“Ladies in Kyoto” have some special connotation in Japan: They look elegant and gentle, but are very tough like willows. Geiko may be one of the profession representing ladies in Kyoto. I found the book titled “Memoirs of Geisha” when I was waiting for a plane at Heathrow Airport. I was really startled because it was unthinkable for me that the people in Gion reveal their lives to the people outside of the community. Especially the book was written in English! When I become tour guide, I found that many people, especially ladies in the States had read the book before coming to Japan. Although it was made into film, I prefer the novel because I read the novel first.
Geisha means female entertainer and there are some other Geisha districts in Japan. But in Kyoto, we do not call them Geisha, but “Geiko”. Apprentice of Geiko is called “Maiko”. In that meaning, Geiko and Maiko exist only in Kyoto. Because of the influence of “Memoirs of Geisha”, many people from abroad seem to consider that Geikos are poor ladies who were sold for money sake. It is now an old story. According to a lady of certain tea house in Gion, it is now quite opposite and many of them are from rich family. They become Geiko because they want. Some girls spent years to convince their parents because parents normally object. Why they want to become Geiko? The reasons are various. Some really loves Japanese art performance and wants to become professional and others try to follow the same profession with their mothers etc. They do not have retirement age and are proud of their profession.
During the daytime, they are not fully dressed up and do not put on white paint makeup. When off-duty, they just wear cotton Kimono (Yukata) and put on thin makeup. If you find Geiko-looking ladies during daytime especially around Kiyomizu temple, they are tourists disguised in Maiko or Geiko.
You can find real Geikos and Maikos after it gets dark. You often find them along Hanami-koji street south down from Shijyo street. No need to ask them before taking photos
because they do not stop anyway. If you could not find any or could not take pictures because they walk too fast, it is possible to see Maiko dance in Gion Corner with English narration. They do not run away while performing dance on the stage. Not all ladies dressed in kimono are Geikos. When attending parties, Geikos and Maikos put on gorgeous kimonos and white makeup. Ladies all in any country have desire to change. The business of Maiko disguise is very popular among ladies. It is too hard to become real Geiko, but some ladies may wish to do disguise. The service is available also for non-Japanese tourists (Reservation is required beforehand). I myself once tried this at Studio Shiki near Ninen-zaka. You will see how hard it is to work in such heavy costume…..Also it would be interesting to buy unique souvenirs in this area.
Geikos have special business cards called “Senjya Fuda (Hana Meishi)“ which has only their name and the name of house which they belong to. There is a superstition that Geiko’s card in wallet would bring you money. It is difficult to get their cards unless you have an opportunity to have a party with Geikos. But it is possible to make your own cards in similar style at Ikuokaya. (You have to fill in your name by yourself. If you wants to have your name printed on cards, it takes about one month.)
Yojiya is very popular with grease-absorbing papers and cosmetic items. The cosmetics made from rice bran is said to be effective to make white smooth skin. Many shops (paper umbrellas, lanterns, combs, clogs and other pretty small items) stand along Shijo street between Higashi-oji street andNawate street. If you are interested in traditional Architecture, it may be better to visit in daytime. I recommend the areas along Hanami-koji (mentioned above) and around Tatsumi shrine. The atmosphere in Gion is really “this is Kyoto”. Some restaurants in Gion use the building which used to be tea houses or Yakata (accommodation of Geikos and Maikos). Whenever you stroll around in Gion, you will have some surprises and discoveries.