Known their thorough training in dancing, singing, and the art of conversation, geisha are surrounded by an air of mystery.
So, what exactly is a Japanese geisha, and what does it take for someone to ascend to their level of artistry? Here, we look at their customs, the kind of training they undergo, and the mistaken stereotypes which have been attributed to the queens of the ‘floating world’.
What Is A Geisha?
The word ‘geisha’ comes from putting two characters together: ‘gei’, which means ‘art’ and ‘sha’, which means ‘person’. The Kyoto dialect refers to them with two different terms according to age and training. The geiko are those older than 20, while the maiko are between 15 to 20 years old.
Many geisha go through shikomi, a training stage which can last up to a year before they are allowed to become maiko. For training, a geisha girl is taught to sing, play traditional Japanese instruments, dance, and entertain with lighthearted conversation.
Though there used to be male geisha known as taikomochi, their training is different. Also called hokan, these male geisha specialised in storytelling, conversation, and appreciation of the tea ceremony. However, their numbers have declined. There are now only four taikomochi in Tokyo and just one in Kyoto.
One of the things you’ll notice right away is the striking way that the geisha dress and do their makeup. Their stark white face paint, contrasting with their red lips and dazzling kimono, draws the attention of many a tourist in Gion Corner. Their dramatic look has even inspired contemporary beauty bloggers to create geisha doll makeup tutorials—but not all geisha are dressed according to the same customs.
It is actually the maiko who is more elaborately dressed. A maiko is seen to be a novice who still needs to build connections and encourage patronage, so they often have elaborate hairstyles adorned with cascading floral ornaments called hana kanzashi. This hairstyle takes two hours to complete, and is done every week. Geiko have simpler accessories and are allowed to wear wigs.
These wigs usually cover the back of a geiko’s neck, so you can also spot a maiko by looking for unpainted skin at the nape. These unpainted lines are meant to make the neck look longer. A geiko’s kimono sash, known as an obi, is folded into a box shape, while a maiko’s obi hangs down her back.
Why Is The Geisha World So Secretive?
The secrecy of the geisha revolves around the concepts of exclusivity and refinement. Geisha training is seen as a passage of tradition and history, not just skill. They remain some of the few who still know how to play traditional Japanese instruments. Preservation of these dying arts is a duty for the geisha, meaning they hold themselves responsible for passing on ancient Japanese songs and dances to new apprentices.
The reputation of the geisha has also suffered from the link to prostitution. It must be emphasised that courtesans are not geisha, and there is no such thing as a geisha bar where you walk in and pick a girl to entertain you. For the geisha, sex is not something they will ever offer to a client. Though prostitutes in the pleasure districts called themselves geisha in the Edo period, this custom fell out of favour.
Even the virginity auction called mizuage, described in detail in Memoirs of A Geisha, has long ceased to be practised. It is these misconceptions, along with the aversion to having traditions exoticised, which explains why they are very careful with guarding their customs.
Where Can You Find Geisha Today?
Geisha cannot be found all over Japan. Most of them reside in Tokyo and Kyoto. In Kyoto, there are five geisha districts, also known as kagai: Kamishichiken is the largest, Gion Kobu is the largest, and the other three are Gion Higashi, Miyagawa-cho, and Ponto-cho. Tokyo has six districts, the most active of which are Kagurazaka and Asakusa.
In Kyoto, it is estimated that there are a total of around 186 geiko, 73 maiko, and 132 ochaya. An ochaya is the teahouse where geishas entertain. It takes some time and socialising to meet a geisha the traditional way. Usually, you won’t be able to get into an ochaya unless you’ve built up a good relationship with the okaasan, who is the owner of the ochaya.
If you’re lucky, you can score a reservation at one of the exclusive restaurants where geisha entertain. Geisha also perform in Kyoto’s annual dance festivals, so if you want to catch a glimpse of their skill, go to one of the dance events. If you miss one, you can schedule a trip to see the next event, as each kagai holds a separate festival to show off their talent.