Geisha – Who are they really? History and Curiosities

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Do you know what a geisha is? What is their history in Japan? Are they really prostitutes? In this article we made a complete guide to explain everything about geisha in a simple and practical way. Read below trivia, stories and many other information related to the geisha of Japan.

Geisha or Geisha [芸者] are Japanese women who study the millenary tradition of art, dance and singing. In Japan, being a geisha is a cultural condition, symbolic and full of status, delicacy and tradition.

the name itself geisha [芸者] can be literally translated as art (gei – 芸) and person” or “practitioner” (sha – 者), that is, a artist. Geisha may also be called Geiko (芸子, Geiko) or Gueigi (芸妓, Gueigi).

To facilitate navigation in this article, we have prepared a summary:

What is a geisha? What they do?

They live in neighborhoods known as hanamachi [花街] which means city of flowers. His rooms are called okia where they feed, receive advice, kimono, obis and other special tools and treatments during her geisha contract called a nenki.

Geisha - who are they really? History and curiosities

They work in places called ochaya, which are tea houses where they offer entertainment that consists of conversations, flirtation, drinks, traditional games, musical shows, singing and dancing. Geishas also often play the traditional instrument shamisen, and also play other instruments such as flute, koto, ko-tsuzumi and taiko.

In addition, they write poems, paint pictures and compose music. They learn conversation techniques and also games to entertain the guests. They also need to learn shodo calligraphy and tea ceremony. It is not necessary to be beautiful to become a geisha, just have these skills.

Geisha - who are they really? History and curiosities

Geishas are also quite mysterious, they tried to be as anonymous as possible, using stage names that gave an air of mystery and fascinated customers even more. Everything about geishas is very elaborate and delicate, from their totally complex hairstyle, their kimono, and her white makeup.

It is believed that a geisha takes around 2-3 hours just to get dressed. Currently, most of a geisha's clients are older or wealthy men who have great admiration for Japanese culture. They convey the idea of a perfect woman, and make their clients feel valued and attractive.

Geisha - who are they really? History and curiosities

Are geishas prostitutes?

Many Westerners believe that Geishas are prostitutes, a completely erroneous idea. On the contrary, Geishas were created for entertainment without sex, they were forbidden to sell sex. Geisha clients sometimes fall in love and are deceived, but they must come to terms with the reality that they will never have a geisha in their arms.

Geishas were forbidden to have relationships, because at the time prostitutes in Japan were licensed and known as Oiran (花魁) courtesans. Thus, the routine of the Geishas was completely supervised, they did not have the freedom to do what they wanted, prostituting could disrupt the Oiran's business.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

Some come to this conclusion, because in the early stages of Japan's history, there were artists called saburuko, many were without families, and ended up prostituting themselves or earning a living by entertaining the upper class at social gatherings.

Over time, the division emerged between those who did sexual favors and those who worked entertaining people with dance, art, games and music (geishas).

We don't blame Westerners for creating these confusions, both Geishas, Orians, Saburuko and other classifications of girls who worked in the leisure districts wore similar dress and makeup. Another reason for this conclusion is that indeed, some women who became Geisha were once prostitutes.

To give you an idea, the first Geishas were actually men entertaining customers who were waiting for the courtesans, they were known as "Taikomochi" or "Houkan". Becoming a geisha was a way for girls to get out of the world of prostitution and into the world of art.

Geisha - who are they really? History and curiosities

Geishas can't have relationships

Geisha were also not allowed to engage in serious relationships. If they decided to marry, for example, the geisha was forced to retire permanently from the profession.

We can compare the geisha with the current ones japanese idols, if there is any scandal of them going out or having a relationship with someone, it can ruin their career and affect the fans who are in love with them, in the same way, geishas avoid both relationships and prostitution.

Despite all this, there was a practice in the ceremony called Mizuage, where a Maiko (Apprentice) becomes Geisha. In this ceremony, her virginity was auctioned and the money was used to promote her debut. Fortunately this practice became illegal in 1959.

In any case, it is undeniable that in the past people sought these places for entertainment. So much so that they were known as “Place Blocks” (yuukaku – 游廓).

It was in these places that many things current in Japanese culture emerged, such as the Kabuki which is currently a theater performed by men, but which was formerly a sensual dance.

Geisha - who are they really? History and curiosities

What happened to the Geishas?

Geisha were quite popular in Japan, so much so that they became a female occupation. They were known as elegant, high-class women. Being a geisha was honorable and glamorous, many of them started their training from a young age, around 3-5 years old, with an average of 9 years old.

The geisha greatly diminished around the second world war, because teahouses, bars and geisha houses were forced to close, and all employees were put to work in factories for the war. The country considered the training of geishas from childhood as child labor.

The name geisha also lost its meaning, as prostitutes came to refer as geisha to American military personnel. After a while the geisha houses were allowed to be opened, the few women who returned, decided to reject western influence and resume traditional ways of entertainment and life.

Geisha - who are they really? History and curiosities

Currently there are few geisha in Japan compared to the old days, they can be found in the hanamachi geisha districts in cities like Kyoto.

Entering a teahouse or restaurant that currently has geishas is luxurious and very expensive, being a geisha is a very profitable profession, but complicated and demanding. 

In 1920 there were about 80,000 geishas. In 1970 approximately 17,000. And nowadays, it is estimated about a thousand traditional geishas

Gion Matsuri – Festival of Geishas

Gion Matsuri is one of the most famous festivals in Japan, and also the longest – taking place throughout the month of July. This festival is held in Kyoto in the Gion geisha district. However, most of the festival's main attractions don't just take place in Gion. This is a festival full of attractions.

This festival originated as part of a purification ritual (goryo-e) to calm the gods and prevent fires, floods and earthquakes. This practice was repeated whenever an outbreak occurred. In 970, it was decreed as an annual event.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

The Yamaboko Float

The peak of the festival is the Yamaboko parades on July 17th and July 24th. The streets of Gion are reserved for foot traffic three days before. Vendors offer snacks and games on the streets, and many people attend these days wearing traditional Yukata.

The floats at Yoiyama Parade are divided into two groups, Hoko and Yama, which are called Yamaboko (or Yamahoko). There are 9 of the large Hokos (with long sticks or halberds), which represent the 66 spears used in the original purification ritual, and 23 of the smaller Yamas, which carry life-size figures of important and famous people.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

All the floats are decorated with beautiful tapestries from Nishijin (the best in all of Japan) or imported from various parts of the world. In addition to the artistic elements, there are many traditional musicians and artists on top of the cars.

the floats Hoko they are usually heavy and dangerous, reaching up to 12,000 kg and 25 meters in height. Its wheels are usually approximately 2 meters in diameter. Yama cars usually weigh a ton and a half, and are usually 6 meters tall.

Gion Matsuri is perhaps the best event in Japan for geisha fans and photographers. You can find the most famous and traditional Geisha, Maiko and Tayu.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

Hanamachi – Geisha Districts

Kyoto has several geisha or hanamachi districts, known for their Ochaya teahouses. The atmosphere of the hanamachi brings you back to the Edo era, most of these districts are filled with restaurants and nightlife. Kyoto is a historic and traditional city, where you can find the best Hanamachi of Geishas from all over Japan.

The word Hanamachi means City of Flowers which are the Geixa districts, where the ochaya, which are the teahouses where the Geishas offer entertainment consisting of conversations, flirtation, drinks, traditional games, musical shows, singing and dancing.

Geishas live in a Thekiya a Pension where it offers all special treatment to Geishas and they live there for the duration of their nenki (contract or career as a geisha). Now let's see the 4 Major Hanamachi or Geisha Districts of Kyoto City:

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

Gion – The largest geisha district in Japan

Gion is the largest and most exclusive geisha district in Japan. The Ochaya in Gion are the exclusive havens of wealthy individuals in Japan. It is also common for foreign dignitaries and important guests to be invited.

For the general public, the best place to see geisha and maiko is the streets of Gion. Many tourists walk the streets of Gion hoping to see one, but it's not easy. I didn't get a chance to see any myself, but the streets are beautiful for pictures.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

There is also an annual evolution of Gion geisha called Miyako Odori (Cherry Blossom Dance). It is held each night in April at the historic No Theater in Kaburenjo. This attraction has been held annually since 1869.

Pontocho – The district on the kamogawa river

Pontocho is a street near the hanamachi of Gion, parallel to the river, formed by shops, tea houses and restaurants. All the architecture is original to the sec. XII and withstood destruction and modernization, remaining untouched to this day.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

Pontocho is centered around a narrow stone corridor that spans about six blocks. The area is filled with restaurants and a variety of neon lighting up the nightlife.

Most of the restaurants on the east side of the alley overlook the Kamogawa River. Some offer a dining platform over the river known as a kawayuka.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

 The “back” part of the street is on the banks of the Kamo River, and the restaurants' balconies create a very picturesque look. Your chance of encountering Geishas or Maiko in this region is quite high. A place to enjoy the river on the edge of a lawn that even play soccer.

Miyagawacho – Hanamichi with kabuki

Miyagawacho has a large entertainment area along the banks of the Kamo River. In addition to several Ochaya, you will find the famous Kabuki Minamiza theater in Miyagawacho which sometimes features Geisha performances.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

In this region there are several performances involving geishas and maiko, you can easily buy a ticket and watch a show. A very popular event is Miyako Odori, which only runs for a few weeks in April.

Miyagawacho was once home to many kabuki theaters that took place on the riverbank, there were even teahouses operating on riverboats.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

Kamishichiken – the music district

Kamishichiken [上七軒] literally means 7 upper houses and refers to the seven tea houses constructed from materials from the reconstruction of Kitano Shrine in the Muromachi Era (1333-1573).

In the neighborhood there are about 25 geisha and maiko who work in 10 Ochaya. The geishas in this district are known for their excellent music. Here you will find the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo theater and events like Kitano Odori.

Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

Kamishichiken is one of Kyoto's oldest Geisha neighborhoods. Unlike the other areas that are in the center of the city close to each other, this one is located further away, so it is quieter and has fewer tourists. 

Classifications and Formations of Geishas

The children or daughters who were trained as geishas were known as hangyoku. At the time, it required a long training to become geisha and they went through the following stages:

  • Shikomi – Means “servant”;
  • Minarai – It means “to learn by observing”;
  • Hangyuku – It means half-jewel – they get half the salary of a geisha. (Maiko)
  • maiko – Final stage of training, means “the girl who dances”;
Geisha – who are they really? History and curiosities

Currently women can directly become geisha or maiko. A woman over 21 is too old to become a maiko, so she already becomes a geisha.

Girls can become apprentices (Maiko) before the age of 18. They do and learn everything from their onee-san, an experienced geisha who serves as their tutor. Being Maiko has its perks and prestige, they are at the height of femininity. After 5 years as Maiko, or as they get older they become Geisha and earn much more.

Geishas were allowed to have a danna, a wealthy man who paid for their training. There was no exchange of sexual favors, but in some cases there could be a forbidden romance between the two.

If a geisha decided to marry, she would participate in a ceremony Hiki Iwai (separation celebration), so she stopped being a geisha and sometimes found a danna protector who supported her.

Geisha - who are they really? History and curiosities

Differentiating Geisha from Maiko

To tell a geisha from a Maiko, just look at her collar. A Maiko often wears brightly colored kimonos and a red collar. While a Geisha usually wears muted colors and a white collar.

There are many details about the geisha that have not been mentioned. That's a lot of information for just one article, so let's end it here. We recommend that you also read other related articles:

Unfortunately, we know of few anime or stories that have geishas or maiko as protagonists, but we will try to mention a few below:

  • Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu;
  • We also recommend the movie Memoirs of a Geisha;

Questions about Geishas

How do geisha sleep?

The apprentices spend hours doing the hairstyle and, in order not to mess it up, sleep on a wooden brick (geisha older women can wear a wig).

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