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Geisha - a symbol of Japanese culture

Geisha - a symbol of Japanese culture

By CarolUpdated Feb. 20, 2024

Geisha are world-famous as a symbol of Japanese culture and history. With their painted kimonos, intricate hairstyles, and striking makeup, they represent the beauty and elegance of Japan. Many people visit Japan with the hope of seeing a geisha with their own eyes, however, real geisha have become more and more rare in Japan in recent years.

In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about geisha, including some more details about the life of a geisha, the history of geisha, where you can see real geisha, and some great geisha experiences.

What is a Geisha?

Because of the way that geisha are often portrayed in foreign media, there are many myths about what they are and what they do. Geisha are highly-skilled and trained entertainers who attend dinners and other social events in order to engage in the art of conversation, playing games, dance, or playing a musical instrument.

In Japan, geisha are very highly respected because they spend years training to learn the traditional instruments and dances of Japan. Although some western media portray geisha as prostitutes, that's just a myth.

The word geisha is actually only used to refer to the girls who train and work in Tokyo, whereas the geisha in Kyoto are more commonly called geiko (pronounced gay-ko) or maiko (pronounced my-ko). Kyoto is particularly famous for geisha culture and they currently have over 100 geiko and close to 100 maiko.

Maiko and Geiko

As mentioned previously, the geisha who train and work in Kyoto are called geiko and young geiko who have not completed their training are called maiko. A maiko's training typically starts at the age of 15 or 16 and they don't become a geiko until they have completed 5-years of training and are at least 20 years old.

Maiko go to a special school for their training to learn about traditional Japanese culture and entertainment. In order to enter the geisha schools, the girls need to pass an introductory exam and training session. Only the most talented go on to train as maiko.

Even though they are in training, maiko are already professionals and go to events and dinners as entertainers. Both, maiko and geiko, often attend events together and live together in special houses called okiya, in the geisha districts of Kyoto.

It is easy to tell the difference between a maiko and geiko if you know what to look for. Maiko often wear kimonos with long sleeves, while geiko typically wear kimonos with shorter sleeves. Geiko often wear wigs without any decorations, whereas maiko have their natural hair styled very elaborately with beautiful hairpins.

Although many people go to Japan wanting to see a fully trained geisha or geiko, the more flashy and colorful clothes of the maiko often make for more beautiful photographs. Both, geisha and geisha-in-training, are stunning to see in person.

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Geisha Appearance and Skills

One of the aspects of geisha that make them so striking, is their appearance with the famous white-faced makeup and cherry red lips. In Japan, geisha are respected for not only their beauty but also their skills in traditional Japanese arts.

Below, we will describe everything you need to know about the appearance and skills of a geisha.

Geisha Costume

A geisha costume includes her kimono, hairstyle, hair ornaments, and makeup. Geisha will wear normal clothes during the day and then change at night into their elaborate costume, to attend appointments and dinners.

The kimono of a maiko often has very elaborate designs and is tied with an obi, or sash, that looks like a bow in the back. The kimono of a maiko is often more colorful and beautiful, whereas the kimono of a geiko is more refined and elegant. Geiko kimonos are typically one color, with a simple pattern at the bottom, and the obi is tied in a square instead of a bow.

It is often said that it costs around $500,000 to train a geisha and most of that money is spent on her kimono.

Geisha Hairstyles

The hair of a geisha is always styled very elaborately, with decorative hair ornaments called kanzashi. The type of hair ornament that is worn by a geisha depends on the stage of training she is at. Maiko, in their first year of training, often wear strings of flowing flowers that are pinned to her head and fall down to her chin.

The kanzashi of the younger geisha are meant to emphasize and draw attention to their youth and beauty which is why maiko often wear flowers. The flowers that are worn are determined by the season and the month of the year. For example, in February hair pins incorporate plum blossoms and in April cherry blossoms.

Fully trained geisha or geiko will wear very simple hair ornaments which are usually just small combs.

The hair of a geiko or maiko is always styled very elaborately. Geiko are allowed to wear wigs, so they will take their wigs to the salon to be styled in the way they prefer. In contrast, maiko must use their real hair. In order to achieve these incredible hairstyles, maiko go to a special hair salon every week.

They must keep their style intact for the whole week and many will sleep with their head in a wooden box with a small pillow to preserve it. Maiko are also only able to wash their hair once a week so as not to ruin their hair.

Geisha Makeup

The makeup of a geisha is one of the most famous aspects of their costume. In many movies, geisha are depicted with white faces and bright red lips. However, in Japan, only maiko wear this striking makeup every day. Geiko do not wear this makeup unless they have a special performance.

Besides the white faces and red lips, geisha makeup also includes eyebrows that are painted in as pink or red, blushed cheeks, and black eyeliner with red eyeshadow. Maiko that are in their first year of training will only have their lower lip painted red, whereas the more senior maiko will have both lips colored red.

When both, maiko and geiko, are wearing full makeup, you will still be able to tell which are the maiko because they will have a small band of unpainted skin near their hairline whereas the geiko won't.

Geisha Arts

Besides her appearance, one of the reasons that geisha are so famously celebrated in Japan is due to their knowledge of the traditional arts. In order to entertain and amaze their guests, geisha spend most of their training time learning to be masters of dance and music.

The dancing style of geisha was influenced by traditional Japanese theater and every dance and movement is meant to tell part of a story.

The dancing of a geisha is typically accompanied by another geisha who plays traditional Japanese music. The two most common instruments mastered by geisha include the shamisen, which is a three-stringed instrument, similar to a banjo or guitar, and the ko-tsuzumi, which is a small drum.

Although dancing and playing traditional instruments is a common geisha study, it is by no means the only art that a geisha can learn. Some geisha become skilled at writing poems, composing music, or painting and drawing.

Geisha's Relationships with Guests

There is a widespread misconception that geisha are high-end sex workers, however, this is not true. The role of a geisha is to entertain her guests through art, like music, dancing, and conversation.

Geisha will sometimes flirt with their male guests but this is only meant as a form of entertainment because in Japanese culture the illusion of something that can't happen is amusing.

One of the reasons that men pay for a geisha to entertain their dinner party is to enjoy her carefree happiness, girlish beauty, and artistic touch. A geisha always stays in control of the situation and never has any relationship with her clients beyond traditional entertainment.

If a geisha decides to marry one of her clients, she is forced to retire from her job.

Geisha's History and Today

The tradition of geisha began before the end of the 18th century, and the first geisha were actually men who worked in the pleasure quarters. Female geisha only appeared in Japan later as dancers who could be hired for dinners and events.

Over time, geisha became more than just dancers and learned to play traditional instruments, drinking games, and studied the art of conversation. Soon afterward, geisha became a widespread phenomenon in the country, and wealthy Japanese men wanted to be seen with geisha due to their beauty and elegance, as well as the respect they attracted.

In the aftermath of World War II, the number of geisha quickly declined as the geisha houses closed and many people couldn't afford to pay for their entertainment. In the 1920s there were around 80,000 geisha in Japan whereas today there are only about 2,000.

Geisha today are much rarer than they were in the past, but they still play the same role in Japanese society. They attend high-end dinners or entertain their long time clients in geisha tea houses. Geisha still live in the okiya geisha houses and many of them are wealthy.

Geisha are also considered to be forward thinkers and front runners when it comes to feminism in Japan, as they promote a women-only business model that allows women to be self-sufficient and have economic independence.

Where to Find a Geisha in Japan

Geisha can be found in a few cities in Japan including Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Kyoto. However, Kyoto is by far the most well-known and best place to see geisha. It is the city with the most geisha. Also, the geiko and maiko of Kyoto are very highly respected, and being entertained by them is considered very prestigious.

Because geisha and geiko are so rare in Japan today, it often requires some planning and prior knowledge if you want to see one. Below, we will describe the many different options you have in Kyoto if you want to see a geisha.

Group Geisha Dinners

A personal and traditional way to have a geisha experience is by participating in a group geisha dinner. At geisha dinners, guests eat and drink at a specified restaurant while being entertained by a geiko or maiko.

The geiko or maiko will fill everyone's glasses, lead group drinking games, and engage in witty conversation with guests. Oftentimes group dinners also include a seasonal dance, performed by one geiko to traditional music that is being played by another.

Although geisha group dinners are a great cultural experience, they are quite expensive, with fees of around 70,000 yen (630 USD) per group, plus a fee of around 20,000 yen (180 USD) per person for the dinner.

See a Geisha Show at Gion Corner

A less expensive way to experience geisha culture is to see a show at Gion Corner. Gion Corner is a theater that offers an affordable way to experience Japanese culture and to see real geisha.

The Gion Corner show includes a traditional dance performed by maiko and geiko, a tea ceremony, traditional flower arranging, music with traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto, a comedic play depicting Japanese life, and a traditional puppet theater show which is recognized by UNESCO due to its important cultural significance.

Going to see a show only costs 3,150 yen (30 USD) and is a great way to learn about the traditional art of Japan and see performances by geisha.

Attend a Geisha Dance

In Kyoto, each of the five geisha districts holds a public dance show where locals and visitors alike can come and watch incredible live performances by many geiko and maiko. The five different shows happen in the spring and autumn which are the most popular times to visit Japan, making it convenient for travelers to attend.

Attending a geisha dance is quite cheap, costing around 3,150 yen (30 USD) per night. Tickets for these shows can often be purchased through hotels or at the venue ticket booths a day before the show.

The biggest and most impressive geisha dance is called Miyako Odori which takes place every day in the month of April. This beautiful dance performance includes geiko and maiko from many different geisha districts in Kyoto. The dance takes place at Shuniuza Theater and there are three shows a day.

The second biggest geisha dance is called Kyo Odori and takes place daily from the first Sunday in April to the third Sunday in April. This performance happens in the Miyagawacho district and includes seven different scenes, with the final act involving all the performers.

If you want to visit Kyoto in May, then you can see the Kamogawa Odori show which is held daily from May 1st to May 24th. This show is performed by the geiko of the Pontocho district and includes plays with historical stories and costumes.

Lastly, if you are visiting Japan in November, then Gion Odori can be seen from November 1st to 10th. This geisha dance is smaller than the others but is more immersive and personal than some of the larger shows.

Spot Geisha at Festivals

In Kyoto, geiko and maiko often participate in certain annual festivals as a matter of tradition. At some festivals, the geiko and maiko put on shows and performances and at others, they participate in traditional activities such as throwing beans into the surrounding crowds.

Some of the festivals where you are most likely to see geisha include Setsubun at Yasaka Shrine and Heian Jingu, Baikasai, Higashiyama Hanatoro Festival, Heian Jingu Reisai Festival, Kaname Inari Shrine Festival, and Gion Festival.

See Geisha on the Streets of Kyoto

Another option for seeing a geiko or a maiko in Kyoto, is to try and catch a glimpse of them in the streets as they make their way to appointments. The best places to spot geisha walking to their appointments are in the geisha districts because that is where most of the tea houses and geisha houses are located.

The geisha districts in Kyoto where you are most likely to see a geiko or maiko are Hanami-koji-dori in Gion and Shijo-dori in Pontocho. The best time to see geisha is in the early evening, near dusk, especially on weekends and holidays.

Spotting a geisha this way is sometimes difficult and it is possible to try many times and not be successful. However, if you do see a geisha in the streets of Kyoto it is also important to know that they are on their way to work and cannot take time to stop for photos or talk to strangers.

Experience a Geisha Yourself

If you want to spend time with a geisha or learn more about her lifestyle, then here at Asia Highlights we offer a few great options in Kyoto.

For example, having afternoon tea with a geisha, enjoying a private dinner, or being able to wear the costume and makeup of a geisha.

Have Afternoon Tea with a Geisha

With this experience, guests will be able to tour the streets of the geisha districts of Kyoto with our geisha culture expert, Peter MacIntosh. Peter has spent half of his life in Kyoto, while being married to an ex-geisha. He also studies Japanese arts and is a lecturer of Geisha studies at Kansai University.

During your walk through the geisha districts, Peter will explain geisha history and everything you want to know about them, before leading you to a private ochaya (geisha tea house). There you will drink matcha green tea and eat wagashi (Japanese seasonal sweets) in the company of a maiko or geiko.

This trip includes great photo opportunities as well as performances of traditional songs and dances.

Have a Private Dinner with a Geisha

This experience also begins with a tour of the geisha districts of Kyoto by geisha expert, Peter MacIntosh. Peter has spent much of his life studying Japanese art and geisha culture and he will explain the history of geisha as well as introduce you to the world of geisha and what it is like to be one.

After exploring the geisha districts, you will enjoy a Japanese dinner and drinks in a private room with a maiko or geiko. The maiko or geiko will entertain you with conversation, dancing, or playing music on traditional Japanese instruments.

Peter will also be there to translate and help you communicate with the geisha, so you can ask her questions, participate in the conversation, and enjoy her drinking games.

This experience also includes great photo opportunities.

Geisha Makeover Experience

If you want to learn more about geisha and get some hands-on experience of what it is like to be a geiko or maiko, then you can try dressing up like a geisha.

When visiting the historical townhouse in central Kyoto, guests will have the opportunity to have their hair and make up done by a professional geisha stylist and then to wear the colorful traditional kimono of the maiko.

Once dressed up, travelers can take a walk through the surrounding neighborhood and have their photos taken by a professional photographer. After you are done, you will get six printed photos and a CD that contains all the pictures. You can also take pictures with your own camera if you choose.

Upon return, you will be given cleansers and shampoos to help you take off the striking geisha makeup and hair oils.

Geisha Etiquette

If you do see a geisha on the streets, it is very important to act respectfully towards them. Oftentimes, it is okay to take a quick photo of them but you should not try to stop them to pose for a photo and you should also refrain from getting in their path as they walk to work.

It is very important never to touch a geisha or pull on her kimono in order to get her attention. Kimonos are incredibly expensive and the job of a geisha is not to entertain tourists. They are there to entertain those who pay for their services and treat them with great respect.

There have been more complaints in recent years from geisha, saying that tourists have acted extremely rude to them and badgered them for photographs as they tried to commute to work.

How to Spot a Fake Geisha

Because of the popularity of geisha among tourists, there has been a rise in fake geisha who visit the geisha districts in Kyoto in order to entertain tourists and make money from people who don't realize they aren't real.

Luckily it is very easy to tell the difference between a real geisha and a fake one. One of the biggest differences is that a fake geisha will be willing to take photos and pose for photos with tourists. A real geisha wouldn't do this because she makes her money as high-end entertainer instead.

Also, fake geisha in Kyoto are often wearing clothes that don't match their status. For example, a fake geisha might wear the makeup and hairpins of a maiko but the kimono and wig of a geiko. If you see a geisha wearing a mix-matched costume then she is most likely fake.

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