When we’re in Kyoto we take our time to wander the cobblestone streets of Gion with it’s old, wooden buildings, tea-houses and lanterns. Gion in Eastern Kyoto (Higashiyama and Kyomizudera districts) is the place to be if you want to catch sight of a real Geiko (Geisha) or Maiko (an apprentice geisha, their hair is usually adorned with flowers). They move incredibly quickly and gracefully. It is not an easy task to snap a picture while trying to be respectful.
Geishas are professional entertainers proficient in Japanese traditional culture and entertainment. They spend years learning the art of flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, poetry, dance and playing traditional musical instruments (Shamisen, banjo, koto and drum). There were 800,000 Geiko back in 1920s Japan but now there are only 2000 – 250 of which are registered in Kyoto (the most prestigious geisha community). We saw several while walking around late in the evening after dinner, that were most probably walking from one tea house to another. They walk very fast. Between the dark evening and lanterns, I only managed to capture a blur of colour moving between the wooden buildings in my photos. All I could do was watch speechless and try to imprint the image to my memory.
Many Japanese tourists (lots of young couples) walk around old Kyoto dressed in yukatas (during warm months) and spend time posing for photos and visiting temples. Others (usually young women) retain more expensive services from one of the many studios where you don’t just rent a kimono, but get (much needed) help with the fitting, dressing up, make up and hair styling (sometimes it’s a wig) so that you look the part in your professionally shot photo session.
She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for Geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret. – Arthur Golden ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’
I decided not to play paparazzi like some people we saw in Kyoto. The Geishas and Maikos around Gion looked very graceful, delicate and fragile. But I saw tourists who jumped in front of them with their flash cameras, running after them and even setting up a tripod on a busy road when they spotted an authentic beautiful Geisha waiting for the traffic lights to change. Sometimes their aggressive behaviour was close to public harassment. I didn’t want to be part of it.