Visitors to Kyoto are thrilled to see real live geishas walking around the temples and through the ancient streets; the thing is, these most often aren’t actually the real thing. Young Japanese tourists go to dress-up parlors where they rent costumes, get styled and make-up for the day, then walk the streets giggling as tourists ask to take photographs of them. Fake or not, the girls are all beautiful, as are the boys who do it too (and it is sometimes hard to see that they are boys under all that make-up and finery). 

I also saw young couples walking around in traditional kimonos, which they had also rented for the day, and found out that anyone wearing a kimono (Japanese or otherwise) immediately gets a discount in stores in Kyoto.

Anyone can go to one of these parlors and rent out a kimono, or go the whole hog and see how they’d look as a geisha, then spend the day wrapped up in a romantic Memoir of a Geisha fantasy. 

You can see real geishas in Japan they just aren’t likely to be wandering the streets of Kyoto in full regalia. For an authentic experience, you can catch a dinner show with Maiko, young girls who are learning the art of the geisha. I went to a dinner show at Gion Hatanaka, with course after course of traditional Kyoto cuisine, unlimited sake, traditional music and dancing. The girls were spectacularly pretty in full make-up, kimonos as valuable as a Kyoto house, and jewels worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite the bulk and length of their silk kimonos, they are effortlessly graceful, you can’t help but be mesmerized as they slowly dance before you. 

Part of the show is based around drinking games, where the maiko coquettishly tease in sparse English. Every interaction with them is charming and you can imagine that everyone must fall in love with them because they are so attentive and lovely. I’m not a drinking game person really, but there I was, playing a clapping game that I didn’t really understand that inevitably left me having to gulp down a glass of beer and being told to make monkey-like gestures. It was fun and very confusing, which pretty much describes much of my surreal and amazing time in Kyoto. 

If you want to recreate geisha style at home, visit the Nishijin Textile Center. There you’ll find artisans weaving and painting silk, as they create kimonos, ties, purses, wall-hangings and other beautiful objects that you’ll want to take home. There are kimono fashion shows every 45 minutes, which are truly beautiful, and plenty of retailers spread over two floors. As one of only three non-Japanese people there (the other two were my traveling companions), I’m not sure that this is very well known amongst western visitors, but it was just fabulous. I picked up a cotton kimono for under $40, though I lusted after the many beautiful silk ones that had been painted on site.