Finding Geisha in Gion

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Kyoto was one of my favorite places in Japan, in part because it ended up being so unique. We’d gotten a tip to stay near the Gion district – the most famous geisha district in Japan – where travelers have visited since the Middle Ages. It felt like stepping back in time to see the ancient architecture and tiny streets.

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We’d been told that one of the best times to spot geisha (known as Geiko in Kyoto) was near sunset, when their public performances had finished and they’d be on their way to private engagements at local teahouses.

This turned out to be true. As late afternoon crept into evening, geisha were walking down the street or escorted in private cars to and from their commitments, followed by photographers like me as though a celebrity in LA swarmed by paparazzi.

Given the sheer number of people in Japan who have taken photos of myself and our son, however, I didn’t feel the least bad about taking photos of geisha.

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In part because of Memoirs of a Geisha, I think a common misconception is that these women are fancy courtesans, but geisha means ‘artist’ and geiko ‘child of the arts’ and they take their performances and engagements seriously – striving for absolute perfection in each and every movement.

Since we were in Kyoto during cherry blossom season, we also lucked out in that we arrived in time for Gion’s biggest geisha performance, the Miyako Odori, performed four times a day at the famed Gionkobu Kaburenjo Theater.

MBH made the right call of splitting up for the early evening – he took our son back to the hotel bar for some fun, and I was able to enjoy the performance on my own. I booked my ticket through our hotel, which included ‘private’ tea with the geisha. I’d hoped for something a bit more spectacular, but to be honest, that portion of the evening was a bit of a letdown. I know there is supposed to be magic in the calm and serenity with which they serve the tea but it quite honestly was just a silent woman sitting in front of an audience, making tea. Booooooring.

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The show, however, was incredible. The cast and musicians are all women, who portray every character, even kings and samurai, to perfection. This year was the 144th year the Miyako Odori had been performed, although the choreography and story changes each year. A series of individual songs & dances throughout the seasons in Japan, it was honestly one of the coolest things I’d been able to see during our time here.

It was dramatic and just foreign enough that I felt as though I were in a movie, watching the performance while something far more sinister was happening elsewhere.

The performance was entirely in Japanese (shocker) and I’d run out of time prior to its start, so I couldn’t run by the ATM to grab enough cash to rent an audio translation… but I had just enough coins to buy a program with English explanations. Whew. I would have been lost without it.

Afterward, the geisha were out in full force.

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