The Secret World of Geishas
Geisha are professional hostesses who entertain guests through various performing arts. Gei means arts or performance, and sha means people. Geisha are not ordinary hostesses and are not prostitutes. It’s believed that the women who danced for warriers in the 11th century are the predecessors of geisha. Geisha girls and women are trained in a number of traditional skills; Japanese ancient dance, singing, playing instruments (a three stringed instrument called shamisen is an essential instrument), flower arrangement, wearing kimono, tea ceremony, calligraphy, conversation, alcohol serving manners, and more.
Geisha girls and women are talented Japanese women who patiently go through extensive training. Even after becoming a geisha girl, they keep improving their skills by taking many lessons. Nowadays, there are geisha girls and women who learn English conversation to serve English-speaking customers and learn computer skills. The work of geisha is expanding these days, including modeling or international tours, for example. The districts where many geisha girls and women gather are called hanamachi (kagai). Some hanamachi were developed near temples and shrines where many o-chaya located. Geisha used to entertain visitors at o-chaya. The o-chaya type of teahouse is completely different from those shops that merely serve tea or coffee. It’s a sort of banquet house, which rents rooms for dinner parties. An o-chaya is usually a small Japanese-style house with wooden doors and tatami floors or Japanese-style gardens. Some o-chaya also train geisha and are places for maiko (young geisha girls) to live and go to work. Those o-chaya are also called okiya.
Girls who wish to become a geisha, have to go through a rigid apprenticeship during which they learn various traditional arts such as playing instruments, singing, dancing, but also conversation and other social skills. In Kyoto, geisha apprentices are called “maiko”. Geisha are dressed in a kimono, and their faces are made up very pale. As a common tourist, you may be able to spot a maiko in some districts of Kyoto, such as Gion and Pontocho or in Kanazawa’s Higashi Geisha District.
Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi (?? “flower towns”), particularly during their apprenticeship. Many experienced geisha are successful enough to choose to live independently. The elegant, high-culture world that geisha are a part of is called kary?kai (??? “the flower and willow world”).
Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing junior high school or even high school or college, with many women beginning their careers in adulthood. Geisha still study traditional instruments like the shamisen, shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony, literature and poetry. By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, and in dealing with clients.
Kyoto is considered by many to be where the geisha tradition is the strongest today, including Gion Kobu. The geisha in these districts are known as geiko. The Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also well known.
In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today there are far fewer. The exact number is unknown to outsiders, and is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000, mostly in the resort town of Atami. Most common are sightings of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.
A sluggish economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the exclusive nature of the flower and willow world, and the expense of being entertained by geisha have all contributed to the tradition’s decline.
Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (ochaya) or at traditional Japanese restaurants (rytei). Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn, and is called senk?dai (“incense stick fee”) or gyokudai (“jewel fee”). In Kyoto the terms “ohana” (“hanadai” ), meaning “flower fees”, are preferred. The customer makes arrangements through the geisha union office (kenban), which keeps each geisha’s schedule and makes her appointments both for entertaining and for training.