Welcome to TOKI's third and final installment in our series on geisha in Japan! If you missed the first or second, be sure to check these out first! 

The Life of a Geisha

The History of Geisha in Japanese Culture

Today's topic is probably the most important for our readers making plans to go to Japan: How to prepare for and participate in a geisha dinner. What should you wear? What will happen during the dinner? What interactions can you expect?


The entryway to a ryotei. ©TOKI 

The entryway to a ryotei. ©TOKI 

how should I prepare?

So you've decided to take part in a formal Japanese dinner, maybe at a tea house. What should you wear for an event like this? While you probably don't need to wear your absolute best for this, you should still avoid overly casual clothes such as jeans and shorts. (If you're staying at a ryokan, then a robe called a yukata may be provided in your room for you to wear.) Also, remember that like many places in Japan, you will be removing your shoes upon entering, so make sure to wear clean socks. You may also be joining in some games later, so make sure you can move around! 

Kaiseki Dinner

For formal occasions in Japan, a traditional kaiseki (会席) dinner is often served, a style where a number of small and relatively simple dishes are served one at a time on small plates, rather than all at all at once in large portions. Kaiseki is considered the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, embodying many fundamental aspects of Japanese culture. For example, Japanese attention to season is reflected in the choice of food, as well as the decor in the room.

A traditional Japanese room called a  washitsu , with  tatami  flooring and a  tokonoma  alcove. ©TOKI

A traditional Japanese room called a washitsu, with tatami flooring and a tokonoma alcove. ©TOKI

A typical kaiseki dinner may include the following:

  • Shokuzen-shu, a kind of sweet alcohol
  • Appetizers
  • Suimono (Soup)
  • Sashimi (Uncooked, hand-prepared fish slices)
  • Nimono (Boiled Dish)
  • Yakimono (Grilled Dish)
  • Agemono (Deep Fried Dish)
  • Mushimono (Steamed Dish)
  • Sunomono (Vinegared Dish)
  • Shokuji set - Rice, Miso Soup, and Tsukemono (pickled vegetables)
  • Dessert - usually a seasonal fruit

You'll notice that the series of main dishes are all based off the fundamental methods of cooking in Japanese cuisine, each with its own unique properties. 


Traditional performances

After you've had dinner, there will often be a chance for you to enjoy watching a variety of performances of traditional Japanese arts. This might include:

  • Shamisen (三味線) - a three-stringed Japanese lute played using a bachi (撥) or a plectrum, similar in basic construction to a guitar or banjo, which came from China through Okinawa around the 16th century.
  • Nihon buyo (日本舞踊) - literally meaning Japanese dance, a traditional art form developed over many centuries, and unlike some other Japanese dance forms, meant exclusively for stage performances. It also has its origins in Kabuki and Noh, traditional forms of Japanese theater.
  • Taiko (太鼓) - a familiar term to many, referring to traditional Japanese drums, a musical tradition dating back possibly as far as the 6th century.
Japanese traditional dance,  Nihon buyo , is typically accompanied by a shamisen player and a vocalist. ©TOKI

Japanese traditional dance, Nihon buyo, is typically accompanied by a shamisen player and a vocalist. ©TOKI

ozashiki asobi (お座敷遊び, Party Games)

At functions attended by geisha, there are often a variety of party games that geisha will engage in with the guests! Here are the basic rules of a few common games that don't require you to know Japanese!

  • Tora Tora Tora (とらとら / 虎々)- 2 players. This game is similar to rock-paper-scissors, but instead played with symbols for the Old Woman, who beats the Samurai, who beats the Tiger, who beats the Old Woman! For this game however, the two players stand on opposite sides of a screen, and often times a geisha will play music on a shamisen while singing the Tora Tora Tora song. As the song ends, the two players pop out from behind the screen and reveal their choice! 
  • Konpira Fune Fune (金比羅船々)- 2 players. This is also a simple yet engaging game for visitors to Japan with little linguistic knowledge. It involves the two players sitting on opposite sides of a small table, which has a small box on top of it. While a geisha plays the game's accompanying song on the shamisen, the two players take turns in rhythm putting their hand out on the box. If the box is there, the player should put out "paper," but if the box is not there, they should put out "rock." However, on any turn, either player is allowed to take the box (keeping the rhythm going!), and if the other player plays paper when the box is gone, or conversely plays rock when the box is still there, that player loses. It's a fun way to test your concentration!  
  • Tōsenkyo (投扇興) - any number of players. This game is more of a test of your hand-eye coordination! It involves just a few props. Typically, your host will set up a small figurine of a sensu, a kind of Japanese folding fan, on top of a small wood block. You'll sit a few feet away from it, and using an actual sensu, you'll try to toss it so that it glides into the figurine and knocks it over! Despite the simple premise, it's harder than it sounds, since the fan will flip over in the air!
Playing  Konpira Fune Fune . ©TOKI

Playing Konpira Fune Fune. ©TOKI

Arranging fans for a game of Tōsenkyo. ©TOKI

Arranging fans for a game of Tōsenkyo. ©TOKI

things not to do when interacting with a geisha

Most of these things should be quite obvious, but here are a few social faux pas to avoid when interacting with a geisha at a dinner event.

  • Do not ask a geisha personal questions. Geisha are intentionally friendly and hospitable with guests as part of their job, but they are also trained to stay relatively anonymous, and avoid crossing a social boundary that exists between a professional host and guests.
  • Do not make any kind of sexual advances or attempt to offer a geisha money in exchange for sexual services. This should be the most obvious, not only because prostitution has been illegal in Japan for quite some time, but also because it is rude and demeans the geisha's profession. Any behavior of this kind will ruin the experience for you, the host, and all the other guests.

Things you should do when interacting with geisha

  • Be respectful. Pay attention to the performance and show your appreciation for the hospitality your host is providing.
  • Participate in the games and activities. This is also rare opportunity to enjoy some games and recreation unique to Japanese culture. 
  • Have fun! Most importantly, remember that although this is a relatively formal setting, the overall purpose is to have a good time. A geisha's primary role in these types of events is to create a lively and enjoyable atmosphere for the guests, so make the best of this opportunity to both relax and learn a little about a different culture.

And last of all, do consider checking out an opportunity to participate in a dinner with a geisha through TOKI! For more information, check out this page!