Kyoto, a city just a two-and-a-half-hour bullet train away from Tokyo, is where you can get a sense of traditional Japan.
With more than 2,000 temples and an astonishing 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, the former imperial capital of Japan is one of the richest cultural cities in the world. Kyoto’s neighborhood of Gion is the place you are most likely to spot traditional geishas, called “geiko” in the local dialect.
Gion’s cobbled streets are lined with machinya – traditional wooden houses – that spark to life as the sun sets over the temple-clad hills. Time seems to stand still in the warm glow of the street lanterns. Geiko are much more of an anomaly today than they were a century ago, but the odd one can still be glimpsed on her way to an appointment at one of the discreet ochaya; teahouses that aren’t so much about tea as they are about the refined entertainment. The most famous ochaya is the 300-year-old Ichiriki Ochaya, an exclusive establishment that, according to legend, hasn’t changed since the time of the samurai.
Apprentice geiko – known as maiko – start their training at the age of 15, hopefully becoming a geiko at the age of 20. There are about 100 maiko in Kyoto and 200 geiko. The differences in dress, make-up and hair style seem subtle to an outsider but are steeped in ritual and tradition.
Kyoto is one of the few places in Japan where there are still geishas today, and ochayas are the place to spot them. Despite the mythology, fed by their exclusivity, the services they offer are not necessarily of a sexual nature. They are well-trained professionals whose role is to entertain wealthy customers with dance, music and conversation.
An evening with a geiko is an expensive undertaking and was formerly most often for well-connected businessmen. However, as the Japanese economy has shrunk, and fashions change, demand has fallen and the ochayas are now opening up to tourists. Spending time with a geisha is still not cheap but remains one of those unique experiences that set Japan apart from anywhere else.
Earn a commission on every booking you make – money you can use to fund your next trip. Learn more!