Experience: Miyako Odori

Kyoto is home to five hanamachi, or geisha neighborhoods. Every year, each neighborhood’s geisha (or geiko, as they are known in Kyoto) and maiko put on a demonstration of their accomplished skills. Tickets sell out quick but last year, I was lucky enough to score a pair of tickets for a Sunday afternoon show by the Gion Kobu geiko district at their theater in southern Gion.

The Miyako Odori, put on by the Gion Kobu geiko and maiko, is arguably Kyoto’s most famous geisha performance. Meaning “Dance of the Capital”, the event was first held in 1872, as a way to jump-start interest in the city again after the Imperial Family up and moved (taking with them many supporting businesses) to the new capital city of Tokyo in 1869. It was actually the first time the district’s geiko has ever performed in public.

There are four shows a day, each lasting about 60 minutes – 12:30pm, 2:00pm, 3:30pm and 4:50pm. It can be quite stressful on the geiko and maiko, as the rigorous schedule lasts all thirty days of April. Tickets for the show range from ¥2000 to ¥4500. The lowest price gets you a seat in the back (top) of the theater on tatami mats; there are no actual seat numbers of reserved spots. The next stop up (¥4000) earns you an actual chair, though the only seats left when I purchased our tickets were literally right in front of the “cheap” section. If you add in ¥500 more, you’re treated to tea before the performance, served to you by the maiko themselves.

The inside of the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater before the performance
The inside of the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater before the performance

What’s my verdict on the experience? That’s a tough one. I’m going to add the caveat here that when I attended the Miyako Odori, I was absolutely exhausted and feeling under the weather. I’m pretty sure I nodded off at one moment, and the entire show felt a tad long. No pictures are allowed AT ALL during the performance (hence why no great pictures here) and the music, for some, may be a bit … discordant, one might say. All of that aside, this is a rare chance to see a geiko or a maiko “in action”. Unless you pay a hefty (and I mean hefty) price to attend a private geiko event, chances are this is your only opportunity to see a geiko showcase her artistic skills. I felt privileged to attend, and rather guilty that my attention flagged.

You can get tickets through your Kyoto hotel concierge, through the Kyoto Tourism Office, or by calling the box office directly. If you choose the latter option, they’ll hold the tickets for you at the theater and you don’t have to pay for them until you show up that day. The theater itself (the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater) is located just next door to the Gion Corner Theater, where nightly cultural performances give you a small taste of what a Kyoto maiko can do.

A maiko performs at Gion Corner (NOT in the Miyako Odori)
A maiko performs at Gion Corner (NOT in the Miyako Odori)

3 thoughts on “Experience: Miyako Odori

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  1. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Miyako odori twice before and found it completely enchanting as (perhaps surprisingly) did my husband, The kimono are sensational as is the staging. It was amazing what magical effects could be created. Yes, the music is not for everyone but you just have to suspend disbelief and go with the flow. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Kyoto in April. It’s a uniquely Japanese experience and a real privilege to see geishas performing.

    1. It certainly is a unique experience. I chalk some of my feelings up to my exhaustion that day. If you’ve never seen a geisha or maiko before, it really is a stunning display of both their beauty and their skills. Lucky you to have gone twice!

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