A geisha lives in an alluring world where she lives in a unique house, in an exclusive district, and entertains the crowds. Yet, it’s not an easy thing to become one, and it can be a very intense life.
So, a geisha or geigi are women in Japan who entertain audiences, especially men.
Because their job entails serving men, some non-Japanese generally mistake it for prostitution.
However, as you will learn in this article, geishas are an essential part of Japanese culture.
Meanwhile, this article presents information from Japanese women.
Therefore, feel at ease that you will find the right information here.
To understand the world of geishas, we must start with the meaning of the word.
For example, the word is “gei” or art and “sha” or person.
In other words, a geisha is a person of the arts or an artist.
“A geisha has many functions,” says Toshiye, a woman from Kyoto, a city known for its geishas. “For instance, historically, a geisha would dance,” she adds. “However, geishas were known to be part of all kinds of artistic things.”
In other words, a geisha is someone who will artistically accompany you.
For instance, she will sit with you and talk about history, romantic tales, or even geographical facts.
“Therefore, it is not important what you discuss,” says Toshiye. “For example, she can also sit with you and let you talk.”
So, in this part of the article, we want to deal with the most shocking to non-Japanese.
Yes, there were once male geishas, and they outnumbered the females.
A male geisha is called hokan, which means a flatterer or jester.
“The male geisha is different from the female because a man has more access to society,” says Toshiye. “For example, the Imperial Court preferred the male geisha,” she adds. “However, as Japanese culture encountered other cultures, more females were requested.”
In other words, even though initially male geishas were more popular, the modern world changed things.
“A man can never be like woman,” says Toshiye. “So, they know a woman is the best flower.”
However, to this day, there are male geishas!
Becoming a Geisha
A young woman needs to be an apprentice or a maiko, which means she is a dancer before becoming a geisha.
The young woman is trained in her field, whatever it is.
For example, some become more dancers than, and others are more singers.
However, every maiko must go through general training, including training on how to entertain the public.
“A geisha must know everything,” explains Suzu, also from Kyoto. “For example, if the customer is upset, a geisha must know how to diffuse the emotion.”
In other words, this is not your regular training, as it requires a deep understanding of many subjects, including psychology.
As a result, this training starts at a very young age. For instance, some trained from as young as age 4!
“Then, when she’s ready, a patron would sponsor her debut,” says Suzu. “Of course, the house would give her mizuage (virginity) to the patron,” she adds. “But this is a deflowering ceremony rather than an act of prostitution.”
Meanwhile, Suzu explains, a geisha may not even have sex with that man again.
“He is not buying her or her sexuality, he is contributing to the culture,” explains Suzu.
Yes, it is very complicated.
That said, since the 1950s, the practice of selling the deflowering has stopped.
So, a geisha belongs to a house or an okiya, which is in a geisha district or hanamachi.
“Hanamachi is a flower town, that is what the phrase means,” says Suzu. “Flower is analogous to the word geisha,” she adds, smiling. “I think you know what flower represents.”
So, a “flower town” is an area of the city where you can meet the geisha.
For example, in Kyoto, there are currently five of these districts.
The districts include Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Kamishichiken, Miyagawa-cho, and Ponto-cho.
In other words, a geisha lives and works in a geisha district, says Toshiye.
Geisha districts are home to many okiyas or geisha houses.
Meanwhile, an okiya invests heavily into a geisha, as it can cost up to $1 million to bring up a geisha.
“A geisha requires a lot of training,” says Toshiye. “An okiya must hire trainers, buy clothes, jewelry, makeup, and so on.”
Therefore, geishas are heavily indebted to their okiyas.
A geisha lives in an okiya, but she needs a place to perform.
“There are nearly 150 ochaya or teahouses,” says Misa, an elderly woman in the industry. “But some of them are fake.”
So, ochayas are the place where you go and get entertained by geishas.
“Some ochayas, like the historic Ichiriki in Gion, are very expensive,” says Misa.
As a result, there are some phony ones to let the tourists experience the geisha world.
Meanwhile, a true ochaya is not a place you walked into and did business.
No, you must know someone and that someone generally has to be a client already.
Because the government regulates geisha lives, they are not allowed to be intimate physically.
Therefore, an ochaya provides a chance for the geisha to meet the patrons in public.
Geisha clothes are very colorful.
A geisha wears a kimono, which is like a wrap dress.
“Actually, the kimono is the national dress of Japan,” explains Toshiye. “So, of course, it is natural that a geisha would wear that.”
Meanwhile, a geisha and a geisha-in-training (maiko) wear different types of kimonos.
For example, a maiko will wear an elaborate kimono. Maikos wear a hikizuri kimono, which has hems and can be very colorful.
“There should be colors, and it should be able to catch your eye,” says Suzu. “This is a measure to use to help the young woman feel confident,” she adds. “However, a trained geisha doesn’t need that and can be less colorful.”
As a result, geishas tend to be more minimalistic in their looks. A geisha will use a tsumesode kimono, which is a type of kimono that is simple.
“A tsumesode kimono doesn’t allow for too much arm movements,” says Toshiye. “Because it doesn’t have openings under the arms, the geisha is restricted.”
In other words, the colorful women you’re used to are probably that maiko.
Therefore, pay attention to the clothes and whether or not they are so colorful.
Geisha makeup is precise and has reasons beyond what you see.
For example, white is used on the face because it reflects in the night.
“A geisha looks beautiful in a dimmed light because she shines,” says Toshiye. “In a room full of people, her face should be well lit and visible.”
Meanwhile, different makeup has different meanings.
For instance, a young woman who is not well trained yet will have only the lower lip painted.
Likewise, a maiko or a geisha-in-training will do either upper lip or both lips.
However, a full geisha can do without, as she is allowed to be minimalist.
Therefore, check the makeup to know what type of a geisha you’re looking at.
Believe it or not, but a lot of geishas use wigs!
While a maiko may not wear wigs, a full geisha can.
“Normally, a maiko will have her hair styled very heavily,” says Suzu. “Because the hair can be heavy, a bald spot will start to form on the top of her head,” she adds. “Of course, experienced geishas see this as something they earned through life.”
However, a full geisha can do a simple hairstyle, as she doesn’t have to be elaborate.
“One historian once commented that his wife dressed more elaborately than the geisha at his favorite teahouse,” says Toshiye. “The comment was supposed to show that a geisha doesn’t always dress so extravagantly.”
So, one way to keep the simplicity is to wear a wig.
An odori is a traditional dance, and each geisha district has a great spring show.
For example, for nearly 200 years, the kamogawa odori has been the spring show in the Ponto-cho geisha district.
“Each year, the geishas gather and offer a beautiful dance that celebrates the Kamogawa River,” says Toshiye. “And, they have been doing these performances since the 1800s,” she adds.
So, it’s the most spectacular of all the geisha shows, and Kyoto people look forward to it.
“It is a long show too,” says Toshiye, explaining that it takes about two and a half hours.
Meanwhile, the first half of the show focuses on storytelling through drama. And the second half is dedicated to dance.
“The shows allow you to see the culture of the district,” says Suzu. “Because every district is different, the shows are different,” she adds. “So, best to inquire about the districts and choose a show based on how you feel about the district.”
Similarly, every district does its show in the spring except Gion, which does its presentation in the autumn or fall.
As a result, the spring shows are much more popular.
Therefore, make sure to see the shows, to understand the importance of the geisha to the overall community.
Overall Geisha Life
A geisha’s life is not as glamorous as some of the books or films make it to be.
For example, geisha start their life as a young girl.
“We are talking about girls,” says Suzu. “Sometimes they are as young as an infant,” she adds. “So, you could say the life of a geisha is not really up to her. Others choose it for her.”
Of course, many geishas in history enjoyed their status as desired beautiful women.
“I think of women like Mineko Iwasaki,” says Suzu. “She really enjoyed her star status as the most desired geisha,” she adds.
Mineko Iwasaki, the author of the autobiography Geisha: A Life, said she was the subject of a famous novel.
Although they settled out of course, Iwasaki claimed the woman in Memoirs of a Geisha is her.
However, there are also many stories of abuse, mental illness, and even suicide, says Toshiye.
“For example, there is the story of Sada Abe,” says Toshiye. “She was sold by her own family when she was teenager,” she adds. “Because of the many trauma she suffered, Sada killed one of her clients.”
Of course, today, some maikas and geishas are exploited by the tourism industry, as well.
In other words, this is not a clean-cut world because a geisha’s life is complicated.
Japanese Women Sourced
In this article, several Japanese women gave information about geisha life.
Of course, none of them wanted to use their real name, because they don’t feel comfortable being associated.
However, it’s essential to give you a mental picture of them, as to help you understand their situations.
Toshiye is a woman in her 40s, lives in Kyoto, and is married and has a couple of children.
Because her husband works in the travel industry, she knows people who are in the geisha world.
For example, Toshiye was once friendly with a woman who used to run a geisha house.
Suzu is a woman in her 30s, lives in Kyoto, and she is recently married.
Because she is educated and works in a stressful field, she doesn’t have children.
Meanwhile, Suzu’s brother-in-law owns a geisha teahouse.
So, Suzu is somewhat part of that world.
Then, there is Misa, who used to work in a geisha house.
Misa is in her 70s, used to be a dancer, and trained maikas for many years.
She retired from the system and now lives in a suburb of Kyoto.
Geisha live in an alluring world, which is no doubt, but their world is not necessarily secure.
For example, to become a geisha, a young woman has to work her way through training for many years.
Before she can be allowed to become a geisha, she needs to become a real artist.
For example, she will have to choose an instrument or become talented somehow in music or dance.
Likewise, she learns how to think, speak, and behave in the company of men.
Similarly, she needs to understand her body and must exude confidence.
In other words, it is a lot of work!
However, once she is a geisha, the young woman can relax and enjoy life.
She no longer has to dress so extravagantly and can be simple.
Meanwhile, being a geisha can also be intense and can lead one to become depressed, angry, and suicidal.
Therefore, it is okay to want to know more about geishas, but try to understand that they are human beings.
Good luck to you on your trip to Japan!
Yuri Takahashi writes about Japan for Caravanzers.