Geisha (芸者) means “Person of Art” or “Artist.” While these terms are quite vague, they have come to be identified with highly trained women who entertain exclusive clientele in special districts. Each geisha is registered to work in a Hanamachi (花街), which means “Flower Town,” and will live and train in these districts while they remain active in the profession. Geisha will take classes in various art forms six days a week and get two days off from work each month.
Their profession came about during the early Edo Period (1603-1868) when the shogun-ruled government began to allow individuals to travel on pilgrimages to the great shrines around the country. Kyoto was the capital of the country at the time and was a popular destination for its many large shrines and gorgeous landscapes. The first district, Kamishichiken (上七軒), was established from the extra wood left over from rebuilding the Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮) shrine. The shogun at the time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), held a great party in the area and gave his consent for the district to operate under the government’s orders. He loved the dango (sweet rice on skewers) so much that he allowed Kamishichiken the use of it as their personal symbol.
One of the most popular shrines in Kyoto is the Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社) located on Shijo Dori. To take advantage of the new influx of tourists small snack houses sprung up around the shrine. Eventually they became the tea houses that we know today and were packed with tourists and locals all day long. The districts of Gion Kobu (祇園甲部), Gion Higashi (祇園東), Miyagawa Cho (宮川町), and Pontocho (先斗町) were established from these tea houses.
The first geisha to appear were men who entertained groups of people enjoying parties at these establishments by telling lewd jokes and singing popular songs. However, the female serving girls of these establishments began singing and dancing for these customers too and eventually displaced the male geisha as they were far more popular with the mostly male clients. These women then became recognized by the government as an official profession and thus the geisha we know today were born. Their profession has largely stayed the same for the past 300 years and is continuing to stay strong amidst global change.
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