What is a Geisha

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.

What is a Geisha

Geisha is an artist who entertains with dance, music, conversation, and other arts at banquets held at teahouses.
Nowadays geisha also promote traditional Japanese culture. In Kyoto, geisha are called GEIKO ( lit. “art child” ) and the young practicants are called maiko ( “dance child” ).

Geiko are above 20 years old, while maiko are teenagers between 15 and 21 years old. Differences between maiko (junior geisha) and senior geisha

The basic geisha training includes dance, shamisen, Tea ceremony, drum instrument. Some of the artists practice additional subjects, such as singing, calligraphy, flower arrangement, or koto.


Profession Geisha

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 leftover 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.


How did it start?

Historically Kyoto was the capital of Japan and a popular destination for pilgrims. The first geisha were men performing dance and songs for the pilgrims who emerged in the 17th century.

They were replaced quickly with female staff members of the tea houses that were located on the way to major temples. And until today, for over 300 years now, the geisha profession is still limited only to Japanese women.


What do they do?

Geisha usually serve their clients in teahouses (okiya) each of which usually lasts for 2 hours between 6 pm and 12:00 am.
Their service is pouring the drink for the guests, playing Japanese instruments, singing and dancing.

They often participate in public dance performances several times and year, visit shrines and temples during festivals and join parades and greet local shops during public celebrations. In a Western sense, geisha are a kind of cultural performer.


Where do they live?

Geisha work at special districts called Hanamachi ( 花 街 ), which means “Flower Town,” where they practice, work, and even live.

There are actually 5 separate geisha neighborhoods in Kyoto.
The first district, Kamishichiken ( 上 七 軒 ), was built from the extra wood left over from renovating the Kitano Tenmangu ( 北 野 天 満 宮 ) shrine.

Other geisha districts also belong to particular religious spots:
Gion Kobu ( 祇 園 甲 部 ) was established near the Yasaka Shrine, Miyagawacho ( 宮 川 町 ) is located close to the Ebisu Shrine and Kennin-ji Temple, while Gion Higashi ( 祇園東 ) worships the Kanki Shrine. The fifth district, Pontocho ( 先 斗 町 ), raised from the local restaurants between two important Kyoto rivers – Kamo and Takase.


Did you know?

The first geisha were all men (taikomochi) whose job was to entertain guests by dancing and singing by the Kamogawa River.

What is a Geisha


Are Geisha Courtesans?

“Remember, Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word “geisha” means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.” ― Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha)

Geisha are not courtesans. The image of geisha as prostitutes was popularized by American soldiers after World War II. Geisha have always been a symbol of beauty and elegance, so girls from lower social classes tended to introduce themselves to American soldiers as geisha. That’s how the myth spread all over the world.

There were, however, courtesans working arm-in-arm with geisha at the same entertainment districts. They were called Tayū ( 太夫 ) and Oiran ( 花魁 ). Tayu were the high-ranked courtesans, dressed in amazingly flashy kimono and wearing heavy hairstyles.

They also used to practice art, so customers paid a lot of money to meet them. Oiran is a term for courtesans in general. The oiran profession vanished around the Edo period, as the geisha profession (not providing any sexual service) became more successful and profitable. During the Edo period, it was more fashionable to please the mind with art, rather than the body with mundane activities. Prostitution was later banned by Japanese law and it marked the definite end of the oiran profession.

Geisha and Oiran look completely different. Different from oiran, It is a significant time-consuming act for a geisha to put on and put off her clothes.


Oiran tend to have

ー Flamboyant fashion style of the old Imperial Japan
① Obi tied in the front
② So many turtle-shell hairpins
③ Different hairstyle with a half-split in the middle
④ Only lower lip painted throughout the whole career
⑤ Uchikake coat
⑥ No socks
⑦ Twisted collar
⑧ Tall black-lacquered tooth-geta


Did you know?

Courtesans tie their sash in front while geisha tie sash (obi) in the back.
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