Understanding Geisha | Blog | Travel Japan (Japan National Tourism Organization) (2024)

There are few people out there, with even the vaguest knowledge of Japan, who would fail to recognise the poise and grace of a perfectly-coiffed, chalk-faced lady decked out in fine silk kimono and precarious footwear. But rather thantheir iconic style, it’s the secrecy surrounding their profession that has fueled the curiosity of foreigners and locals alike.

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Geikoare still part of the Kyoto arts scene

Even a brief glimpse of geisha on the dimly-lit streets of one of Kyoto’s go-kagai (five geisha districts) can be a great thrill. Luckily for visitors who are especially keen for a more meaningful encounter with geisha, though, this is gradually becoming easier.

Geisha, literally meaning “arts person” are best described as high-end entertainers. They train in a wide range of traditional performing arts, as well as etiquette, and most often, tea ceremony. Most of the roughly 250 working geisha today in Kyoto are not from the city, and so are obliged to study the Kyoto dialect too. The art of conversation is another skill these young women must master in their career, so they sometimes take classes in current affairs in order to better relate to their clientele, who are usually high-earning professionals or executives.

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Geikotrain in a wide variety of performing arts and entertainment

Geisha trainees will ideally start at 15 years of age, after completing junior high school. They live at an “okiya” residence, run by an okami, a mother figure likely to have been a geisha herself in her youth. After about a year, or when their okami sees fit, they start to attend receptions as a maiko apprentice, in the iconic garb and makeup.

Training lasts five or six years before the women become fully-fledged geisha (called geiko in Kyoto) and thereafter live independently.

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Around 6pm and 9pm are the best opportunities to spot geikoon the streets of Kyoto

In spite of the glamour—and sometimes, fame—the job of a geisha is not for everyone. It entails a grueling schedule, with engagements running late into the night. The essentials are costly: a newly independentgeisha will pay millions of yen for several kimono, props and a special wig unless they find a patron. Needless to say, dropout rates among new recruits can be high!

Geisha engagements are invariably in the evening at ochaya “teahouses” or the banquet rooms of restaurants, so the likelihood of seeing them between such appointments will be highest from around 6pm, and again around two-to-three hours later. These ochaya usually only accept customers on an introduction-only basis.

The good news is that there are many travel agencies and hotels in Kyoto lately with connections to the geisha world, that will arrange group and private receptions for you. These experiences can include drinks, dinner, an interpreter and a jikata musician. There are many options out there, so do some sleuthing to see what suits you and your budget.

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Geiko perform at select public events throughout the year

Geiko and maiko have several engagements through the year, which members of the public have the opportunity to witness — though be prepared to compete with hordes of camera-wielding fans for the best vantage point! Some free opportunities to see geisha are when they toss soy beans into the crowd at the Setsubun Festival in February, or liberate thousands of goldfish from wooden pails into a Gion stream during the Buddhist Hojo-e ceremony in June.

In case you needed additional reasons to visit Kyoto in the spring, four of the annual geisha dances are held between late March and late May. The Kamogawa Odori, Kyo Odori, Miyako Odori and Kitano Odori take place at each of the dedicated kaburenjo theaters for each district. Tickets can usually be purchased on the day, with an optional bowl of tea beforehand. These performances, usually a combination of dance and theater, are a feast for the eyes, with sumptuous sets and props. The repertoire also rotates each year. Only the Gion Odori is held at the height of the autumn season, in November.

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Most geiko and maiko live and work in Kyoto

When it comes to certain events on the geisha calendar, though, a little knowledge of Japanese goes a long way. There are geisha fan groups online, and those with insider information will post about special occasions, such as upcoming maiko debut, called misedashi, or erikae, when a maiko qualifies to become a geiko. There are also a small number of geisha using Instagram too, who may post about forthcoming events.

  • About the author

    Understanding Geisha | Blog | Travel Japan (Japan National Tourism Organization) (6)

    Lucinda "Ping" Cowing is an Asia travel specialist, and director at the award-winning, non-profit magazine, Kyoto Journal. She lives a nomadic existence, moving between Japan, Taiwan and Portugal.

Understanding Geisha | Blog | Travel Japan (Japan National Tourism Organization) (2024)


What is the difference between a maiko and a geisha? ›

Since maiko and geisha are both in the "hospitality business," it can be easy to confuse them. However, a simple way of differentiating the two is that a geisha has already completed her training, while a maiko is an apprentice geisha.

What exactly does a geisha girl do? ›

The Japanese word geisha literally means “art person,” and singing, dancing, and playing the samisen (a lutelike instrument) are indispensable talents for a geisha, along with the ability to make conversation. Many geisha are also adept at flower arranging, performing the tea ceremony, or calligraphy.

What is the etiquette for geishas? ›

According to the official Kyoto city instructions for proper geisha etiquette: Do not stop, touch, follow, or take unauthorized photos/videos of any geiko (regional term for geisha) or maiko (apprentice geisha) you see walking around the Gion district.

How much do maiko get paid? ›

What is geisha's salary? Maiko (apprentice geisha) don't receive any salary, as they are in training. The okiya (maiko lodging house) pays for everything, starting with food, taxis, and accommodation, to kimono and classes. Maiko get some small stipend each month, so they can go shopping during their days off.

Can geisha have boyfriends? ›

' As such, geisha are prohibited from getting married and would have to quit the profession if they want to marry. They're also not allowed to have boyfriends, which can make the job less desirable for many women. That said, many patrons will develop an affection for a particular geisha.

Why do geisha wear white makeup? ›

The history of a geisha's iconic makeup goes back to the Heian Period (794-1185) where nobility wore the white paste in front of the emperor so that their faces would stand out in the candlelight. During this period, the influence of Chinese culture included trends in beauty and practice.

What is the geisha seduction? ›

For five years the geisha is rigorously trained in the most sensual traditional arts but it's through the smallest movements that she bewitches. As shown so brilliantly in the movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha': a good geisha can bring a man to his knees by merely exposing her wrist when she pours him tea.

How do geishas sleep? ›

How do Geisha sleep? Maiko would often be trained to sleep using a Takamura as a pillow to maintain their hairstyle. While geiko or geisha would sometimes do the same, some opt to use a wig because the hairstyle often damages the natural hair over time.

Why do girls want to be geishas? ›

Cultural Interest and Curiosity: Participants, especially women, express a strong interest in understanding the cultural aspects of being a geisha. Some believe that women are generally more curious and interested in exploring different cultures, such as Japanese culture through the geisha experience.

Are geishas celibate? ›

It is not officially said that Geisha can not have sexual relationships with their clients, but it has always remained unofficial for elegance and prestige images.

Is it illegal to take a picture of a geisha? ›

Plenty of rules, little enforcement

Today, signs in three languages also explain that geisha photography is not allowed without a permit, and that violators could be charged up to ¥10,000 ($67). However, according to Ota, this fine is unenforceable.

Can you take a picture with a geisha? ›

Per CNN, there have been reports of “badly behaved visitors tugging at women's kimonos, chasing them around with cameras and smartphones, pulling out their hair ornaments (kanzashi) and even hitting them with cigarette butts.” Authorities have posted signs prohibiting photography (and selfie sticks!) in the small ...

What happens to geishas when they get old? ›

Geishas are required to remain unmarried, but can work in the profession as long as they want without retiring. So even now, aged 80, Ikuko is not only head of the Akasaka Geisha Association – she's also a practicing geisha.

Can geishas have children? ›

This strict rule is only enforced because a geisha is expected to be married to her work, and a husband could distract her. However, Kyoto women can enter civil unions and raise children without giving up their careers. Outside of Kyoto, geisha have been known to get married, start a family, and continue working.

Are geishas respected? ›

Geisha are not prostitutes and are highly respected for their deep level of training in many arts and activities. They are also master conversationalists, and usually the life of the party.

How long does it take for a maiko to become a geisha? ›

Nanoha said it usually takes four to five years of training to graduate from maiko to geiko. “Kozakura is 18 years old and has been training for three years. She's very serious about her training.” Nanoha herself was only promoted to geiko in November 2022.

Do maiko and geisha still exist? ›

In modern Japan, geisha and their apprentices are a rarer sight outside of the hanamachi or chayagai (茶屋街, "tea house district", often referred to as "entertainment district"); most sightings of geisha and maiko in and around cities such as Kyoto are actually tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as either a maiko or ...

Is a geisha a concubine? ›

Geisha were entertainers who were indentured to geisha houses through a contract system, whereas concubines had a 'stable, ongoing sexual relationship' with a man of the household but occupied a position below the wife. In Japan, concubines were registered as part of the household until 1882.

What do maiko sleep on? ›

Maiko, unlike Geiko, use their own hair and not wigs so they have to go to the Nihongami hairdresser once a week, and sleep on a Takamakura (high wooden pillow) in order to maintain it.

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