Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

Do you know what a geisha is? What is their story in Japan? Are they really prostitutes? In this article, we have made a comprehensive guide to explain everything about geishas in a simple and practical way. Read below curiosities, stories and many other information related to Japan's geishas.

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

The very name geisha [芸者] can literally be translated as art (gei - 芸) and person "or" practitioner "(sha - 者), that is, a artist. Geishas can 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. Its rooms are called okyia where they eat, receive advice, kimono, obis and other special tools and treatments during your geisha contract called nenki.

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

They work in places called Ochaya, which are tea houses where they offer entertainment consisting of conversations, flirting, 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 images and compose music. They learn conversational techniques and also games to entertain 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 very mysterious, they tried to be as anonymous as possible, using artistic 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 about 2 to 3 hours just to get ready. Today, most geisha customers are older or wealthy men who have a great admiration for Japanese culture. They convey the idea of a perfect woman, and make her 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 relate, because at the time prostitutes in Japan were licensed and known as Oiran (花魁) courtesans. Thus, the Geisha's routine was completely supervised, they did not have the freedom to do what they want, prostitution 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 making a living by entertaining the upper class in social gatherings.

In time, the division between those who did sexual favors and those who worked entertained people with dance, art, games and music (geisha).

We do not blame Westerners for creating these confusions, both Geishas, Orians, Saburuko and other classifications of girls who worked in leisure districts, wore similar clothing 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 expected 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 cannot have relationships

Geisha also couldn't get involved in serious relationships. If they decided to marry, for example, the geisha was forced to retire permanently from the profession.

We can compare geishas with current ones Japanese Idols, if there is a scandal that they go out or have a relationship with someone, it can ruin their career and affect fans who are in love with them, in the same way, geishas avoid both relationships and prostitution.

Despite all this, there was a practice at the ceremony called Mizuage, where a Maiko (Apprentice) Becomes Geisha. In this ceremony, his virginity was auctioned and the money was used to promote his 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 “Quarteirões do Prazer” (yuukaku - 游廓).

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

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

What happened to the Geishas?

Geishas were quite popular in Japan, so much so that they even 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 to 5 years old, with an average of 9 years.

Geishas declined sharply around the second world war, because tea houses, bars and geisha houses were forced to close, and all employees were put to work in factories for the war. The country considered training since the childhood of geishas as child labor.

The name geisha has also lost its meaning because prostitutes have come to refer to themselves as geishas for American military personnel. After a while the geisha houses were allowed to open, the few women who returned, decided to reject the Western influence and resume traditional forms of entertainment and life.

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

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

Entering a tea house or restaurant that currently has geishas is something 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 today, it is estimated about a thousand traditional geishas

Gion Matsuri - Geisha Festival

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 happen 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 avoid fires, floods and earthquakes. This practice was repeated whenever an outbreak occurred. In 970, it was enacted as an annual event.

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

Yamaboko's Float

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

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

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

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

The floats Hoko they are often heavy and dangerous, even reaching 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 tea houses. The atmosphere of hanamachi brings you back to the Edo era, most of these districts are filled with restaurants and nightlife attractions. Kyoto is a historical 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 Geisha districts, where the Ochaya, which are the teahouses where Geishas offer entertainment consisting of conversations, flirting, drinks, traditional games, musical shows, singing and dancing.

Geishas live in a Thekiya a Pension where the Geishas offer all special treatment and they live there for the duration of their nenki (contract or career as a geisha). Now let’s see the 4 Biggest Hanamachi or Geisha Districts of the city of Kyoto:

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

Gion – Japan's largest geisha district

Gion is Japan’s largest and most exclusive geisha neighborhood. The Ochaya in Gion are the exclusive havens of wealthy individuals in Japan. It is also common for foreign dignitaries and important guests who are 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 some, but it is not easy. I didn’t have a chance to see any myself, but the streets are beautiful for photos.

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

There is also an annual evolution of Gion’s geisha called Miyako Odori (cherry blossom dance). It is held every night in April at the historic No Teatro de Kaburenjo. This attraction has been held annually since 1869.

Pontocho - The district on the kamogawa river

Pontocho is a street next to Gion’s hanamachi, parallel to the river, formed by shops, tea houses and restaurants. All architecture is original to the sec. XII and resisted destruction and modernization, remaining untouched until today.

Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

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

Most 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” of the street is on the banks of the River Kamo, and the restaurant balconies create a very picturesque look. Your chance of finding Geishas or Maiko in this region is quite high. A place to enjoy the river on the edge of a lawn that even stops 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 occurred on the river bank, there were even tea houses that operate on boats on the river.

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 the Kitano Shrine in the Muromachi Period (1333-1573).

In the neighborhood there are about 25 geishas 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 in the city center close to each other, this one is located farther away, so it is quieter and has fewer tourists. 

Geisha Classifications and Formations

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

  • Shikomi - It means "servant";
  • Minarai - It means “learning by observing”;
  • Hangyuku - It means half-jewelry - they receive half the salary of a geisha. (Maiko)
  • Maiko - Final phase of training, means “the girl who dances”;
Geisha - Who Are They Really? History and curiosities

Nowadays women can directly become geisha or maiko. A woman over 21 is too old to become a maiko, so she is already 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 a tutor. Being Maiko has its advantages and prestige, they are at the height of femininity. After 5 years as Maiko, or as they age, they become Geisha and profit much more.

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

If a geisha decides to get married, she attended a ceremony Hiki Iwai (celebration of separation), 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 differentiate a geisha from a Maiko, just look at its collar. A Maiko usually wears brightly colored kimonos and a red collar. While a Geisha usually wears soft colors and a white collar.

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

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

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

Questions about Geishas

How do geishas sleep?

The apprentices take hours doing the hairstyle and, in order not to undo it, sleep on a wooden brick (geisha older women may wear a wig).

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