When I began planning for a trip last year to Japan, I became fixated on one particular goal — seeing a geisha in person.
I learned quickly that my task would not be easy. There simply are not that many geishas in modern Japan. The few remaining mostly live and work in Kyoto, where they are referred to as geiko.
Trying to spot a geisha in Kyoto can feel a bit like hunting for movie star sightings on the streets of Los Angeles.
Because the geisha typically entertain wealthy businessmen in exclusive teahouses, access to them is limited. So tourists must resort to trying to spot them in the street on their way to work in the evening.
Most tourists who visit Kyoto head straight for the Gion geisha (or hanamachi) district. The district became more famous after publication of the best-selling novel “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Gion is lined with traditional wooden houses.
When my husband and I visited Gion, we witnessed plenty of frustrated tourists roaming around Gion carrying expensive cameras, desperate to catch a glance of a geisha. You could see the lost hope in their eyes.
Not too exciting.
My research took us instead to Pontocho Alley, a tight lane packed with the sort of high-end teahouses and restaurants where geishas entertain as hostesses. There, they also sing and dance for their customers. The alley is located near the Kamo-gawa River.
Many of these establishments are exclusive, and charge a substantial amount to sit with a geisha. The teahouses are sealed off from the street, adding to their secrecy (see the photo below).
Pontocho is celebrated for its charming appearance at night. Illuminated red lanterns line both sides of the narrow street. People stroll along the street, where no cars are allowed.
We set out looking for a geisha just after sunset, when they are typically on their way to jobs at the teahouses.
My husband and I got lucky. He heard the sound of someone walking up and told me to turn down a side alley.
That’s when I saw a geisha walking quickly toward me, accompanied by a very small older woman running ahead. The geisha was stunning. In the dark alley, I made eye contact with her. The moment felt unreal. I chose not to photograph her head on. But as soon as she passed, I turned around and snapped the photo below.
As soon as she turned the corner onto the main Pontocho street, I noticed camera flashes going off and tourists mobbing around her as if she were a movie star. I cherish that I was able to spot her in a quiet side street, making it a magical experience.
You may notice from the photo above that she has unusual neck markings, and that not all of her neck is covered with white makeup. Her appearance is actually typical of a maiko, or young apprentice geisha in training.
Maiko also tend to have more elaborate hair ornaments. Their kimonos have a red collar around the neck, and they wear a longer obi (the golden cloth sash on her back). Maiko also walk in higher platform shoes.
After spotting the geisha, our next goal was to find some dinner.
Pontocho is a bit more exclusive to Japanese residents than Gion. However, we ended up with a good meal for the night with a bit of persistence. I would advise that American visitors look for restaurants that list their menus outside in English as well — this is a sign that they will serve tourists.
In the end, we found a small restaurant situated in a basement. The cook prepared the food right in front of us (including grilled squid), and was very happy to speak a bit about his favorite American wrestlers.
Persistence can pay off in Pontocho — whether you are looking for a geisha or just dinner!