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In Japan you will find unique entertainers, who are incredibly good at business but often are unreachable for the common people. They acquire their skills after years of training and they have a peculiar appearance that is famous all over the world: the geishas.
During the long history of Japan, they have earned the respect of the whole of society, and their service is highly revered. If you go to Japan as a tourist, we strongly recommend you attend a geisha performance; it is an intimate and unforgettable experience that you will cherish.
Keep reading to learn more about the fascinating world of the geishas!
The ancestors of the geisha were the saburuko (serving girls), who first appeared around the 7th century. When the capital was moved to Kyoto (in 794), it contained the society where the geisha could develop, and skilled female performers began to thrive.
In feudal Japan it was common for men to seek sexual pleasure from courtesans, and in 1617 the shogunate created some “pleasure quarters” where prostitution was legal. The prostitutes working there were divided into classes and of those, the tayuu, became the direct predecessor of the geisha.
The courtesans of these districts began to entertain their clients also with conversation, dancing and singing, and in the 18th century the first specialized entertainers, called geisha, appeared. The first known geisha was a Fukagawa prostitute who lived in that period. She was extremely talented and made geishas extremely famous.
Around the 1770s many geisha stopped offering sexual services, and by 1800 their services were widely popular.
During their long career, a geisha keeps changing her appearance. At the beginning, her make-up is heavy, and it gets more somber through the years. Different hairstyles symbolize the development of a geisha, and even the length of the eyebrows is important–they get longer with age.
The geisha make-up is maybe one of their most recognizable features. Traditionally, a geisha covers her face with a thick base of white paste and red lipstick, while the eyes are adorned with red and black small signs. In the past the white mask was made with lead, but nowadays rice powder is commonly used.
Hairstyles have changed over time. The custom of putting hair up was established during the 17th century: the shimada (a type of chignon) hairstyle.
There are two kinds of shimada: the taka shimada, which is high and worn by young women, and the tsubushishimada, which is more flattened and usually worn by older women. A particular hairstyle, worn during the graduation of a geisha, the sakkō, is striking and extremely elaborate.
To preserve the hairstyle, geishas usually sleep with their necks on small supports.
The kimono, like the hairstyle, changes while the geisha grows older and more experienced. Apprentices wear a colorful kimono, while older geishas wear a kimono with somber colors. However, the color and the pattern of the kimono also varies with the season and the event.
As footwear, the geishas wear raised wooden sandals (geta).
In the past, geishas used to live away from the public. In Kyoto there are four enclaves where geishas lived: Gion-kobu, Pontocho, Miyagawa-cho and Kamishichi-ken.
The only way to attend a geisha performance was to get into one of these enclaves; and the only way to get into one of them was to be introduced by someone who was already accepted. This was because geishas wanted to have only trustworthy clients who could afford their expensive performances.
Nowadays, geishas lead a public life, and it is possible for guests to enjoy their shows without having to go through the hassle of being introduced by a small group of trusted people.
Geishas master music and dance, and to do so they train every day. Their dancing style developed from the dances of the noh and the kabuki plays. The dance is subtle and stylized, and every gesture is meant to tell a story.
Their dance is accompanied by traditional Japanese music. The shamisen, the main instrument used for this kind of music, is a three-stringed instrument similar to the banjo. It has a melancholic sound and is often accompanied by a flute. Geishas must learn how to play the shamisen and the ko-tsuzumi, a small drum, shaped like an hour-glass.
Some geisha like to write poems, to compose music, or to paint.
One of the best ways to appreciate their skills is to attend an odori (public dance). In Kyoto, you can see them mostly in spring. Tickets are affordable (about 3000 yen), and sometimes it is possible also to attend a tea ceremony.
Speaking of tea ceremonies, a famous event is held in Kyoto: the Kamishichiken. On February 25, geishas will serve tea to about 3,000 guests. Something similar happens in the beer gardens around the city, with geishas serving cold beer to thousands of people.
Especially in the west there is a wide misconception about the role of a geisha. The geisha’s role is solely to entertain her guests with music, dances, and conversation.
A male guest searches the service of a geisha to be amused by her skills, whereas the client’s wife has to be somber and modest. A geisha must be carefree, and if she decides to marry one of her clients she has to retire from her job. No matter what, the geisha stays in control of the situation and, with time, she learns how to take care of different clients.
As said, the first purpose of a geisha is to entertain her customers. They can flirt and play with innuendos, but the clients know they can’t expect more. The illusion of something that will never happen is amusing in Japanese culture.
The distinction between geishas and prostitutes was made clear by the government during the Meiji restoration.
Geishas start their training when they are really young. An apprentice goes to live in the okiya (geisha house), who takes care of her and supplies her with everything she needs. At the beginning, the apprentices are called minarai and learn by watching. This way they try to understand the job and look for future clients. From the owner of the house in which they live, minarai learn gaming, conversation and so on.
During the final stage of the training (which can last up to five years), students are called maiko (dance girl). They will learn how to serve tea, play shamisen, dance, and have delightful conversation. Maiko receive an art and entertainment training, as well as a set of useful social skills.
When the maiko is 20-21 years old, she is promoted and becomes a geisha, and she will remain so until her retirement.
Geishas still live in the traditional okiya (geisha houses), even if nowadays their training begins later during their life (around 15 years old). However, mainly because of cultural and economic changes, the tradition has begun to decline. More and more girls choose to become geishas but without going through the traditional apprentice in an okiya.
Geishas are wealthy, and in their society everything is managed by women. The owners of the tea houses are entrepreneurs, and men have always only marginal roles. One of the reasons why the geisha system was founded was to promote independence and economic self-sufficiency of women.
So, geishas basically live in a women-centered society, and they see themselves as liberated feminists.
In Kyoto, the “capital” of geishas, there are various activities revolving around them. We have chosen two of them: You can either enjoy tea served by a geisha, or you can dress as one, putting on make-up and wearing the kimono.
It all depends on which experience you prefer!
Lead by a geisha expert, you will enjoy a private walk through the geisha districts and have your guide teach you about every secret of this fascinating world. You will reach a private geisha teahouse, where a maiko will serve you with matcha and Japanese sweets, and you will be the only customer.
Tours are available every day and they usually start at 3:30 p.m. They last for 2 hours and take a maximum of 6 persons.
A different, more immersive experience, is to try on the geisha make-up and clothes yourself. You will be dressed as a maiko or a geisha. They will do your hair, put on the complex make-up, and let you wear a beautiful kimono. When you are ready, there will be a photoshoot with a professional photographer, and you will also have the chance to walk around the city in your dress.
The experience lasts for 2 hours and it can be arranged for up to 4 persons. There is also a shop, selling every product you need to recreate this amazing look back at home.
Attending a geisha show is a unique experience, one of the highlights of your Japanese adventure. If you don’t want to wait any longer, start planning your next trip to Japan with the help of Asia Highlights. Our professional staff will take care of everything, to make sure you have the hassle-free holiday you deserve.
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