What is a Geisha?

December 15, 2021 7 min read

What is a Geisha?

Often mistaken for a courtesan, the geisha is defined by her practice of traditional Japanese arts. She sells her talents to keep rich businessmen company and entertain them on special occasions such as banquets or prestigious parties. Dancing, music and talking - the geisha collects artistic and social qualities. They distinguish themselves by their refinement, their general culture and their beauty.

Discover all about the mysterious and voluptuous world of the geisha as well as their role in the preservation of age-old traditions.

Meaning of the Japanese word "geisha"

The name "geisha" is composed of two characters that can be translated as "art" and "person". The most literal translation would be "person that performs arts". The geisha is thus, above all, a Japanese artist. She has the essential skills to entertain her clients while valuing ancestral traditions. With her delicacy and strength, the geisha is part of the world of flowers and willows (karyūkai).

Apprentice geisha

Apprentice geisha (maiko) in a geisha house (okiya) under the supervision of the "mother" (okâsan).

🌸 Origin and evolution of the geisha profession

The concept of an artistic muse first appeared in 794 during the reign of Emperor Kamu who invited dancers to entertain samurai and warriors. It is this combination of art and entertainment that later gave birth to the geisha we know today.

The trend developed during the Edo era in the ancient capital of Japan. Gradually, the dancers cultivated other talents such as singing, poetry, classical music and the art of conversation. They were often invited to banquets (ozashiki) as ladies-in-waiting to serve sake and entertain the noble guests.

Did you know that the first official geisha were men? Many women, called onna geisha, then joined the profession until they became the majority. It was only in 1800 that the profession became exclusively for women.

Over the years, the profession of geisha was officially recognized and a very strict code of conduct was established. The growth of the profession is closely associated with the emergence of tea houses.

geikoPictures of geiko in Ryuhonji Temple. ©kyoto flowertourism/Flickr.

Whereas they were hundreds of thousands during the Edo period and until the Second World War, geishas are now becoming more and more rare. In the 19th century, there were only 15,000 geisha and today there are only 200, mainly in the Gion area.

In fact, during the war, the government closed the "flower cities" to recruit geishas to work in factories. Moreover, young girls were obliged to finish high school before entering this profession.

If the number of professionals has strongly decreased compared to that time, it seems to have a revival of activity thanks to the media. Thus, the number of apprentice geisha (maiko) is on the rise.

👉 The role of the geisha

The geisha, also called geiko, is a hostess who masters traditional Japanese arts. Being devoted to her country, she embodies the Japanese folklore and culture with refinement and elegance. With a neat appearance, she presents a perfect aesthetic, with elaborate makeup, a perfect bun, a Japanese silk kimono and a fan that she brilliantly handles.

Geisha masters dancing, singing and music. She also plays the shamisen (stringed instrument) and the taiko (drum). The tea ceremony, games, poetry, calligraphy and the art of conversation have no secrets for her. Moreover, her general culture is particularly rich. Lastly, until the 20th century, the geisha was considered as a fashion ambassador.

Miyako Odori festival - geisha show

Geisha performance during the Miyako Odori festival which takes place the first 3 weeks of April in Kyoto.

These hostesses have all qualities to make you spend a great time by delighting both your eyes and your mind. They mainly work in teahouses (ochaya) and restaurants to host banquets and entertain wealthy customers.

As part of the circle of influential men and guardians of Japanese customs, they play an important role in society. In addition, this profession is highly respected in the Land of the Rising Sun where the company of a geisha remains a great privilege.

🙈 Confusion of geisha and prostitute...

If by extension geisha are identified with prostitution, especially in the minds of Westerners, this practice has been officially excluded from the profession since the 18th century.

This confusion is due to a number of factors. First of all, geishas and prostitutes shared the same neighborhoods. That is to say, the kagai, or streets of pleasure. Like courtesans, they frequented the same tea houses, serving wealthy customers.

Although they were originally excluded from the profession, sexual favors were still possible. In the Edo period, it was common to grant these practices or to sell the virginity of a geisha at a high price.

Besides, some high-ranking prostitutes had a similar way of dressing and making up as the geisha.

And finally, the media also contributed to the dissemination of these ideas through literary and cinematographic works such as Memoirs of a Geisha.

In any case, prostitution is not a part of the job functions of today's geisha.

Training of the geisha

Not everyone can become a geisha. Although many Japanese girls dream of becoming a geisha, the profession requires at least 5 years of training and a very strict apprenticeship.

In the past, little girls joined the geisha houses (okiya) at the age of 6. Fortunately, this time is over. Nowadays, you have to be at least 15 years old and have finished high school before becoming a geisha.

maiko

Photos of maiko in Ryuhonji temple. ©kyoto flowertourism/Flickr.

For a period of 5 years, geisha (maiko) students learn about all the codes of conduct associated with the profession. They study the rules of decorum, the art of dressing, the art of make-up, the way to stand, move and sit with elegance.

They also learn traditional arts such as dancing, singing, tea service, flower arrangement, and literature. At the end of their training, geisha excel in all artistic fields.

The maiko accompany the geiko in their daily life and at their appointments. They maintain a strong bond with their elder and are taught to make a place for themselves in the very closed community of the bourgeoisie.

👘 The geisha's code of conduct

Many rules govern the life of the geisha. Their duty of refinement obliges them to control all their gestures in order to respect this very strict code. Thus, the young women are not free to go where they want nor to do what they want because they are obliged to follow very precise criteria respecting the traditions.

Geisha House

Generally, geisha live in the okiya of the flower towns (hanamachi) in Kyoto. These houses are composed of a mother (okasan) and several geisha who live under the same roof with sometimes staff who help in the kitchen or in the household. The okasan takes the young girls under her wing during their training.

Check out this video of a Geiko's preparation:

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Traditional makeup

Geisha and especially maiko have a very recognizable makeup. Their complexion is covered with white rice powder to remind the Japanese masks. The mouth is partly tinted with red. The eyes are highlighted in black with touches of red at the corner of the eyelids and on the eyebrows. Some geishas color their teeth in black (former sign of beauty in Japan). Okay, we agree, tastes are subjective. 😅

Makeup of more experienced geisha are more discreet in order to reveal their natural beauty and, unlike the maiko who leaves her upper lip white, it is only this one which will be colored, as an indication of an accomplished geisha.

Hairstyle

They have long black hair that is pulled up into a traditional bun held with pins and decorated with floral designs. Nowadays, most geisha use a wig to avoid damaging their hair and to achieve a flawless result without too much effort. The hairstyles of experienced geisha are less elaborate than those of maiko.

Dress code

Each detail of the outfit reveals the experience and rank of the geisha. Some costumes weigh more than 20kg! The maiko wear a traditional colored kimono with a large belt (obi), while the geiko wear a more discreet outfit with more sober patterns. The sandals, or geta, have thicker or thinner wooden soles. The latter indicate the rank of the geisha, as does the color of the straps.

traditional kimono

 

A typical day for a geisha

Throughout the day, geisha works on their artistic and cultural skills in order to always be at the top of their game. They also spend many hours taking care of their appearance. In the late afternoon, they discreetly walk to the teahouses through the small streets to welcome wealthy businessmen.

📌 Practical questions: meeting geisha

Would you like to meet a Geisha on your next trip to Japan to immerse yourself in Japanese folklore and get a glimpse of Japanese myth? First of all, you have to know that these ladies have become very rare, however you can still spot some in the Gion district, where they live.

geisha in the street

Where can we find geisha?

Geisha and maiko are mainly found in Kyoto and more precisely in hanamachi such as Gion, Pontochō, Kamishichiken and Miyagawachō.

If you can afford it, you may want to book the services of a geisha at a tea house, restaurant or hotel. Sometimes it takes some good contacts to succeed because most of the clients are chosen by recommendation.

Otherwise, you may meet them while walking in Gion, in the evening when geisha are going to their place of activity or finishing their work.

It is also possible to see a geisha show during public or tourist performances. If the old capitaltown is not on your way, you can also see them in the hanamachi of Tokyo in Asakusa, Shimbashi or in Kagurazaka district for example.

Price of a geisha

You have to know that the price is rather high. You have to count at least 2000 to 8000 yens for a show and three times more for a private performance. You will receive the bill shortly after the event. Don't forget that it is a great privilege and that this lady of company will make you spend a magical moment which you will remember for a long time.

Here is a video report to find out a little more about the mysterious and refined world of geisha in Japan.

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By now, you know all about geisha and their secrets. As true artists, these beautiful and talented women continue to make Japanese people and tourists dream. You never know, maybe you will have the chance to meet one of them during your next trip to Japan?


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