is worth the ticket price, as they are specially made for that show season each year. You can’t take pictures during the show, but you can buy a premium ticket including a tea ceremony where you can snap away to your heart’s content. And take away a free souvenir dish. A win all round.
So happy geisha spotting to you. If you have experienced coming face to face with what is unmistakeably the face of Japan, let me know.