Understanding The Geisha of Japan

Almost everyone has heard about a film and a book named Memoirs of a Geisha that tell the story about the life of geisha girl in Japan during WWII. It is probably the most famous geisha book and a film that is well-known in the western world.

The book is about a beautiful story about a woman who was forced to become a musician and a dancer, who didn’t have any choice, was sold to the rich man and earned her place in a prestigious geisha world.

However, it is just a story. And I bet that you are wondering what actually is a geisha girl and are there still real geisha communities in Japan? Don’t worry all your answers are going to be answered.

In this post, I am going to talk about facts and history about Geisha of Japan, and where to find modern geisha while roaming around in Japan. So grab a cup of coffee or tea, and scroll down to start reading.

Geisha walking on a street

1. Geisha vs Maiko vs Oiran

What or who is a geisha? A Japanese geisha can be translated as ‘performing artist’, ‘person of art’ or ‘artisan’, and is a professional entertainer who was trained in various performance since a young age.

There are, also, other names for geisha such as geiko (Kyoto) and geigi (Kanto area). However, in Japanese, they mean exactly the same as geisha just in a different dialect.

Meanwhile, maiko and oiran are completely different terms. Maiko is an apprentice geisha and usually translates as ‘dancing child’. Her training used to start at 3 or 5 years old.

However, in modern Japan, maiko training start at around 15 or 18 years old. All maikos have to be under 21 years old.

It is very easy to distinguish geisha and maiko based on their make up. Geisha makeup is more extravagant than maiko. Geisha wear big wigs and have all lips painted, whilst maiko have naturally styled hair, wear pink blush and only paint half of their lips.

Maiko can only become geisha after mizuage ceremony. Mizuage translates as ‘hoisting from water’ that signifies maiko coming of age ceremony.

During the ceremony, the senior geisha, who is in charge of training maiko, cut topknot of maiko hair and name her as geisha.

This ceremony is usually associated with ‘selling’/losing virginity to maiko patron who sponsored the ceremony. When maiko loses her virginity, she wasn’t allowed to see her patron anymore.

However, after 1959 prostitution laws, the practice of losing virginity was made illegal.

There are tons of people who still think that geisha are prostitutes, and this is completely wrong. Also, geisha sometimes are referred to as oiran that is, also, wrong. Oiran were courtesans who were sometimes called yuujo – a woman of pleasure or prostitute.

Oiran were higher ranked prostitutes who knew about performing arts and politics. This group of women disappeared from Japan as prostitution became illegal after 1959.

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Two Geishas walking

2. Short History of Geisha

The first geisha were male who were called taikomochi or hokan. Those men were attendants to the Japanese feudal lords in the 13th century.

They had to entertain were lords while playing musical instruments, dancing, storytelling and hosting the tea ceremonies. Due to the social restrictions until 18th-century women weren’t allowed to entertain at the parties.

In the 1700s the first geisha women had appeared in the ‘pleasure districts’ in Japan. The first group of geisha was selling their dance and singing skills as they didn’t want to participate in prostitution.

As some sources say, geisha were so successful that they stole business from prostitutes (oiran) and brothels considered them as a big threat.

The government favored registered prostitutes (oiran) and brothels (geisha didn’t belong to any of the groups) and made strict rules regarding geisha such as performance hours, style of dress and they weren’t allowed to be hired singly as the government wanted to make sure that sex isn’t involved in the party.

However, more and more lords started to desire to have geisha in their parties as those women were like forbidden flowers.

After some time, geisha were acknowledged as female entertainers and weren’t allowed to sell sex. Anyone who tried or sold sex were imprisoned.

This law was made in order to protect high-class registered prostitutes (oiran). However, in the 1800s geisha became even more popular and prostitutes (oiran) fell out of demand.

Not every geisha girl was made into the geisha because of her own will. During the poor times in Japan, a huge number of families sold their daughters to the geisha house – okiya.

Those poor girls had to be trained for several years and after becoming geisha they had to repay a geisha house for the cost of training. Lots of geisha were in big debt and tried to find sponsors who were willing to help them to repay ‘debt’.

During WWII and for a short period after it, geisha weren’t needed and most of the geisha houses were closed down. Also, more and more prostitutes were pretending to be geisha to get some money from American soldiers.

Anyways, today geisha is a profession and young girls chose to become a part of it after junior high school. Only most dedicated girls become a real geisha – high-skilled entertainers and a symbol of Japanese culture.

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Geisha in Osaka taking selfies

3. How to Become a Geisha?

The first thing every girl has to do in order to become a geisha is to apply and be accepted into a geisha house (okiya). The woman who owns a geisha house is called okami or okasan (mother in Japanese) and she pays for the geisha training.

Training to be a geisha takes about 6 years or even more. During those years girls have to study the art of tea ceremony and hosting, dancing, singing and playing musical instruments.

Most of the times maiko lives in the geisha house with her geisha family that includes another maiko, retired geisha and housemaids.

During this time maiko are allowed to perform and build a relationship with clients so they can find their sponsors. After that there is a collar changing ceremony: maiko receives a colourfully patterned collar for her kimono that usually is worn by geisha.

It used to be lots of geisha houses/schools but nowadays there aren’t many left. Modern maiko usually studies at Kyoto geisha school as the city is popular for geisha spotting.

There are also tours that include Kyoto geisha experience. On these tours, you can experience geisha training, wear traditional clothes and learn more about geisha culture.

I highly recommend taking one of these tours as you will be able to see with your own eyes the geisha house, traditional geisha clothes, learn the history of geisha and try their training for a couple of hours.

If you aren’t a fan of tours or traveling on a budget, don’t worry. There are quite a few geisha teahouses in Kyoto where you can meet real geisha and enjoy great tea.

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three geisha smiling

4. Working as a Geisha in a Modern Japan

Today, geisha’s primary job is to be a hostess in a party or in the special geisha teahouses. Usually, geisha is hired to participate in a business party by wealthy men who are trying to come up with a deal.

Geisha are popular among businessmen as it means that they are rich enough to afford a geisha and it is worth making a deal with them.

Wondering how much a geisha costs? Well, it really depends but the most popular rate is between USD $200 and $300 per guest for two hours. Every geisha that attend a geisha party isn’t allowed to speak about it.

The majority of this kind of parties are held in the geisha districts (hanamachi or ‘flower towns’) that are located in Kyoto and Tokyo. The geisha districts are filled with teahouses (o-chaya), inns (ryokan) and restaurants (ryotei) where geisha perform.

While attending a party, every geisha have to follow tons of rules. Geisha isn’t allowed to eat with her guests while she is working. She always has to make sure that all her guests are happy and receive the attention from her.

Also, geisha has to make the conversation going and be ready to tell various stories in order to keep the conversation with her guests. To addition, she has to make sure that her clients’ sake cups are never empty.

Geisha has to be always ready to perform the song, dance or play the musical instrument. She isn’t allowed to relax and always have to be elegant and subtle.

If men are having a conflict, she can’t leave or panic. A real geisha has to know how to smooth things out without clients knowing that she is doing that. The party to a geisha can be a really stressful and long work day.

5. How to hire a Geisha?

Now let’s talk more about how to hire a geisha. So hiring a geisha isn’t an easy process and requires lots of calls and agreements.

First, the person, who wants to hire a geisha for a party, needs to call a geisha house and talk to the geisha mother (okasan) or can call a geisha teahouse where geisha is working.

Second thing, geisha mother or teahouse mistress calls the central office that handles geisha bookings and takes the payment from the client for the geisha services. After these two things, geisha can attend the party.

The central office is a very important organization as all the payments go through the office. To addition to the hire charges, central office charges geisha clients for her precious time, and all her tips go to the office.

Also, every geisha has to be registered to the central office if she wants to participate in the geisha parties and receive payments. Almost everything what geisha earns goes to the geisha house (okiya) maintenance, her makeup, expensive hair accessories, and kimono.

The more beautiful kimono and hair accessories geisha have, the bigger the chances to get noticed and hired by extremely wealthy clients.

Geisha is known for her appearance and her main job is to look good. Lots of people call geisha a living piece of art. And there is no need to argue about that.

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Geisha pic holding umbrella

6. A Geisha Makeover

Getting ready takes a lot of geisha time as it is a slow and long process. Every geisha spend tons of money on their custom made kimono that are different from regular kimono. A geisha kimono could cost thousands of dollars.

Geisha kimono is usually more colourful than the regular one and exposes the neckline that is considered as the most sensual part of the woman. Regular kimono usually covers up the neckline making a woman look less sexy.

Another interesting fact about geisha kimono is that it is impossible to put it on by herself. There are so many layers and wrapping involved that it usually requires at least three people to put it on.

Can you imagine asking several people to help you to put your uniform every single day you go to work? Sound crazy, doesn’t it?

Maiko usually wears wooden clogs (okobo) that stops kimono from dragging on the ground. Walking in wooden clogs with narrow kimono is a very difficult thing and is included in geisha training.

When maiko becomes geisha, she isn’t required to wear clogs anymore. Clogs like this one are usually swapped for Zori as it’s easier to walk with them.

White makeup is one of the geisha trademarks as geisha face always has to be painted white. Decades ago this white paint was very harmful to the skin, but today this threat has disappeared and is safe to use.

Another makeup trademark is red lips: geisha can’t use any other color to paint her lips apart from red. After several years in the career, geisha is allowed to wear lighter makeup (‘western style’) instead of traditional.

The hairstyle is a big part of the geisha makeover. Geisha usually wear wigs that can weight several kilograms so, during the geisha training, young girls usually have to learn how to walk with a wig and look graceful. The majority of geisha names it as the hardest part of the training.

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7. Modern Geisha

These days geisha is an ‘exotic’ profession that isn’t very much practiced in real life. There are probably less than 1000 registered geisha in all Japan.

Most of the geisha work with tour agencies and only dress up just for tourists. This kind of geisha ‘work’ more practiced in Tokyo, whilst Kyoto tries to protect the geisha tradition.

More and more former geisha try to come forward and release a book about their lives.

However, not many of them succeed in doing that. Till this day the most successful and famous geisha is Mineko Iwasaki. She is one of the most famous geisha in the world.

Mineko Iwasaki is a former geisha from Kyoto who is widely known for her performances for royalty and celebrities.

She is also known as a very successful businesswoman as she had managed to own a geisha house when she was only a maiko.

Mineko Iwasaki was one of the several former geisha that author of ‘Memoirs of Geisha’ had interviewed for the background information. Also, later on, Iwasaki had published her own autobiography called ‘Geisha of Gion’ that became a worldwide bestseller.

Obviously, not every former geisha is able to achieve such a big success as Mineko Iwasaki.

However, all modern geisha let the world to get to know about them and their profession. It is very important to keep a geisha tradition alive as it’s the part of the human heritage.

Geisha Posing

8. Geisha Symbolism in Modern Japan

Today geisha is more than just a profession. You probably have seen somewhere in the shop a geisha doll, but have you ever thought what the doll symbolizes? Correct, it definitely symbolizes Japanese traditions. And what else?

Actually, geisha has always been and is a symbol of beauty, elegance and a mystery. Geisha represents feminine power, intrigue, desire, and modest sexuality. Geisha symbolizes an art piece that is fragile and can’t be easily picked and touched.

Lots of men wanted to ‘own’ a geisha but as geisha belonged to the geisha house no man could touch her without geisha mother knowing. Due to this reason the first geisha doll was made.

The geisha doll was able to be bought and taken home. Technically speaking, every man was able to ‘own’ a geisha. That is the real meaning of the geisha doll. Of course, these days it is just a souvenir from Japan.

3 geisha smilling

9. Meeting a Geisha in Japan

As I had mentioned above there are places in Kyoto and Tokyo where you can spot a real modern geisha. And Kyoto is the best place for that.

Every year Kyoto hosts several festivals where geisha and maiko perform or serve tea and sweets. All the days for festivals can be found in the official Kyoto page.

Also, the Kyoto district called Gion is the most famous area to go geisha ‘watching’ as the area is filled with inns and teahouses. If you don’t want endlessly roam around the Gion, go watch a show at Gion Corner and see maiko performing.

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Geisha world is mysterious and fascinating, and may not be truly understood by a westerner. Geisha is a Japanese symbol and tradition, a living piece of art and relict that needs to be protected and respected.

I hope you had enjoyed the article and got to know more about geisha.

We would love to hear from you. Please, comment below with your feedback or questions.

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