Girls in kimonos in Japan

How to see a geisha performance in Kyoto

Whenever the first blossom starts to appear in the UK, it always takes me back to our honeymoon in Japan. We timed our three-week trip to coincide with Japan’s cherry blossom season and we were not disappointed. Viewing the cherry blossom in Tokyo and experiencing the cherry blossom at Matsumoto Castle really was a dream come true.

During our visit we ticked so many things off our Japan bucketlist and had many unforgettable experiences. They included staying in a Japanese ryokan, learning how to use a Japanese onsen and staying in an Ainokura grasshouse.

Seeing a geisha performance in Kyoto  

Something else I was keen for Mr A to experience was seeing a geisha performance. The enigmatic geisha are as synonymous with Japan as sushi and kimonos. Their beautifully powdered white faces, red painted lips and jet black hair is instantly recognisable. The mystery and intrigue of these highly trained performers is one that has endured for years, so visitors are, of course, often keen to see a geisha during their stay.

There are a number of ways to see geisha in Japan. You can attend a dinner or tea ceremony hosted by one (usually an expensive option). Alternatively, you might be lucky enough to see one hurrying between evening appointments in the narrow back streets.

This may be best done on a tour, such as this one, as we discovered it’s pretty easy to get lost in the area!

A poster for a geisha performance in Kyoto

However, I think the best way to truly experience their talents, which includes traditional Japanese dancing, music and singing, is through a geisha performance in Kyoto.

I had been lucky enough to see a geisha performance during my first solo visit to Japan. (That was the time when I also mistakenly managed to gatecrash a geisha tea ceremony!) It ended up being one of the highlights of my trip and I really wanted to be able to share that with Mr A.

There are lots of companies which can take you to a geisha performance and also sometimes include a short walking tour of one of the geisha districts in Kyoto. If you are visiting outside of the cherry blossom season, this may be your best option. Prices seem to start from around Y9000 (£60/$83). Another cheaper alternative is Gion Corner, which offers tickets year-round from Y3150 (£21/$29).

Odori dance shows

However if you are visiting at the right time of year, I would really recommend going to see one of the annual Odori dance performances in Kyoto. These are public dance shows hosted by each of the five geisha districts in the city. They include performance by geiko (the name geisha are known by in Kyoto) and maiko (apprentice geisha) and are a much cheaper option, as they are often attended by locals. In fact, of the two I’ve attended, I only noticed a few other tourists. 

Most take place between March and May, although the Gion Odori is in November. Dates vary, so it’s worth checking online or at Kyoto Tourist Information Centre beforehand.

This time we were in Kyoto during the Kyo Odori, which is performed by geiko and maiko from the Miyagawa-cho district. It takes place for 16 days in April at the Kaburenjo Theatre. This performance has a number of different scenes, which tell short stories usually linked to nature. The finale includes all of the performers on stage at the same time and is a truly beautiful spectacle. 

How to buy tickets

Although it is possible to buy tickets for the Kyo Odori online in advance, we just bought them from the theatre on the day. Although the staff at the box office didn’t speak English, it was pretty straightforward to buy tickets simply by pointing out the time of the performance we wanted to see (there are three a day) and the cost of the seat we wanted to pay for.

We opted for a second-level seat which cost Y2,200 (about £15/$20) and first-level tickets were available for Y4,800 (about £32/$45). Our seats were up in the stalls, but we felt like we had a great view of the stage.  

The Kyo Odori takes place in a number of acts. The performance we saw had nine. It was about welcoming in the spring and included scenes about cherry blossoms and sightseeing in Kyoto. (We were given a basic guide to the show in English.)

During the performance the geiko and maiko perform dances, sometimes with fans, and sing. Meanwhile nearby musicians play traditional instruments. (It’s important to note that no photographs are allowed to be taken inside the theatre.)

It was fascinating to see so many important elements of the geisha way of life being brought together. We also loved the fact that we were surrounded by lots of excited locals who attend the performance as part of their celebration of spring. It really did feel like the perfect way to see geisha in Kyoto.

Girls in kimonos in Japan

If you’re not visiting Kyoto during the the annual Odori dance performances, you can still experience what it takes to become a maiko, an apprentice geiko. This makeover and photoshoot has got amazing reviews from people who have taken part: