Geisha in Kyoto

A Day Trip to Kyoto

Although I know very little about Japan, even I have heard of geisha. Which means I have heard of the ancient capital city, Kyoto. When I saw that it was possible to do a day trip from Tokyo, I was keen to visit.

Ate breakfast after another ‘not much sleep’ night and walked to Ebisu Station. We got the underground to a mainline JR station, and then bought tickets for the bullet train to Kyoto. We had reserved seats on the way there, but left the return journey open, as we weren’t sure how much time we’d need in the city. There was a lot of flexibility, as trains left every ten minutes.

The bullet train was brilliant. At the end of the line, they turn all the seats, so you are always facing forwards. Your seat is comfortable, and reclines, with a pull-down table on the seat in front (like an aeroplane seat). There was a food/drink trolley. Eating on the train is acceptable (in Japan, eating in the street is considered very bad manners). The journey took about 2 hours.

 When we arrived, Kyoto seemed just the same as any other city – too much traffic, lots of tall buildings, people in suits looking busy, department stores. We popped in to the Tourist Information office in the station, and a helpful lady gave us a map and advice as to where we should walk. Her directions were good, but her distances were a little off, as we walked a very long way to reach the old part of the city.

Old Kyoto is a bit like a Japanese Clovelly – there were way too many tourists, and it was almost impossible to imagine what it used to be like. As we walked up the main street, avoiding the coaches, the over-priced gift shops, the coffee shops; I began to wonder why we’d come. It was school-trip world, I think every school in Japan was on an outing to Kyoto.

But as we found some back streets that were less busy, and got used to the general bustle, we started to notice things. There were lots of shops where you could hire a kimono for the day, and many of the Japanese tourists were wearing them. I’m not sure why, it’s clearly a thing to do. We glimpsed tiny gardens outside tea shops, many many temples, and streets of two-storey wooden houses in narrow lanes. I saw a geisha hurrying past, but whether she was a real geisha or someone dressed up, I couldn’t say.

The guide book said that the main Geisha District was Gion, so we walked there. I knew that it is rare to see geisha, but I hoped to be lucky. We left the main street, and began to wander down the narrow lanes. This area felt more seedy, with clubs and shuttered buildings. I wouldn’t have walked there on my own. Then we saw lots of men with cameras, standing outside a small, wooden fronted house, which looked to me like an okiya – the house where girls live while they are training to be a geisha. In Kyoto, trainee geisha are called maiko. We asked a woman why all the photographers were there, and she told us that it was the debut day for one of the maiko. She was twenty, and had completed her geisha training, and would be taking her first walk as a geisha, which is a big event.

We were very lucky, as while we were talking, she emerged. All the photographers leapt forwards, cameras clicking, pushing for the best view. Then they followed her as she made her way down the street.

I’m not sure what my view of geisha is, as their role is slightly fuzzy. Historically, they were beautiful girls, trained to sing and dance and play a shamisen (a stringed instrument like a guitar). They were very elegant, witty, and trained as hostesses of the tea ceremony. They earned money by entertaining rich men, a sort of ritualised escort. Their aim seems to have been to be taken on as a mistress, so supported as a companion by a wealthy protector. They weren’t prostitutes, as they didn’t trade sex for money, and were more like concubines, faithful to one man. However, sometimes this was not by choice, and beautiful young girls were trafficked, sold to okiya. Clearly wrong.

Over time, the role of the geisha has changed. After the war, lots of allied troops came to Japan, and they wanted to sleep with geisha, so prostitutes copied their costume and style, and the word ‘geisha’ became synonymous to westerners with ‘prostitute’. However, the tradition of geisha continued, and today, they prefer to be called geiko, emphasising that they train in the arts, and are entertainers, not sex workers. I’m not sure if it’s the same as being an actress or ballet dancer in western culture (bearing in mind that a hundred years ago, ballet dancers were the scantily dressed girls who appeared at the end of an opera and posed for the men in the audience, hoping to procure a male protector – yet we do not today think that girls who want to be ballet dancers are sex workers).

I decided to not think about it too deeply, and simply enjoyed seeing a piece of Japanese culture. I glimpsed the white face, meant to resemble a mask, hiding the geisha’s real face. A section of her neck, an erotic area in Japan, was left unpainted (like a revealed shoulder, more seductive than a nearly naked body). Her hair was full of ornaments, and geisha have wooden head rests rather than pillows, so their hair is kept in place at night (which sounds extremely uncomfortable, and I’m surprised they’re not all cranky from lack of sleep). Their collar is dipped at the back, to expose that erotic neck, and a geisha has a white collar, whereas a meiko will have a coloured collar. They wear white socks, and walk on platformed wooden shoes, which also look extremely uncomfortable. The long sash is called an obi, and requires another person to help tie it. Their silk kimono are beautiful, and very costly. In the past, the okiya owned the kimono, which was a way of controlling the geisha, as she needed to remain with the house (and pay them some of her earnings) in order to work.

Human history is always interesting, and so much more complex than we first think. I’m glad I saw a geisha, as they seem like an intrinsic part of Japanese history. But I’m not sure how long they will be here for, there is too much that jars with modern life.


Thank you for reading.

Anne E. Thompson has written several novels and one non-fiction book. You can find her work in bookshops and Amazon.

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