Yeah, so sue me, I bought into that crazy - and kind of horribly orientalist? - awe surrounding the Gion geisha. My mother and I went off to Kyoto which admittedly was a beautiful change from the hype and hustle of Tokyo and headed off to Gion, Kyoto. Armed with cameras and a copy of Memoirs of a Geisha (just kidding), we headed over to the district for a day.
Gion's a long stretch of street with beautiful and very exclusive tea houses lining it on either side so you can't just wander in anywhere and meet these ladies. Usually to get an audience with a geisha or maiko, you have to be super well connected and be willing to pay crazy dollar. They don't just hang out with anyone. If you want to meet a geisha, my advice for you is don't be poor.
how to meet a Gion geisha (or pretend to be one) if you aren't poor
There are opportunities to actually sit down with these professional entertainers as there are some kaiseki (banquets) you can get access to like Kitcho or Hatanaka, but do be prepared to sell your left kidney at a whopping Y42,000+ (i.e. USD$360 or HKD$2790). You can also pay for a day of geisha training/dress up if you're so inclined at places like Kyoto Maiko, which you'll only have to sell a tiny bit of your soul for at about Y11,500 (USD$96 or HKD$740) for a basic package.
other things to do in gion
Along the street however there are some places open to tourists, we wandered into a tea house a little further down that was kind of like a museum, selling vintage kimonos and obis along with gorgeous sepia postcards (one of which I bought naturally, as I do have a postcard problem).
There's also a big temple slash theatre a little ways down on the left called Gion Corner; you can't miss it, it's got a barrier and cherry blossom trees lining the entrance. As we were there during hanami, there was a schedule up with a number of dance performances to celebrate along with other Japanese traditions like tea ceremonies, koto (Japanese harp) and bunraku. My biggest regret is that we didn't get to go see one - it would've been awesome seeing these amazing women in their element.
Aaand as for the title of the post, we were talking with a lady in one of the stores about why there were no geisha around and she basically straight up told us that they never come out since they're constantly harassed by obnoxious photographers. A lot of the houses have little back paths connecting them and so the geisha only very rarely come out onto the main street to avoid the chaos.
I saw this all in action a little later on, where literally every tourist on the street shit themselves when a maiko walked out with a parasol in the dim evening rain. Every single camera was whipped out instantaneously (including mine to be quite perfectly honest) but this chick was a total ninja, shuffling by at the speed of light on these massive platform shoes to get to her next appointment. There's a reason why people always photograph Gion geisha from behind or in a blur, and that's definitely because these ladies could give Usain Bolt a run for his money.
I'll always remember this really horrible sweaty, nasty bearded dude screaming her down in an American accent to stop with the fanciest of the fanciest DSLRs wielded, as he ran alongside her clicking away right in her face. He even ran ahead to cut her off and parked himself in her path. But she didn't even say a thing, she just cut around him and disappeared into another tea house. It was pretty horrible to think that she probably dealt with stuff like this on a regular basis and I felt so, so guilty for being a part of it.
I put away my camera for the rest of the trip through Gion, which was probably one of the best things I did. Because when we emerged to go back to our hotel and were stood at a deserted traffic crossing, a beautiful woman with a painted white face shuffled along and stopped beside me. When I glanced up to look at her in awe, she smiled secretively - hair ornaments bobbing in the red light - and stepped ahead of me onto the zebra crossing.
Travel tune: Kyoto (feat. Lamp) - Aso