Dinner with a Geisha: A One-of-a-Kind Tokyo Experience
The geisha is an iconic symbol from Japan that’s widely recognized around the world, yet little understood. A tradition that goes back over 250 years, the geisha arts are gradually disappearing, but there are still places in Japan where one can enjoy an authentic geisha experience. Today, most geisha are located in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital city, where they are known as geiko. However, there are certain areas of Tokyo where geisha can still be found in modern times.
Continue reading to learn more about where to find this rich cultural tradition Tokyo, what to expect when you get there, and how to make the most of your experience.
What Is a Geisha?
Geisha are female entertainers who specialize in the Japanese cultural arts, including the playing of traditional instruments, song, and dance. They are also masters of conversation and hospitality, which has created something of a misconception in western culture that geisha are a type of courtesan or escort. On the contrary, geisha are and have always been highly respected in Japanese society. Historically, many geisha have even gone on to marry powerful samurai and politicians due to their social status and skill as a hostess.
The typical duties of a geisha include entertaining their guests with games, conversation, and wordplay; performing song, dance, or an instrument; and serving drinks — as well as drinking with the clientele. In fact, geisha are famed for their ability to drink the average person under the table. However, these kinds of activities are typically reserved for private clientele, mostly Japanese businesspeople.
However, at a geisha dinner experience, expats can enjoy the best of traditional geisha entertainment in a comfortable setting, even without Japanese language skills.
Where to See Geisha in Tokyo
Although the number of authentic geisha in Tokyo are dwindling, there are still specific areas where geisha services can be found.
Tokyo’s Kagurazaka district is one of the best places to experience a rare geisha sighting and is home to a number of establishments offering geisha services, including Yukimoto, a ryotei restaurant specializing in traditional cuisine accompanied by geisha entertainment. Be sure to make a reservation in advance to request their geisha services.
At Ichimatsu in Asakusa, enjoy a geisha dinner in a gorgeous wooden villa modeled after traditional Kyoto-style townhouses. The historical neighborhood offers many attractions for before and after dinner, including Sensoji temple, Kaminarimon gate, and the Nakamise shopping street.
Kaga is another Kagurazaka establishment specializing in dinner and geisha entertainment. Their private dining rooms and spacious banquet halls make this the perfect setting for anything from business to special occasion dinners.
Kyorakutei in the upscale Coredo Muromachi center in Nihonbashi is home to a special event space where visitors can enjoy a geisha performance, traditional party games, and take a commemorative photo — all for a reasonable price. Although dinner is not included, the activity can be combined with a traditional kimono rental for an unforgettable experience.
Not to be mistaken with the beef bowl restaurant chain of the same name, Yoshinoya geisha house in the Omori Kaigan Seaside district is a place where young women have trained in the geisha arts for over a century. Known as the Omori hanamachi, at its peak the area flourished with hundreds of geisha. While Yoshinoya specializes in the booking of geisha services for private events, they do periodically host public events on site.
What to Expect at a Geisha Dinner
A geisha dinner is the highest form of cultural entertainment and hospitality in Japan and is divided into three main portions.
The first is dinner, typically a kaiseki ryori meal, the traditional Japanese equivalent of haute cuisine. Kaiseki dining is based around small courses made with high-quality ingredients, exquisitely prepared to highlight the natural flavor and seasonality of each dish.
Following dinner, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a performance of song or dance. This may include the playing of traditional Japanese string instruments such as the shamisen and koto or taiko drums, or the stage performance of an elegant dance called Nihon buyo, which is derived from Japanese theater arts including kabuki and noh.
The final portion of a geisha dinner is the ozashiki asobi, or traditional party games. The games are simple and easy to play in pairs or small groups, often accompanied by a geisha playing the shamisen. Ozashiki asobi games are unique in that they are so old that they are no longer played by most modern Japanese people.
Proper Etiquette at a Tokyo Geisha House
Because a geisha experience is the highest form of Japanese cultural entertainment, you’ll want to come armed with the proper manners and etiquette.
Attire Guidelines for a Geisha Dinner
Most geisha experiences take place in a formal setting such as a kaiseki restaurant, banquet hall, or ryokan inn so be sure to dress nicely. If you’re staying overnight at a ryokan, the inn may provide a yukata to wear during your stay. Otherwise, formalwear is not strictly required, but you’ll want to skip the jeans and t-shirt and opt for something dressy but comfortable enough to allow for ease of movement during the games portion of the evening. Also be sure to wear clean socks and check that they’re free of any holes as you’ll be expected to remove your shoes before entering the Japanese-style tatami rooms.
A Little Japanese Ability Goes a Long Way
If possible, brush up on a few dinner etiquette phrases, including itadakimasu (EE-tah-da-kee-MOSS), which is said before the meal, and gochisou-sama deshita (go-chee-SOH sah-ma DESH-ta) for after the meal. And, of course, there’s arigatou gozaimasu (AH-ree-GA-toh go-ZAI-MOSS) for saying “thank you”.
Remember to Have Fun
After dinner, don’t hesitate to join in the party games. The ozashiki asobi are very simple and easy to play, even for those with limited Japanese language ability. As the ultimate masters in the art of hospitality, the geisha are there to guide you comfortably through the games undeterred by any language barriers.
Don’t Miss Out on a Uniquely Japanese Experience
A geisha performance is a unique experience, even among all the unique experiences that Japan has to offer. If you have the chance to partake in this special form of dinner entertainment, you’ll be able to enjoy a side of traditional Japanese culture that is impossible to find outside of Japan.