Geisha in Gion

With our technology, consumerism and relentless obsession with talentless celebrities, the geisha in Kyoto arguably seem even more out of place than ever. Odd, almost ghost-like figures who effortlessly weave through the narrow, tourist-filled streets of their native Gion – their sporadic outings greeted with a mixture of giddy glee and hushed reverence. Neither of which are in any way surprising considering the geishas’ scarcity and history. Not to mention of course their incredible outfits and otherworldly appearance.

Japanese geisha in Kyoto

Yet for me at least it’s not their elegance or overall look that really sticks in the mind, but the surprisingly rapid clip-clop of traditional geta, plus the briefest glimpse of a painted neck, as they dash past on the way from one appointment to another.



  1. Carolyn Todd says

    Gorgeous images, Lee! The first one is so unusual – the angle, the rain, the reflections – and I really want her purple umbrella! The second one is how I usually see them, clopping away at high speed. Someone needs to make a horror movie about the clopping. It’s v. creepy in the dark.

    • says

      Thanks a lot! My day in Nara had been a total wash out cos of the weather, so getting the reflections and umbrella was nice compensation.

      Yeah, I completely agree. They are beautiful, and yet at the same time really quite unsettling. Seeing her moving towards me with that almost death-like white face was both fascinating and really quite strange…

    • says

      The celebrity tag is definitely valid, but yet at the same time, when they aren’t working, nobody apart from those close to them knows who they are, Plus they are sought out for how they look, not who they are. Just as geisha in the general sense too, not individuals. But yeah, celebrities of sorts nonetheless.

      Talentless, however, seems a bit harsh. Years of training, discipline and a mastery of a musical instrument and dance makes them very different from many modern celebrities.

  2. Jeffrey says

    Some days I would be content to just sit and watch life go by for time in various districts of Kyoto. Yes, I’m guilty of romanticizing a place and a culture that I’ll never be a real part of, but whiling away a day doing this would beat most of everyday urban or suburban life.

    • says

      Thanks! Yeah, wet streets really made a difference. The first shot in particular wouldn’t have been the same without the reflections. Gion’s streets are quite beautiful, but much more so in the rain.

  3. says

    My only frustration when I was in Kyoto about two years ago was not spotting a geisha/maiko in any of the places I’ve been to, both day and night. Really nice to see you managed to get this shot. And as you have heard maybe a thousand times, the composition and colors in your photographs are just amazing.

    • says

      Thanks ever so much.

      On my first trip to Kyoto I was accosted by an odd old woman who wouldn’t give me a moments peace. Wanting to get away from her, and tired of waiting to see a geisha, I told her I was leaving. However, she told me in no uncertain terms that if I waited another 10 mins or so I’d see some, and sure enough she was spot on. Everytime since then I’ve stuck by her advice and I’ve never been disapointed.

      Basically be in Gion between 5:30 and 6:30-7 and you’ll see them. That’s the time they set off on their first appointments of the evening I presume. Just try and avoid the main street cos it’s crowded with both people and cars.

  4. ameiji says

    Whenever I see a picture of geisha, I never feel any creepiness, just a bit of sadness maybe, a kind of pity for the things and traditions which fade away (not only in Japan).
    Thank you for the story, Lee. So colourful ^^

    • says

      You are very welcome. Glad you liked it.

      That’s a very good point. That said, despite Japan’s love of new things, traditions do seem to be something that are held on to. The amount of festivals, and the sheer number of people that participate in them attest to that. Plus the geisha, while of course nowhere near as numerous as they once were, do seem to be surviving ok. But whether their culture will survive in a natural way, or become a kind of meticulously preserved museum piece – which the likes of Noh has become I’m led to believe – is another thing altogether…

  5. Ming Yu says

    The pictures are vivid and just so real! Or surreal?! That said, I’m a 21st century woman of science, so this concept of geisha is not something I’m ever likely to accept or understand. Then again, to each her (or his!) own! :)

    • says

      You and me both. Trying to even understandable a little about their lives is all but impossible. One so radically different from our own. But like you say, each to their own. And they certainly make the world a little brighter.

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