For such a strong, cultural icon of Japan, it can be incredibly difficult to spot geisha. At times, it can feel a bit like going on a human safari. Not that I'm suggesting you should try to spot and view geisha for entertainment purposes the same way you might try to spot the Big Five in Africa, but the irony of a female entertainer being the subject of entertainment when merely trying to get around town is not lost of me.
To increase your odds of seeing a geisha short of parting with a generous amount of money, you have to be in the right place at the right time. It might sound obvious, but if you just show up in Japan and expect to see geisha, you'll be disappointed.
Kyoto is certainly not the only place to see geisha, but its hanamachi (geisha districts) are considered to be the most prestigious. Located throughout the Gion district of Kyoto, most of the geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) will be getting to their evening appointments around 5:45-6pm. I got lucky and took this photo at 6:05pm.
You'll be surprised how quickly a geisha or maiko can come and go. For someone dressed so elaborately and with such fine precision in their makeup, they can be quite ninja-like even though they look quite different than all throngs of tourists. It truly can be a bit paparazzi-ish, so just prepare for that in advance. Be respectful, take your photo, and consider yourself lucky for even seeing one of these living cultural treasures.