When visiting Japan you might spot a geisha on her way to work, particularly in the Gion district in Kyoto. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to catch them on accident, or perhaps you’ve been waiting for the chance. Either way, seeing a geisha in the flesh is an exciting opportunity; should you ask for a picture?
No, you can not ask a geisha for a photo. If the geisha is entertaining her client, you are putting her in a situation that might embarrass her or her client. Japan’s culture puts a high value on respect, and it’s expected of tourists that you will follow their rules.
The best thing to do in this situation is to observe from a distance and don’t interfere. It would also be quite rude to take a picture of her without her consent, however, there are some opportunities where a picture might be permitted.
How to Get A Picture With a Geisha?
The most appropriate way to get a picture with a geisha would be to hire her, geisha are private entertainers whose services can be bought. It’s not easy to hire a geisha, especially for a foreigner. Geisha business is built on trust so ochaya only tends to work with people they are familiar with.
Let’s assume that you have access to an ochaya, either through your travel agent or hotel and you’ve hired a geisha for the evening. The geisha’s role is to entertain you, the way she will do this is through traditional singing, dancing, conversation, and drinking games. This would be an appropriate occasion to ask for a picture, but if she refuses, please respect her wishes.
The question remains though : how do you realistically arrange an evening with a geisha. Geisha are quite expensive to hire. If you were to hire a private room, it’ll likely cost around $1000. This cost will cover the room, two geisha, and one jikata (a musician that plays the shamisen). The cost can increase depending on experience and the food and drink consumed.
The real issue is getting recommended by a current client. Unfortunately you can’t just turn up at a tea house and expect to be served. They will turn you away, so as a tourist you might not have a connection that could sort this out for you. In these situations, you might need to employ further help, which can drive the cost up even more.
In some cases, your hotel concierge might be able to arrange something, or alternatively to that you could find a tour operator that has connections. One additional cost to factor in is for an interpreter. It’s unlikely that the geisha you hire will speak English, so if you want to talk to them, an interpreter is necessary.
There is one restaurant in Kyoto that has turned its attention to the international market. It’s called Yasaka Dori Enraku, a traditional Japanese restaurant that caters to tourists and offers maiko dinner shows. Maiko is the term used to describe girls in-training to become geisha.
You will be able to watch a traditional dance performance as well as getting to chat with the maiko. Maiko will also take part in drinking games with you and you’ll have the opportunity to take photos with them. This is the cheapest way to get an intimate experience with maiko, however, geisha don’t work here.
Can You Take A Picture of Geisha in the Street?
This is something you really shouldn’t do, it’s worth repeating. Some of the hanamachi (flower towns, where geisha live and work) actually prohibit taking pictures of geisha and it’s enforced with a fine. The most notable area is the Gion district in Kyoto, where the world-famous Hanamikoji Street is.
While it’s definitely one of the best places to find geisha, Hanamikoji Street is one of the places you’ll be fined if you take a photo of geisha. Although this isn’t the case in other flower towns, geishas should be allowed to conduct their business in peace, free from would-be paparazzi.
Japan’s culture puts a high value on respect, and it’s expected of tourists that you will follow their rules. Photographing a geisha while she makes her way to and from work is a huge overstep. Especially if you interrupt her to try and get a selfie.
Geisha’s workday usually starts quite late. They host dinners so they can usually be found making their way to work around 5:30pm. Some may work to meetings, others will ride in a taxi. They can then be seen again around 9:30-10:00pm as they bid their clients farewell before returning home themselves.
There will usually be other tourists attempting the same thing around these times, particularly in the popular areas, such as Tokyo or Kyoto. While most people will be respectful and give appropriate space to geisha, there are some that step over the line. Thankfully in the Gion district, there are enforcements in place, but most other areas don’t have the same system.
One thing that might satiate a person’s need for a picture with a geisha is taking a picture with someone during the day. There are many places and many people that imitate geisha during the day. They might be young women who are having fun, but they may well look the real deal without actually being geisha.
If you spot someone during your travels during the day who is dressed up like a geisha, they might be more willing to take a photo with you. Of course, they won’t actually be a geisha but they will certainly look the part.
Cheap Ways To See A Geisha
Depending on what time of year it is, there could be several brilliant opportunities to see geisha in public performances. At this time, you’ll be able to safely take a photo from a distance without interrupting anyone. You’ll get to experience some of the geisha culture without having to pay out a high sum for the privilege.
Geisha train for years as a maiko in arts such as traditional Japanese dancing in the nihonbuyō, as well as instruments like the drums and flutes. They also practice traditional songs and poetry.
Maiko also learns how to entertain by observing their older sister, a geisha mentor. Geisha also practice and hone their social skills, so they can navigate the complex social requirements of their hanamachi.
Some of these skills that they learn are performed in yearly shows, and tickets can be bought by anyone for a very reasonable price. It’s one of the simplest ways to get a genuine geisha experience without the hefty price tag. There are performances all over Japan, but the most popular ones are held in Kyoto and Tokyo.
The best time to visit Kyoto to see some of these performances is during the springtime. There are five different shows known as Odori dance performances. The first 4 take place in the spring between March and May.
Kitano Odori starts in late March through early April, consisting of a play and a series of dances. The Miyako Odori follows from early April until late April and is a dance performance designed to lift people’s spirits after the capital city status switched from Kyoto to Tokyo. Also starting in early April until the middle of the month is the Kyo Odori. These performances are heavily inspired by Kabuki theatre.
The final spring Odori in Kyoto is the Kamogawa Odori. This performance has attempted to modernize its performances with the inclusion of western music. There’s one final Odori in Kyoto that happens for one week in early November. The Gion Odori is unlike the spring performances, intending to be intimate and personal.
Over in Tokyo, there’s another spring performance called the Akasaka Odori. This one is particularly special because only the most talented geisha perform. It’s considered an honor to be a part of it and to witness it. In November, there is the Kagurazaka Street Stage Oedo Tour which is a cultural celebration of traditional skills. There’s an opportunity to parlor games with geisha.
These festivals are among the easiest and cheapest ways to get a snap of a geisha without causing a fuss. The public performances are quite rare so if you’re lucky enough to be in Japan at the time, it’s well worth checking out.
How Should You Act Around Geisha?
If you’re in a position where you are around a geisha, either through a paid meeting, or you’ve crossed one in the street, you need to know how to act. Geisha are highly professional and they have trained for years honing their craft. They uphold old Japanese traditions that have been passed down through centuries.
Geisha spend quite a long time applying their make-up and making sure they look appropriate for their meetings. With this in mind, geisha are often very busy when you see them in the street, moving to their meeting. This is absolutely the worst time to stop them and ask for a picture as they won’t want to be late.
It’s really important to respect boundaries as well. Many geisha have taken to riding in taxis to avoid tourists. If you see a geisha walking, don’t follow her. For one she’s busy, but also that could freak her out and cause her to panic.
When you are dining with a geisha then you will be able to enjoy some wonderful entertainment. Part of a geisha’s responsibility is to perform, through song, dance, music, or poetry. However, this is only part of what they do, they are also there to keep you company and play games with you.
This is why it’s important to have an interpreter with you if you can’t speak Japanese. Geisha are well trained in conversation and they can do a lot of the heavy lifting if you are nervous. They’ll also keep you topped up with beer and play drinking games with you, resulting in the winner having to neck their drink.
Some geisha work for most of their lives. You might find that they’re incredibly interesting so conversation will be really enjoyable. There are geisha of all different ages, but they are all meticulously trained and top up their training all the time.
One misconception it’s prudent to clear is that geisha are not prostitutes. They are just professional entertainers and dinner company, once the dinner is over, that will be the end of the night.
If you aren’t able to secure a dinner party with geisha, don’t try to enter the tea house as they will be forced to turn you away. This is a business that exclusively works with it’s known and regular customers. A random person can’t just walk in and expect to be served, the only way to arrange a dinner is through someone that’s a regular client.
Getting a picture with a geisha is a tricky thing to do as a tourist. Of course, you could just jump out in front of them and take a picture before running away. But morally speaking, it’s not really the right thing to do, it’s not fair to take a picture of someone working without their consent.
The best way to get a picture with a real geisha is to pay for an experience. Whether you opt to go all out and hire a private room, or you visit a restaurant aimed at tourists, there are plenty of legitimate ways of getting a picture with a geisha. The Odori performances are the perfect example of a cheap and easy way to take a snap during a dance.
Some of the Odori performances also have tea ceremonies so you may be able to politely ask for a picture when they bring you your tea. However, they will be busy working so if they decline, it’s best to just leave them alone. Pictures are nice and everything, but we have to always be respectful.