The rickshaw turned dangerously down the lane and from out of the corner of my eye I could barely make out the delicate flutter of a blue silk kimono sleeve and the elegantly powdered white face of its passenger. The narrow streets of Kyoto's Gion district could at any moment reveal the secret world of the Geisha and during my recent trip there I wanted to find out more.
A woman who worked in a teahouse explained to me that, "If you want to see a real Geisha you have to go out just before sunset when they are on their way to work, and if you want a photo you must ask for one. Be polite and do not chase them."
The Gion district of Kyoto is one of the best places to immerse oneself in the mysterious Geisha world, but they are elusive so the task requires much luck.
The history of the mysterious Geisha goes back many centuries but they still do exist. There used to be over 80,000 Geisha but now only about 2,000 remain in all of Japan. When WWII hit all young women had to work in factories to support the war effort and there were far fewer men around to frequent the teahouses, so their numbers dwindled.
The translation of the word Geisha literally means "person of art," and today they are professional entertainers trained in many traditional Japanese cultural practices like singing, dance, tea ceremonies, calligraphy and hospitality. By upholding these traditions, they help keep the old ways alive.
Earlier we had been thrilled when we saw a large group of kimono-clad young women walking across the intersection of a busy street and we ran to catch up with them and request a photo. The girls giggled and said that they were not "real Geisha," but just enjoyed dressing up in the traditional clothing style because they liked the fashion. Camera-wielding tourists can be annoying, but we decided to switch things up and offer to take group photos of the faux-Geishas. It was a great way to enjoy the afternoon and get to meet some young Japanese.
"The white makeup is a good way to tell if someone is a true Geisha or Maiko (apprentice Geisha)" one of the young women explained. So with a renewed sense of determination I clapped my hand onto my camera and marched up the road to find the real thing.
While we strolled the streets of the city in the late afternoon we were happy to find out that it was Hanatoro or "flower and light road" festival time. We were in awe of the blossoming cherry and plum trees resplendent in their flamboyant pinks and creamy whites — their strong sweet fragrance filling the air with the scent of spring.
The grounds of the magnificent Kiyamizodera Temple were buzzing with food vendors and families posing for group photos around the entrance gates. The vendors specialties ranged from the traditional sweet bean paste desserts to mouth-watering veggie rolls and hot sauce. The front of the temple gates were lit up with large, elaborate, glowing paper lanterns, and ornate flower displays gave a feeling that something special was about to happen. As we wandered the temple grounds we stumbled upon a large collection of rocks wearing colourful bibs... known as Jizo Buddhas, protector of travellers, women and children. I hoped that at that moment the Jizo Buddhas heard my wishes to see a Geisha!
A few minutes later as we walked down the path, a rickshaw unexpectedly zoomed out into the street with two passengers. My heart racing, I ran along behind them fearing my legs would give out, but instead the rickshaw did a full 180-degree turn. I found myself staring face to face with two gloriously dressed female passengers and both of them had the full Geisha make-up, hair and kimonos. The look of astonishment on my face must have been evident as I felt one Geisha understood my wish in that fleeting moment. She flashed her shy smile and gave me a graceful wave of her hand and the rickshaw disappeared down the street leaving no trace behind but a beautiful memory.