Beautiful Miyako Odori in Kyoto- See the Most Famous Dance of Geishas



image courtesy of Nullumayulife


Have you ever wanted to see a real Geisha? In Gion area of Kyoto you wikll have a great chance to see their wonderful performance. Only for few days in April you will be able to see the most famous dance of Geishas – the Miyako Odori. From this article you will learn more about this beautiful event and tradition.

In one of his artworks, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), a Post Impressionism painter and illustrator, depicted female dancers energetically performing the “French cancan” dancing with their legs kicking up high while manipulating their long skirts and petticoats. He also made a lot of ad posters featuring popular cancan dancers performing in Moulin Rouge, which is best known as the birthplace of the cancan dancing. He was such a fervent fan of their dance performances. If there had been a special dancing competition between France and Japan at the time when Lautrec lived and the French artist had seen elegant Japanese female dancers clad in beautiful kimono on the stage performing in a modest and demure way, I wonder which group of dancers he may have chosen for his preference?

Miyako Odori Dance Performances by Geishas in Gion

Unlike French cancan dancers in the cabarets of Paris, Japanese geisha and maiko dancers usually perform only at small private gatherings in the special establishments called “お茶屋(ochaya)”, which translate literally to “tea houses” in English. Ochaya are normally located in the “花街(hanamachi)” geisha districts in Kyoto. In Ochaya, guests, mostly with high status, are entertained with traditional music performances by geishas and have good conversation with them, so the gatherings are very exclusive. To gain admittance to the ochaya, you have to be accompanied by its patron or yourself if you are already established patron. Being rich enough to pay for various services offered by geisha is not enough.


But during a specific period of time, geisha communities in Kyoto put on public performances, which provides ordinary people with good opportunities to see the geisha and maiko do their elegant dance performances, and at a reasonable cost. The most famous performance among them is Miyako Odori, held in April.


Miyako Odori, expressed as “都をどり” in Japanese characters, is one of the four great spring shows organized by “祇園甲部(Gion Kobu)”. It is one of the five great hanamachi communities in Kyoto. Miyako means capital city, and Odori refers to dancing. This naming sounds good and reasonable when you know about how the dancing shows originated.


The dance performances began in 1872, four years after relocating the Imperial Court to Tokyo current capital city of Japan, from Kyoto, which had remained as Japan’s central city for more than a thousand years since 794. People in Kyoto at that time felt ashamed at being treated as “demoted”. With the depression and frustration pervasive over the old capital city, the “芸妓(geiko)”, a title which Kyoto’s geisha would like to be called rather than “芸者(geisha)”, decided to gather every year and remove the gloom among the people in Kyoto.

image courtesy of Joi Ito

What to See at Miyako Odori performance?

One dancing gig consists of eight scenes, and each scene represents the life of a geiko or “舞妓(maiko)”, which is a title used as apprenticed geiko, living in the Kyoto geisha districts. Setting in traditional places like temples and shrines on stage, each performance goes on gracefully and elegantly describing the seasonal changes of the year in Kyoto. The dancers also sing and act out short dramas to the accompaniment of an orchestra playing traditional instruments. The plays are based on the Tale of Genji – a classic masterpiece of Japanese literature written in the 11 century or some kabuki stories from the Edo period.

image courtesy of Nullumayulife

A huge amount of efforts are put in to production of various gorgeous costumes that make their dances look more elegant. All the geiko and maiko show audiences their performances with their faces elaborately made up and their hair done perfectly. Unlike the French cancan dancing, Miyako Odori has no high profile movements like kicking their legs up high and quickly. Japanese performers control the movements by using their hands and kimono costumes they wear. However, performances with slow movements make it more difficult to hide any mistakes on stage. Every movement has to look perfect. Preparing for the Miyako Odori shows needs hard work and practice. But joining in the dance performance awards the participating geiko and maiko a great honor.So, there is a fierce competition among the geiko and maiko for the key roles in the shows though the training is very demanding.


Also, the show itself serves as a great kimono show. Throughout the performance, about 60 performers go to the stage in beautiful outfits of kimono, which colors and patterns go with the themes of their acts.And the kimono worn by the geiko from the Gion Kobu geisha community are among the most elaborate and expensive.

How to Buy Tickets

The Miyako Odori show takes place four times a day at 12:30, at 14:00, at 15:30 and at 4:50, from 1st to 30th of April at the “祇園甲部歌舞練場(Gion Kobu Kaburen-jo)” theater near the “八坂神社(Yasaka Shrine)”.The ticket will cost you ¥4,000 for a first class seat or ¥2,000 for a second class.


If you are a first class ticket purchaser and add ¥500 to the ticket price, you can enjoy some extra services: taking a saunter in a very beautiful Japanese garden in the theater, touring a kimono exhibition and participating in a tea ceremony accompanied by a maiko.


The Gion Kobu Kaburen-jo theater is located about 8 minute walk from Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Main Line.

Concluding Remarks

Actually, the number of geiko across the country is decreasing. Fewer and fewer girls would like to dedicate their youth to the hard and endless training in music and dances to master the supreme arts of geiko. Something should be done to appeal to the younger generations for this wonderful tradition to continue it forever.

An Ultimate Idea Source for Your Kyoto Stay!

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Have two kids. Teach English at an “eikaiwa” school more than a decade Love cake.

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