The distinct white makeup, elegant kimonos, and elaborate hairstyles of the geisha are the first images you see when you think of traditional Japanese culture. Although the image in the west is that of a high-class courtesan, geishas are from that. The word geisha comes from the Japanese word “gei” meaning art and “sha” meaning person. Geishas are artisans and purveyors of traditional Japanese culture. Geisha women dedicate their lives to Japanese traditional arts and put their talents to use to entertain customers. To most foreigners and Japanese alike the history and current world of the geisha remains a mystery. In this article, we’ll talk about the origins of geishas and where to find them today.
The History of Geisha
Geishas of the past hardly resemble the modern geishas today. The first geishas appeared in the 13th century and were originally men known as taikomochi. These men both advised and entertained their lord. By the 16th century, they became more akin to storytellers focusing on creating conversation and inciting humor. Around the 17th-century women started becoming geishas, and by the 1750s, women geishas began to outnumber the men.
Originally women geishas were assistants to oirans— high-class courtesans who resided in the pleasure quarters of the cities during the Edo period (1603-1886). Regulations were put in place to prevent geishas from forming personal relationships with customers. However, by the early 1800s geishas began to replace oirans since they were cheaper and more accessible. The popularity of geishas quickly grew and by the 1920s there were as many as 80,000 geisha throughout Japan. Today they are vital to upholding traditional Japanese culture. Training starts around age 14 and it takes over five years before a woman becomes a full-fledged geisha.
Geishas in Training
Training to become a geisha starts around age 14 or 15. The young apprentices are then known as shikomisan and must stay in a lodge together known as an okiya with their seniors. Here they learn how to behave, dance, and perform. Then at the end of the year, if they pass the shikomi exam, they become a maiko.
Maiko are apprentices to geisha and take up to five years learning about traditional Japanese culture, how to perform, and the art of communication. After 5 years they become a geisha through a ritual called erikae which means changing a collar from red to white.
Although the makeup of geisha seems simple it’s hard to perfect and time-consuming to apply. Makeup is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying the kimono. The white face and neck are covered in a white powder base paste called oshiroi. The patterns we see on the back of the neck forming a W or V shape left unwhitened accentuate this traditionally erotic area. The eyebrows are colored black and a maiko applies red makeup around her eyes.
For the iconic red lip, only geishas apply color to the top and bottom. A maiko only applies color to the lower lip to make her appear more innocent. For both, the bottom lip is drawn with a curved stripe to create the illusion of a flower bud. After 3 years a maiko will change her makeup to be more subdued to symbolize her maturity.
The iconic hairstyles of geisha are very intricate and take many hours to style. While geisha are allowed to use wigs, maiko must use their own hair and style it according to their level. They aren’t able to wash their hair for a week and sleep on special pillows to maintain their hairstyle. After styling their hair, they’ll usually add some ornaments called kanzashi to complete the look.
Different hairstyles and hairpins signify different stages of a geishas development. They’re also related to the seasons as well. For example, plum ornaments are worn in February, while pink sakura ornaments are reserved for April.
The kimonos maikos and geishas wear are very different from what the average Japanese woman wears. Maikos and young geishas wear sodehiki which is a long kimono. It’s conservative and indicates they are there to perform, not sell themselves. Based on the obi the broad sash around the kimono you’ll be able to quickly tell geishas and maikos apart. Maikos wears a long obi going down her back and it’s brighter in color. The color, patterns, and style of the kimono are dependent on the seasons and the event the geishas and the maikos are attending.
Where to See Geisha Today
Today there are only about 1,000 geisha in Japan. They can be found in several major cities including Tokyo, and Kanazawa but most of them work in Kyoto. They are often attending gatherings at tea houses and ryoutei —a kind of luxurious Japanese restaurant. The tea houses are highly exclusive places due to their traditional way of doing business and will only grant entry to trusted customers. Geisha dinners are exclusive, expensive, high-class events so reservations are usually done months in advance. While they may no longer be the center of Japanese hospitality, interacting with a geisha can still be an excellent opportunity to experience the essence of omotenashi, the abstract concept of visible and invisible Japanese hospitality.
If you aren’t able to get an exclusive dinner with a geisha, geisha culture can be experienced at places like Gion Corner, a theater that showcases a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Maiko often performs dances here and it’s open to the public.
Other experiences that you can watch geisha’s performance casually are;
- Geisha Experience at Chaya in Tokyo
- Traditional Private Geisha Experience/ Dinner Show in Tokyo, Fukagawa District
- Authentic Geisha Performance and Entertainment including a Kaiseki Course Dinner
Events like Japanese festivals sometimes have geishas and maikos perform as well. In April the Miyako Odori is another chance to watch the geishas and maiko dance. Finally, with a bit of luck, you might be able to catch a real geisha and maiko walking through the streets of Kyoto around Gion and Pontocho. However, be sure to look respectfully.
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Jamila Brown is a five-year resident of Japan, teaching in the day and writing at night. She enjoys movies, reading, cosplaying, and eating good food in her downtime.
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