Fascination with the geishas of Japan is far-reaching, sparking interest in visitors and locals alike. Stemming from a two-part word meaning “art” and “doer,” geishas not only model traditional Japanese garb, but also represent the ancient art of Japanese hospitality.
Training for this largely female profession begins when a young woman is between 15 and 18 years old, though geishas of the past started training as young as six. While the 17th century “pleasure quarters” emphasized the geisha’s role as courtesans, the 18th century refocused geishas quarters as refined entertainment centers, showcasing/highlighting dance, song, music, calligraphy, and poetry.
Today, there are fewer than 1,000 practicing geisha, so seeing one on the streets of Tokyo is, frankly, unlikely. However, there are a few very historic hanamachi districts within the city that offer visitors the opportunity to spend an evening in the presence of a geisha and experience the elegance of Japanese culture — events often referred to as Ozashiki banquets.
If you’re hoping to see a geisha, head to Asakusa, one of the city’s most architecturally and culturally historic districts. Home to the famous Sensō-ji Buddhist temple, the Sanja Matsuri festival, and the birthplace of Japan’s entertainment industry, Asakusa is also famous for Kannonura Street, which is your best bet for a tea house that also offers entertainment by a geisha. While an evening performance may run you nearly 20,000 Japanese Yen ($177 USD), you can spot the geishas as they travel to and from work, usually around 6 to 8 p.m. Have your camera ready, but be sure to politely inquire before you snap a shot.
Tokyo’s modern-day transportation hub, Shinbashi, is another geisha hotspot. A bustling commercial district, Shinbashi lacks the traditional charm of Asakusa, but is still home to a few remaining Ozashiki banquets — where visitors can experience an evening of entertainment that includes dancing, singing, music, and poetry.
While the city’s Kagurazaka district was once revered for its large number of geisha dwellings, the geisha population has since dwindled. Now home to Waseda University and the University of Tokyo, Kagurazaka is well-known among students, expats, and foodies. That said, the district has maintained a few of its geisha houses, making it a potential for those interested in this unique cultural experience.