Many people head to Kyoto and hope to catch a glimpse of the mysterious geisha the city is famous for; yet many leave disappointed, not having seen one. Also, what a lot of tourists don't realize is that if they do spot a "Geisha", it may not actually be a real Geisha, but a tourist wandering around in Geisha attire! (I would know - I was one of these fake "Geisha" during my first trip to Kyoto!)
Another misconception associated with these beautiful ladies is that they are actually GEISHA. But the ones that come to mind at mention of the word - elaborately dressed in lavish kimonos with the traditional white face paint and red lips - are actually not Geisha at all - they are "Geisha-in-training", better known as "Maiko".
So how do you find these lovely ladies and how do you know if they are real if you are lucky enough to spot one?
Look closely! Maiko are unbelievably coy and quick moving about; how they do it is a mystery to me, but I have not been able to get more than a quick glimpse of most of them! So the details you may need to look for when validating a "real" maiko may pass you by quickly!
-Maiko are most often spotted at dusk or evening.
-Head to the Pontocho area of the Gion district for your best chances.
-Real Maiko do not wear watches or jewelry.
-The steps of a real Maiko will be limited to the width of her kimono constricting her movement.
-Maiko will behave exactly as one would expect them to - if you see a Maiko screaming across the street to her friend, she's probably not a real Maiko. Same goes for the one spreading her kimono out so she can take longer strides. And the ones smoking cigarettes...
I have seen a few exceptions to these tips - During my first trip I spotted a very young Maiko all the way at Toei Uzumasa Movie Museum. I mistakenly thought she was a park actress! ("Boy, she's starting work young!" I though to myself!) I chased after the poor little girl with a camera, wondering why she wouldn't sit still for me, only to watch her find her mom and cling to her like her life depended on it. Yes, I was the typical "Baka Gai-jin" (stupid foreigner). I felt awful. But this little girl was an expert of turning her back to me and evading me among the crowds and buildings. Apparently they are seemingly trained to do this at a very young age - and this little girl seemed to already be a pro.
And now, head to Pontocho and go spot some Maiko! (But remember, please be respectful!)