The elusive geisha of Kyoto 2

The elusive geisha of Kyoto

Like the city that’s losing chunks of its past, the geisha and her apprentice, the maiko, are now beyond reach except for a few.
David Celdran | Nov 14 2018

Geisha and maiko-spotting is one of the most anticipated moments on a trip to Kyoto, but like any endangered species, the chances of seeing one in person are increasingly slim. From a high of tens of thousands in their heyday, the geisha and maiko population of Kyoto today has dropped to less than a hundred.

Modern values and the slowing Japanese economy have conspired against the once lively geisha tradition in Kyoto. A night with a shamisen- strumming geisha or her young apprentice, the maiko, is a luxury only an inner circle of wealthy patrons can afford—and an oddity for a new generation of Japanese more accustomed to karaoke bars and pachinko parlors.

The elusive geisha of Kyoto 3
The best chance of catching a glimpse of maiko is in Gion, Kyoto’s pleasure quarters. The streets of Kyoto are filled with women pretending to be geisha or maiko. Those eager to pose for tourists often turn out to be frauds.

Foreigners interested in catching a glimpse of the geisha, (and there have been many since the release of the bestselling book, Memoirs of a Geisha), will have to be satisfied with the rare public appearance she makes. Hers, after all, is a world that is off limits to the gaijin—a world that is a metaphor for Kyoto— a city and people that opens its arms to the traveler, but hardly ever its soul.

You might catch some of them—often in pairs or small groups—on their way to meet clients in the pleasure quarters of Gion at dusk. Geisha and maiko may entertain behind the closed doors of exclusive bars and restaurants, but that doesn’t mean they deliberately keep away from the public eye. They walk freely around town, but it helps to tell the real ones from the poseurs who enjoy the attention of unsuspecting snap-happy tourists.

The hedonistic culture of geishas is an interesting flipside to Kyoto’s austere temple culture. It’s this  duality, often misunderstood by foreigners, that makes  Kyoto so fascinating.


Photographs by David Celdran

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Vol 5 2012.