This was the absolute highlight of my trip. The first time I went to Kyoto it was just Lucy and I. We wandered around Gion one afternoon and unsurprisingly, saw nothing. This trip I decided to do a little more research. I learned SO much about geisha's and geisha spotting which really made this experience that much more special. I did not previously realized how special it is to see a real geisha. A lot of people think if you see someone dressed up like the lady above that they have seen a geisha, myself included before I did some reading. However, if they are stopping to take pictures, are not being mobbed by photographers, and don't seem to be hurriedly going somewhere, it's probably not the real deal. There are many people who pay to get made up as a geisha and walk around Kyoto, which anyone can do. Real geishas don't just roam around Kyoto in their full makeup and garb. Only when on their way to their event. They were stunning and amazing to see in real life. It was like celebrity spotting with paparazzi, but way better. The whole thing was hilarious and awesome, so I will tell the whole story below, along with some tips I learned.
This maiko was the only one who had an escort walking alongside.
First off, Geisha's are professional entertainers hired to perform and interact with guests during very expensive dinners and other special events. Teenagers train for 5 years to become a geisha. During this time they live in a okiya (geisha boarding school) and have an okason (house mother). During training they are called a "maiko" which is a geisha apprentice. Maiko's are under 20 and can be spotted by their more colorful accessories, and clothing. Geisha's dress very plain and usually only have one simple clip in their hair. All of the ladies I saw were maiko's except the last one. But for all intents and purposes I'm just calling them all geisha's in this post. :)
Your best chance to see one "in the wild" will be when they are on their way to one of their events. Most take taxis, but if the event is close by they will walk. They are always in the evening. I read that 5:45 was the time to be in Gion and that was perfect. I only saw them between 5:50 & 6 and then they were gone. This is why they typically don't stop to take pictures. They are on the clock and have somewhere to go.
The other important factor is where you are. Gion is Geisha central-but their are certain areas to be. Hanamikoji Dori was the street I saw 4. I should say off this street. South of Shijo Dori and north of Gion Corner. If they can take an alleyway and not a main road, they will. I also read that sometimes you can spot them at nearby shrines praying before appts. But I think that's a little riskier if you don't have much time.
Lastly, be respectful. I feel like it's a given, but people can get cray cray. Obviously they have somewhere to go, don't stand in their way and remember they are humans too. You can also watch maiko's perform for free at Gion Corner.
if you see this sign you are probably in the right area ;)
This one I spotted walking down the alley after I had left to leave, so I walked behind her to get a picture and then was cracking up and felt so awkward bc of the mass of photographers in front of her.
hey look who's in the background! ;)
The only real Geisha- do you see the difference between her and the other ones?
Now that you read the basic information, I have to tell my story. We had come back home one day after sightseeing and I had just finished reading all the info I could find on this topic. Duke kept saying "you're probably not even going to see one" I don't know what the big deal is". But what if I do?! I didn't want to miss out (#fomo). So I left Lucy and Duke at home and went out to see if I could see any. From everything I read they made it sound like I would be lucky to see even one. So I didn't even bother to bring my real camera. I also thought, I'll just enjoy the experience and not worry about pictures. I don't want to miss the moment. My plan was to hang around for 10 minutes and then go home.
When I got to the area it was so weird! There were these photographers with some serious cameras just causally roaming around, clearly waiting for something. Then I started to realize we were all here for the same thing. I was walking down one of the streets and somebody yelled something and all of a sudden everyone clamored to one of the alleyways. I had a perfect clear shot of the geisha but didn't think to take a picture until she had turned the corner. We watched her walk to the end of the street with photographers on all sides following until she stepped into a taxi. Then all of a sudden everyone's running to another alley way. I was freaking OUT! I had seen 2 in like 2 minutes! And I didn't even expect to see 1!! Plus the excitement of the crowd made it more fun, everyone seemed to be equally excited to see them. Neither of the two ones smiled or looked at cameras and mostly seemed to be annoyed by it. Then I thought, well that's probably it and started to head back, after a few minutes I thought again, what's it hurt to stay till 6? So I turned down an alleyway and then saw a geisha (maiko) pass across my street. I hurried after her and was following her to try to get a better picture. No one had spotted her yet. (and now i'm thinking I should have just asked for a pic, who knows). But by the time I pulled my camera out the mobs had gathered at the end of the street. I hung out in the street a bit longer and we saw a real live geisha walk by. This one smiled and seemed a bit friendlier. I thought to myself if I were a geisha I would be cracking up every time that people are flocking to take pictures of me. I suppose it gets old after a while. After 6 I waited a couple more minutes and everyone seemed to agree that was the end. I made friends with a couple guys visiting from San Fransisco who seemed just as excited as me and they sent me one of the pictures that had me in the background. HA! I was so glad I took the 15 extra minutes to go see what all the hubbub was about. I was on a high the rest of the day.
A couple articles with more information:
http://www.annees-de-pelerinage.com/how-to-see-a-geisha-in-kyoto/ -this one was the most helpful