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Japanese Geisha

Geisha are one of the enduring symbols of Japan, yet they are rarely seen. Sort of like cowboys in America, only less dusty.

The easiest way to see a geisha is to attend the Cherry Blossom Dances in Kyoto. The geisha of Gion stage this 'Miyako Odori' dance each year. The performance, first staged in 1872, is a recognized National Cultural Treasure.

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Geisha Dancing at Miyako Odori

If it's not April, you can still see a geisha dance at Gion Corner, a tourist show that is performed nightly. The show includes a tea ceremony, a koto performance, a comedy routine, a puppet show, and the geisha dance.

It's a little touristy, but well done, and provides a very good overview of Japanese arts.

Another way to see geisha is to wander around Gion and Potoncho, the eastern neighborhoods of Kyoto, at the end of the day. The geisha (translated means 'Artistic Performer') can be spotted moving from their tea houses to the restaurants where they will be performing. If you're lucky you will run into a few.

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Lucky again

Usually the geisha, always a center of attraction, will lower their heads and quickly shuffle to their appointment, so take your pictures quickly. Sometimes you might get lucky, though, like I did on this occasion, and persuade them to stand for a photo.

The final way to meet a geisha is to hire one. So we did.

Actually, you have to hire two. Fujika-san was the geiko at my Osaka going away party, and with her was a maiko named Hagika-san.

In Kyoto, geisha are divided into maiko, the apprentice geisha, and geiko, the fully trained geiko. It used to be that a maiko could not be a geiko until she lost her virginity in a ceremony, but that tradition no longer stands.

There is a common misperception among the Japanese that it is impossible for a common person to hire a geisha. You must have contacts, and it is very expensive, they say.
The truth is that you can, in fact, hire them, and it's not all that expensive at US$700 for two hours (ok, it's a lot more than a night at the movies, but you can share the costs in a large group).

Fujika-san and Hagika-san danced two songs for us, poured our beer and sake, and answered all our rude questions about life as a geisha. 
The highlight was seeing the expressions on the faces of all my Japanese co-workers. Most of them never believed that they would ever get an opportunity to sit in a room with a real Kyoto geisha.


Of course, these geisha never suspected that they would get to sit in a room with a real California electronics engineer - so I guess we were even.