Geisha (known as geiko in Kyoto) are strongly associated with Japanese traditional culture and history. While you will likely see women dressed in traditional costume walking in the Gion district of Kyoto, they are very rarely a fully-trained professional geisha. An evening with a professional geisha is hard to come by and can cost hundreds of dollars due to the amount of skill and training necessary to become a geisha.
A geisha must be trained in dance, flower arranging, musical instruments, traditional games known as ozashiki, and storytelling; and each geisha will spend at least five years as an apprentice. During this time they are known as a maiko.
You’ll notice some subtle difference in costume: a maiko wears more vibrant kimono and extravagant hair pieces but, in terms of entertainment, she will enact the same traditional performances as a fully-trained geisha. This will usually involve several dances, a tea ceremony, songs, and musical instrument performances.
Seeing a maiko show is very possible while you are in Kyoto, due to their lower—and therefore affordable—price. Here’s everything you need to know if you’re looking to see a maiko show when visiting the Gion district.
Where to See a Maiko Show in Kyoto
Recently opened in the Higashiyama area, the Maiko Theater has made it much easier for visitors to watch a traditional maiko show in an intimate setting. With several daily events scheduled, you can watch a maiko performance with a bento lunch or even watch a tea ceremony performed by a maiko in the evening. You’ll get to know more about the maiko’s life and training, and you are also allowed to have a photo with the maiko to take with you (just make sure to remain courteous).
How to Book: Reservations must be made in advance online using the scheduling system. Tickets on the same day can only be purchased by phone.
A popular spot to catch Japanese traditional performances, Gion Corner offers a special deal where you can see Maiko perform the kyo-mai dance, one of the oldest Japanese dances, as well as a selection of six other shows. This is a perfect choice if you want to see a maiko performance but also want to indulge in some other traditions, including a koto performance (Japanese six-stringed zither instrument), kyogen theatre (comical plays), tea ceremony, and flower arrangement ceremonies.
How to Book: Adult tickets cost 3,150 yen and no reservation is necessary. The show starts daily at 6 p.m. and you just buy a ticket at the counter as you enter the building.
This traditional restaurant based in the Higashiyama district offers maiko performances twice a week for visitors to enjoy an evening of entertainment with dinner. You’ll be treated to a full dance performance by maiko, as well as an evening playing traditional Japanese parlor games with the maiko herself. You’ll also be able to interact with the Maiko with an interpreter present and the interpreter will introduce the maiko, her outfit, and some interesting facts about her life. Finally, guests can enjoy a photo session with the maiko before heading home.
How to Book: The maiko performance is held every Tuesday and Thursday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and costs 19,000 yen which includes a traditional meal and unlimited drinks. It gets booked up quickly so you should ideally make a reservation by phone, popping in a couple of days early or through their online booking system.
These dances have been a yearly tradition for over 144 years, celebrating Kyoto’s former place as the capital of Japan for over one thousand years. It’s a fantastic display of color, dance, and sound that happen in the spring. A large number of maiko and some geiko from each of the districts will perform seasonally themed dances at Kaburenjo Theatre, where you will sit on tatami flooring around the stage. Alternatively, if you’re visiting in the fall, you can catch the Gion Odori at Gion Kaikan, the only district which still offers performances later in the year.
How to Book: The performances last throughout April and are an hour long. With three shows a day, there are plenty of opportunities to catch one. Tickets cost between 4,000 yen and 5,500 yen depending on whether you want a regular or a premium seat and tickets can be bought at the door. You can also book online. The Gion Odori takes place in November for 10 days and costs 4,000 yen; tickets can be bought at the door.
Tips for Attending a Maiko Show
- When attending a maiko show in Kyoto, you should generally follow the same rules as attending any performance in terms of basic politeness and decorum. For example: don’t talk during the show or interfere in any way unless prompted by the maiko.
- Be courteous with photography. This is particularly prevalent out on the streets of Kyoto. Yes, the geiko and maiko are extremely beautiful and it’s tempting to photograph their every movement, but they are human and are actually working in a professional capacity. There have been a lot of complaints growing from geisha or maiko who feel like they’re being followed by paparazzi or treated as an attraction. Be subtle and don’t ruin the show for others with noisy cameras; there will almost certainly be time at the end for photographs with the maiko.
- Don’t touch the maiko or their kimono. While this is similar to the above point, people forget that maiko are people and they don’t want or deserve to have their person or clothing touched by strangers unless it is invited first.
- Don’t tip the maiko. Tipping is generally frowned upon across Japan and the same is true when watching geiko. Tipping could be seen as particularly insulting to their work, so you don’t need to do it.