Geisha in Tokyo
Geisha of Tokyo may not be seen as popular as geisha of Kyoto but some of the earliest geisha neighborhoods emerged in the Yoshiwara District of Edo City. There are currently two active geisha neighborhoods in Tokyo, Kagurazaka and Asakusa, where you can enjoy geisha shows and geisha experiences.
Those who think geisha are a thing of the past, Japanese geisha still very much exist, and there are a handful of young women training tirelessly to keep the tradition alive, both in the more famous capital of geisha culture, Kyoto, and within and nearby Tokyo.
If you can’t make it to Kyoto or you just want to experience some old-world tradition in the futuristic capital, we’ve put together a guide on where to find geishas in Tokyo. For some context – and so you’re equipped with all the knowledge you’ll need for your next geisha encounter – we’ve also put together a guide on the history, daily life, and different types of Tokyo geisha.
A brief history of geisha culture in Tokyo
The tradition of the geisha began in Japan sometime during the 18th century, and if you want to look far back enough, you’ll notice the origins aren’t quite what you’d expect.
According to history, the original performers were men who, similar to court jesters, would entertain rich and powerful clients through musical performance, dance, and storytelling. If you read the kanji for geisha you’ll notice that the roots of this history are in this kanji. The kanji for “art” 芸 (gei) and “doer” 者 (sha), creates the term “geisha” and essentially means “performance artist”.
With the times, the profession changed, and women started turning the role into the one we see today. These days as it were in history, a geisha typically performs in a custom-built house equipped with live performance spaces and rooms for serving food and tea; this is known in Japanese as an ochaya (お茶屋, literally “tea house”).
Although there’s no exact number on record, between 40,000 and 80,000 geishas were estimated to be working during the early Shōwa era (1926-89). Nowadays, estimates suggest that there are just 600 still working in the entire country!
The main differences between hangyoku maiko and geisha (geiko)
There are a few different stages a trainee goes through before becoming an official geisha. In Tokyo, these stages are hangyoku and maiko, then geisha. The term hangyoku translates to “half jewel,” and its name is referring to the fact that geisha-in-training were once paid half the wage of their fully qualified colleagues.
Kyoto geisha apprentices, who wear the draping sash, are called maiko. But in Tokyo, the sash is shorter, and the apprentices are called hangyoku.
In Kyoto, geisha start training at around 15 years. In Tokyo, they begin after high school as hangyoku, so at approximately 18 years old.
The main differences between maiko and geisha (geiko) are age, appearance, and skills. Maiko is usually younger than 20, wears a more colorful kimono with a red collar, and lacks conversation skills, which they’ll cultivate over time with experience.
The term maiko means “dancing child,” which refers to apprentice geisha who are still training. Maiko has to live in the geisha lodging house (okiya) with their mother (okamisan) for five years. Maiko’s actions are controlled by a strict number of rules, including the fact that they are not allowed to have a cell phone, carry any money, or have a boyfriend.
Something that’s quite interesting to learn is that maiko’s outfits are more eye-catching to divert attention from the lack of knowledge and experience. Geisha’s fashion is more mature and subtle.
Maiko must live in the “mother”s house and depend on the little stipend she receives from the geisha house while geishas are more independent and live in a separate house of their own in the geisha neighborhoods.
Where to see geisha in Tokyo
These are some of the best places to see Tokyo’s geisha and experience geisha culture.
Wandering Tokyo’s six hanamachi
The name hanamachi literally translates to “flower towns”. In Japan, hanamachi are the geisha districts found across Japan, but you’ll find most of these in Kyoto and Tokyo.
In Tokyo, there are six hanamachi; they are Yoshicho, Shinbashi, Hachioji, Kagurazaka, Mukojima, and Asakusa. Each of these neighborhoods are well known for their historical ambiance and traditional landmarks. These areas are also home to many classic restaurants, teahouses as well as training areas for geisha.
If you’re feeling lucky and have a little time to spare, you can always hang out around these areas (like many folks do in Kyoto’s Gion District), exploring the quiet alleyways with the hope of spotting a geisha on her way to class or an appointment. If you want a local tip, try Kannonura Street in Asakusa, the alleys of Kagurazaka, or Kenban-dori in Mukojima.
Another option, a more reliable one, is to get a reservation at one of the establishments that hire geisha or signing up for a geisha experience.
Asakusa Culture Center’s free performance
If you want to witness the majestical performance of the geisha for free, then make your way to the Asakusa Culture Center, which hosts a rotating schedule of shows on Saturdays throughout the year.
The geisha performances generally run for 30 minutes and twice a day at 1 pm and 2:30 pm. During the show, the geisha perform quite an impressive variety of skills, including the shamisen, dance, taiko, and singing. Guests are allowed to take photos with and speak to the geisha after the performance.
But while they are free, the capacity is limited, open to just around 100 people, so get in early. Although it’s a little different from typical (paid) super intimate performances, it’s a great way to taste the geisha culture. You can get tickets on the first floor of the Asakusa Tourism and Culture Center from 10 am.
Address: 2 Chome-18-9 Kaminarimon, 台東区 Taito City, Tokyo 111-0034, Japan (map)
Hours: Monday – Sunday 9 AM–8 PM
Ichimatsu in Asakusa
Situated in the historic town of Asakusa, Ichimatsu is a luxurious restaurant worthy of a visit for its food alone, but the opportunity for some geisha spotting makes it all the more worthwhile. Founded in 1959, and built-in the likeness of traditional Japanese buildings from years gone past, Ichimatsu serves exquisite Japanese cuisine that changes with the passing seasons.
During the meal experience, the restaurant’s local geisha is on hand to offer guests authentic old-world Japanese entertainment, serving dishes, and perform classic Japanese songs and dances. With its authentic traditional interior and world-class geisha performance, a visit to Ichimatsu is one you’ll never forget.
Address: 1 Chome-15-1 Kaminarimon, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0034, Japan (map)
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 11:30 AM–10:30 PM
Kaga in Kagurazaka
Tucked away in the historic neighborhood of Kagurazaka is where you’ll find restaurant Kaga, a Tokyo establishment that’s been around for more than 60 years. As part of the dinner experience, guests are privy to an intimate geisha performance.
Kaga is a restaurant that specializes in a type of cuisine known as “kappo” cuisine. Many call this type of cuisine the ‘masterpiece’ of Japanese cuisine, as it always uses the best traditional seasonal ingredients from all over Japan.
During the dinner, the restaurant’s resident geisha put on an authentic live dance and music performances with the accompaniment of the shamisen. Visiting Kaga is like stepping out of modern-day Tokyo and into a bygone era.
Address: 11 Wakamiyacho, Shinjuku City, Tokyo 162-0827, Japan (map)
Hours: Monday – Sunday 11:30 AM–3 PM; 5–11 PM
Akasaka Odori Festival in March
Running since 1949, the Akasaka Odori festival is one of the most exciting times to be in town, and also one of the best opportunities to catch a geisha performance in Tokyo. The festival, which is a lot more low key than the city’s other major events and the major attraction is the ticketed show at Akasaka Act Theater.
It’s here at Akasaka Act Theater some of the city’s most talented geisha takes the stage to showcase their skills and performing acumen.
Address: 5 Chome-3-6 Akasaka, Minato City, Tokyo 107-0052, Japan (map)
Hours: Monday – Friday 12 PM–9 PM; Saturday – Sunday 11 AM–9 PM
Kagurazaka Street Stage O-edo Tour Festival (Kagurazaka Machibutai Oedo Meguri Festival)
Kagurazaka could fairly be called the city’s geisha capital as it’s also here, during the Kagurazaka Oedo Meguri Festival, that you can catch the city’s geisha in action. The main event is the Ozashiki Asobi game event. The term Ozashiki Asobi refers to traditional Japanese games that have been forgotten by most but are still skillfully played by many geisha.
This event is an excellent opportunity for foreigners sometimes to try to challenge a geisha at the games first hand and experience this unique traditional culture.
Address: Japan, 〒162-0825 Tokyo, Shinjuku City, Kagurazaka, 5 Chome−３６ (map)
Hours: Early May 2021
If you can’t travel, try online with Maikoya
In the past, it was impossible to meet a geisha for first-timers because, in Kyoto, there is a rule called “ichigensan okotowari” which means a personal reference is necessary for a geisha meeting.
Luckily for us these days, it’s not so difficult if you’re willing to pay. However, it can be difficult if you can’t make it to Kyoto or even Tokyo. Maikoya has crafted an ingenious service that allows you to meet a real geisha from Kyoto’s geisha district, no matter your location, online.
This is a limited time opportunity; you may be one of the few in the world to get a chance to talk to real geishas from Kyoto in your living room.
This is a PRIVATE geisha meeting that lasts 45 minutes. You can invite your friends and family as the price covers up to 10 people. The geisha will be wearing her traditional white make-up and her traditional outfit, which takes hours of preparation. What an exciting chance to bring a little Japan to your home! Why not throw a virtual geisha party?!
Your meeting includes Greetings from the Geisha, a geisha dance performance, tea ceremony performance, and a question-and-answer session with the geisha (her training, her life, etc.).
There will be an interpreter for you to make sure your communication with the geisha goes smoothly.
Tokyo’s Major Geisha districts
While Tokyo appears future forward at first glance with its large electronic billboards, advanced railway system, and inventive products, there are a few areas that focus on the past. Geisha have become popular in Japan’s capital, as demand for high-class performances has increased in recent years. Having a geisha or a group of these ladies perform at or host a party or function is believed to bring good luck, as well as a sense of frivolity and sophisticated class.
Geisha is a label that should be used to describe professional female hosts and entertainers. These ladies are famous for promoting sophisticated cultural activities like hosting groups of people by entertaining them with conversation, games, and drinks. These ladies partake in other cultural activities, such as preparing and serving the time-honored tea ceremony.
In keeping with historic traditions, these geisha live and work in an entertainment district. There are six geisha districts in Tokyo, though they are collectively called the ‘Tokyo Roku Hanamachi’ or ‘The Six Flower Towns’, and include Shinbashi, Asakusa, Yoshicho, Kagurazaka, Hachioji, and Mukojima.
Here is a quick summary of the two more popular and larger geisha districts in Tokyo:
This district is a popular tourist location as it is next to the famous Senso-ji Temple and adjacent market. Many locals and visitors also come here after working hours to rest at the restaurants and bars. The geisha teahouses (ochayas) and living accommodations (okiyas) are located behind the Senso-ji Temple, hidden away from the main streets. These buildings try to keep a traditional architecture and atmosphere, so it looks very similar to the Gion geiko district in Kyoto. Before you visit this area, permission should be granted by the teahouse host or okiya mother who takes care of the geishas and younger ladies who are in training (called hangyoku). If you inquire through the concierge at your hotel, you might be able to book yourself a meal or drinks at one of these establishments. If you take a walk down Kannonura Street next to the Senso-ji Temple, especially around dusk, you might be able to glance a geisha or two traveling to their evening’s performances.
This district is another famous tourist location as it is next to Edo Castle. Even though this area is known for its younger demographic due to the Waseda University and the University of Tokyo located nearby, Kagurazaka has a handful of lavish and expensive restaurants where elite patrons and businessmen visit after hours.
Some of these are kaiseki or traditional Japanese restaurants. Kaiseki means ‘The Art of Food’ and these restaurants serve a dinner made up of at least six different dishes, each one beautifully presented and meticulously prepared. Many of these restaurants have an association with a particular okiya or geisha house, so geisha are booked for certain guests as hosts or performers.
Make a reservation by asking your hotel staff to book a dinner with an entertainer in this district. One location that has become popular with tourists is the Sanshuya Restaurant, as an English host, will accompany you and explain the subtle rituals and practices while geisha ladies pour Japanese drinks, perform games, and songs on traditional instruments.
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