Geisha (芸者) has long been an astonishment cemented in the history of Japan. People often wonder how these professional artists come to be or how long they train in years.
A geisha or geiko, when translated in Kyoto dialect, means “Person of Art” or “Artist.” A geisha is mostly known as a highly trained woman who entertains exclusive clientele in districts where she works.
Each geisha is registered to work in a Hanamachi (花街), which means “Flower Town,” where they will live and train while remaining 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.
The geisha entertains guests through dancing, performing music, conversations, and other arts held in teahouses. They are also modern-day models and local ambassadors of traditional Japanese culture.
Nowadays geisha also promote traditional Japanese culture. Kyoto is where geisha are called “geiko” translated as “art child” as earlier mentioned.
A geisha apprentice is called “maiko” translated as “dance child.” The geiko are usually above the age of 20, while the maiko are between 15 to 21 years old.
Geisha usually serve their clients in teahouses (okiya), each lasting around 2 hours between 6 pm and 12:00 am. They serve guests by:
- pouring the drink for the guests,
- playing Japanese instruments,
- singing, and
Geisha often participate in public dance performances several times each year, visit shrines and temples during festivals, join parades, and greet local shops during public celebrations. In a Western sense, geisha are a kind of cultural performer.
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.
Saburuko Geisha (around 600 AD)
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 serving girls of these establishments began singing and dancing for these customers, too.
Eventually, they displaced the male geisha as they were far more popular with the mostly-male clients. In Japanese history, serving girls known as “saburuko” was the name given to girls who served tables as the name translates to “those who serve.”
Some consider the saburuko as the first geisha. However, the difference was that the serving girls offered sexual favors and services. On the other hand, other saburuko who had experience in education made a living through entertainment at social gatherings.
Edo Period (1603-1868)
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 to use it as their 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.
World War 2 (1939-1945)
The population of geisha artisans grew higher before the war. The geisha were considered as rival professions of the jokyu or the cafe girls. However, many geisha districts closed in 1944.
Many geisha artisans looked for work in factories instead, while others ventured in other places. It was during this time that the geisha reputation lowered. One of the reasons was the prostitutes who began to refer to themselves as the “geisha girls”
Post War (1950-1973)
Though the geisha profession declined during the war, the post war period became a light at the end of the tunnel. Being a geisha was considered to be a successful career. The geisha returned highlighting and sticking to traditional Japanese standards. They were proclaimed as highly-skilled performers and artists.
In the past, there was no electricity in Japan, so artists entertained by dim candlelight. Eventually, they started painting the faces white to look more beautiful in such conditions.
Geisha, kabuki actors, court ladies, dancers, and other Japanese performers adapted the white makeup (oshiroi or shironuri in Japanese) as an essential part of their profession. Not only the face but also the neck is painted in the front and back.
Geisha paint lines on the back of their necks to make them appear longer and slimmer. Such makeup is applied almost every day, as the long kimono for dance requires the face to be painted.
For stage performances, even hands and calves are painted white. Usually, oshiroi takes 30-50 minutes to apply.
- The first step of the shironuri makeup is applying a thick wax base (abura) onto the bare skin. It’s melted by the warmth of hands and pressed onto the face and neck. It smooths the pores and some say it heals the skin and prevents sweating!
- The eyebrows are laid down with special paste (tsubushi), as they have to be painted with red and black pigment later. Some geisha shave their eyebrows, so it’s easier to apply the makeup.
- The white makeup can be applied now. It comes in a form of a white or pinkish powder that can be mixed with water to achieve a form of a thick paste. The paste is applied with wide flat brushes and then patted with a big makeup sponge. The patting results in a smooth appearance later.
- The pink paste is used for face contouring – nose and eyes area in particular!
- The lines in the back are painted while using two mirrors. For every day look only two lines (eriashi) are necessary, but for special occasions, three lines (sanbonashi) are painted with a special stencil.
- The next step is finishing the makeup with black eyeliner and mascara (the first-year maiko might not be allowed to do it) placed on top of red pigment around the eyes. Sometimes a red lipstick is used around the eyes, too.
- Finally, red lipstick (beni) is applied. In the case of the first-year maiko (except Pontocho district), the red can be applied only on the lower lip. For other maiko and geiko, both lips are painted. The lips are painted smaller than they are, so they look cute and proportional.
- At the end of the day, geisha wipe off the makeup with a dissolving oil. Wiping off takes only 5-10 minutes.
Geisha Putting on Makeup
The first step that a geisha takes to putting on her makeup is melting a special wax called Abura (油) all over her face and neck. Geisha warm-up this wax in hands, because it needs to dissolve into an oily texture. This ensures that all pores and crevices are filled in to give their skin a uniform texture. It also protects the skin from white paint.
The next step involves the most important part of a geisha’s makeup: the white foundation called Oshiroi (白粉). Meaning “White Powder,” it is carefully mixed with water in a small dish to form a paste. Then that paste is painted onto their faces and neck with special brushes called Hake (刷毛). They use two different sizes: one that’s the width of a hand for large swaths and another that’s a few fingers wide for details and small areas. These brushes are made from badger or goat hair and can last for a few years.
In a separate dish, she will mix some of the Oshiroi and add some pink powder called Tonoko (砥の粉) and contour parts of her face. This gives her a less overall pale look and provides a striking hint of blush when viewed up close.
Then she will paint two lines on the back of her neck called Eriashi (襟足), meaning “Neck Lines.” These two lines serve a dual purpose: the first is to give the impression that her makeup is like a mask, and the second is to leave a small bit of skin showing as traditionally the nape of a woman’s neck was considered sexy. During formal occasions, she will paint three lines instead of two called Sanbonashi (三本足), which means “Three-Pointed Lines.”
After the Oshiroi has been applied, she will dab some white powder called Kona Oshiroi (粉白粉) all over to give her face a softer look. The pink that she previously applied will show through as the powder is extremely light.
Next comes the striking red called Beni (紅), meaning “Crimson.” It is applied with a small brush called a Beni Hake around the ends of the eyes, the eyebrows, and the lips. Unlike Western make-up, the Beni is used for multiple areas of the face, which is more akin to a paste than a lipstick. It’s dabbed onto the eyes for a soft effect but painted undiluted onto the lips to make them a bright red. The first-year maiko will only paint their bottom lip as a sign of their immaturity, while maiko from their second year onward and all geisha will paint both lips. They will paint their lips slightly smaller than their actual lips to make them look cute and more like flower petals.
Finally, black liner is added to the eyebrows and the eyelids to give them an undeniable sharpness and complete the look.
The training of a geisha begins at a very young age. The basic training includes dance, shamisen, tea ceremony, and drum instrument. Some geisha artists practice additional subjects, such as singing, calligraphy, flower arrangement, or koto.
- Shikomi. The first stage of training starts with Japanese girls following what they are told to do, like housekeeping chores. They would have to attend a geisha school and must be proficient with geisha arts to progress. Their final exam is a dance.
- Minarai. The next training is focused on attending banquets. However, they do not participate yet. During the party, they wear a kimono and follow their onee-san, or “older sister” in Japanese, around or where they go. This training will only be around a month.
- Maiko. The third stage is mostly known as the geisha apprentice. The maiko stage can last for years. The maiko follow their mentor and attend to all their appointments. The maiko will learn about proper tea serving, dancing, and conversing. The training can take up to five years.
A maiko candidate has to be a Japanese girl who graduated from junior high school around the age of 15 or 16. She also must have black hair. Some okiya require an introduction (personal reference), but some of them encourage girls to apply via e-mail or telephone. They just need to send their photo, fill in a survey, and get their parents’ approval.
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.
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?
- The first geisha were all men (taikomochi) whose job was to entertain guests by dancing and singing by the Kamogawa River.
- Courtesans tie their sash in front while geisha tie sash (obi) in the back.
Maikoya is one of Japan’s leading cultural experience providers with branches in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. The company specializes in cultural and traditional activities such as Tea ceremony, sushi and other cooking classes, calligraphy, flower arrangement, taiko drumming, and the like.
Maikoya accommodates sessions in English, Chinese, and Japanese. The activities are designed to accommodate groups for school trips, company trips, international conferences, vacationers, and other miscellaneous companies.
Maikoya is also the only venue that offers geisha tea ceremony experience everyday in central Kyoto. The geisha tea ceremony also includes sweets tasting, wearing a traditional kimono and asking questions to the geisha.
In the past, it was impossible to meet a geisha for first-timers because in Kyoto there is a rule called “ichigensan okotowari” which means a personal reference is necessary for a geisha meeting. Also, due to the pandemic, traveling to Japan has been put to a halt.
But, now, for the first time, guests can meet a real geisha from Kyoto’s geisha district online. Due to the possible risks a face-to-face meeting might bring, geisha in Kyoto have agreed to open their mysterious culture to the rest of the world via virtual meetings.
Be one of the few in the world to get a chance to talk to a real geisha from Kyoto to a personal living room! The online experience is a PRIVATE geisha meeting that lasts 45 minutes.
Participants can invite their friends and family as the price covers up to 10 people. The geisha will be wearing her traditional white make-up and outfit, which takes hours of preparation. The meeting will include
- Greetings from the Geisha
- Geisha Dance Performance
- Geisha Tea Ceremony Performance
- A question-and-answer session with the geisha (her training, her life, etc.)
Notes on Reserving Geisha Online
- The time slots listed on the reservation page are Japanese Standard Time (13 hours ahead of New York City, 7 hours ahead of Paris).
- Please make sure to join the meeting by using a device with a camera and a microphone (iPhone, MacBook, air book, webcam, etc.).
- The geisha has to prepare for the meeting by dressing up and putting on the traditional make-up and outfit, which takes hours. The geisha also has to arrange her schedule in advance. So, please understand that there is a 100% cancellation fee if guests cannot participate.
- Participants will meet a real geisha, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
- Book an online reservation here.
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