If you don’t manage to make it to Kyoto to see the geisha of Gion, fear not! There are opportunities to see geisha in Tokyo too—you just have to know where to look.
Everyone knows about geisha, be it from that (in)famous book, the movie or general Japan knowledge. And seeing one is often high on the list of anyone visiting—but how do you make it happen? While Kyoto (one of Japan’s ancient capitals) has the reputation for traditional Japanese experiences like kimono fittings, tea ceremony and geisha, there are plenty of opportunities in Tokyo too. Geisha are performers; classically trained in a range of skills including the art of conversation, playing instruments like the shamisen, drinking games, poetry recital and dance. These skills are practiced and honed for years in training and are employed for entertainment at high-end events and dinners.
Unsurprisingly and understandably, seeing a real geisha is expensive and can be difficult to arrange for foreigners in Japan. Ozashiki, the places where geisha perform, often have a referral-only policy and many are (let’s put it politely) reluctant to allow foreigners in. You have options though, don’t worry! You can enjoy a traditional sit-down evening with a geisha, spot them in the streets or wave at them during festival appearances, depending on your budget.
1. Traditional performance at Omotenashi Nihonbashi
Offering a variety of traditional activities including kimono rental and a gourmet tour, Omotenashi Nihonbashi also have a weekly geisha session on Saturdays between 6-7pm. Here you can observe the traditional performances including shamisen as well as playing age-old games with the geisha yourself. The center is run by the Nihonbashi Information Center and aims to offer visitors to the area a chance to experience a slice of traditional Japanese life. You can combine the activity with the kimono dressing or even the tea ceremony which takes place earlier on Saturday afternoons.
Price: ¥5,500 per person and ¥3,500 for children aged up to 12 years.
Location: 2-2-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
2. On the streets: Tokyo’s six hanamachi
Meaning literally ‘flower towns’, hanamachi are the geisha districts found across Japan, with most in Kyoto and Tokyo. The six hanamachi in Tokyo are: Shinbashi, Yoshicho, Hachioji, Mukojima, Kagurazaka and Asakusa (with the latter two being the most active today). These areas are home to restaurants, tea houses and training areas for geisha, with many maintaining a traditional atmosphere reminiscent of Kyoto.
You can either attempt to get a reservation at one of the establishments—possibly through your hotel—or you can try your luck at spotting one in the evening as they make their way to their appointments. For a meal, the Sanshuya restaurant in Kagurazaka offers an English accompanying guide and is welcoming to foreigners.
Alternatively, you can try your luck and explore the quiet alleys in the hope of spotting a geisha on her way to an appointment. Try Kannonura Street in Asakusa, Kenban-dori in Mukojima or the alleys of Kagurazaka, which is a fantastic place to explore even if you don’t see any geisha.
3. Asakusa Culture Center’s free performance
An excellent chance to see geisha performing for free, the Asakusa Culture Center has a schedule of shows on specific Saturdays throughout the year. Held twice a day at 1pm and 2:30pm, they last for 30 minutes and have a capacity for just over 100 people—so this is not an intimate experience, but it is free.
The geisha perform quite a wide variety of skills including the shamisen, singing, dance and taiko. While this is very much a stage/audience experience, there is an opportunity to volunteer to play oshiki with them and to take photos after, if you don’t mind waiting.
Tickets are distributed on the first floor of the Asakusa Tourism and Culture Center from 10am so be there early to make sure you get a spot. There are seats available for 85 people and standing spaces for a further 30.
The dates for 2018 are: April 7th & 14th | June 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd & 3oth | July 14th | Sept 22nd & 29th | Oct 6th 13th, 20th & 27th | Nov 10th, 17th and 24th | Be sure to confirm here before you attend as dates are subject to change
Location: Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center 2-18-9 Kanimarimon,Taito-ku, Tokyo
4. Book-able experiences
If you don’t mind splashing out for a private experience, there are plenty to choose from online, all with easy booking an no chance of being turned away. Prices vary depending on whether you want a private dinner or more informal experience and you can choose to combine it with a meal or tea house so you can make the most of your time.
Some of the dinner options include a private meal with top-level geisha in Kagurazaka (from ¥21,000) or a kaiseki dinner with an English host in Asakusa (from ¥26,000). There are some cheaper meal options, however, with a tempura meal and private performance in Asakusa (from ¥6,750). The difference being that for the more expensive option you can spend time with the geisha, whereas for the latter they will only perform.
Alternatively, you can experience a traditional ochaya—an exclusive tea house—where geisha will perform as you enjoy traditional tea and sweets before learning about the lifestyle of geisha. This experience lasts 90 minutes and allows you to see musical performances, a seasonal dance and to talk with geisha—so it is one of the best middle options if you’re trying to balance price and experience.
For those on a very tight budget, you can watch a traditional Oiran show (the courtesan of the geisha) with English narration in Tokyo’s old red-light district (¥2,500).
5. See geisha in Tokyo at various festivals
Not every festival has Geisha, but there are a few in Tokyo where they make appearances on floats or perform during ceremonies, and it’s a fantastic chance to see them!
- January: Asakusa’s Toshi no Ichi Fair is where locals gather to purchase their hagoita—lucky rackets exquisitely decorated and placed in Japanese homes to bring good fortune. While they are not performing, it is not unusual to see geisha buying their own rackets or perusing the stalls as seen above!
- March: The Akasaka Odori is not actually a festival, but it does involve a ticketed geisha performance at the Akasaka Act Theater. Performed by the most talented geisha, it is an honor to participate and also to watch. The tickets cost between ¥3,000 and ¥7,000, but costs may rise for next year’s performance when details are released.
- April: The Asakusa Kannon-ura Ichiyo Sakura Festival features and Oiran Dochu, a procession of traditional Japanese courtesans. You’ll get the chance to see their amazing costumes, make-up and stoic expressions—they are a step up (or down, depending on how you look at it) from regular geisha, with more extreme outfits.
- July: The Jodoji Bon Odori Festival in July is one of the first summer festivals in the city and is a great chance to see geisha perform. The show is held at the Jodoji Temple in Akasaka and is always super-popular, filled with locals, tourists and salary men from the surrounding businesses.
- November: The Kagurazaka Street Stage Oedo Tour is a cultural celebration and showcase of all the most traditional skills of the residents. There are shamisen performances, a chance to play traditional parlor games with geisha (¥2,500), live street concerts and more. The events take place at a number of venues including local shrines and temples and streets.
Read our guide to seeing geisha in Kyoto too.