What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (2024)

What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (1)

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Bryce was born in California, but raised from the age of 3 near Seattle, Washington. He’s been living in Tokyo for about 7 years, and graduated from Temple University, Japan with degrees in economics and international business. He loves traveling of course, but also cooking, snowboarding, some video games as well. His biggest interest is songwriting/music production,more specifically electronic music… (think Skrillex, Marshmello, Daft Punk, etc.) He also has terrible humor as you’ll notice, but he hopes you’ll enjoy it!

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Japan undoubtedly has a distinct culture full of iconic themes, elements, and long lasting traditions. The likelihoods of sumo, samurai, ninja, and geisha, among others, certainly come to mind quickly when people think “Japan.” All of these are symbolic to the heritage and have dynamic histories and captivating stories. Geisha are certainly easily recognizable with their elegant kimono, stark-white makeup, and elaborate hairstyles. As prolific as their image is, it’s often misunderstood what their profession is and how it has developed over the centuries. Often assumed to be courtesans, geisha are actually quite different as “gei” means art and “sha” means someone who does. Basically, they are more like private entertainers and purveyors of Japanese traditions; they sing, dance, play instruments, converse, and perform other arts for their audiences. Their roles are quite unique and don’t really have a western counterpart to compare to, so let’s dive into the details of what geisha are and where they can be found today.

In case you want to skip the article and learn first hand, consider this incredible interactive tour in Gion, the main geisha town in Japan!

Meet a Geisha in Kyoto: Exclusive Geisha Show in GionGet the real Kyoto Maiko experience with us! Experience Maiko dance and music with a powerful, authentic performance/liv...www.japanwondertravel.com

  • The History of Geisha
  • Geisha in Training
  • Makeup
  • Hair
  • Kimono
  • Where to See Geisha Today
  • Conclusion
  • Japan Wonder Travel Tours in Kyoto
    • Find Other Experience
  • Other Articles you Might be Interested in:

The History of Geisha

What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (4)

Geishas of the past hardly resemble the modern geishas seen today. The first “geisha” appeared in the 13th century and were originally men known as “taikomochi”. These men acted as both advisors and entertainers for their lord. By the 16th century, they became more akin to storytellers, focusing on creating conversation and inciting humor. Around the 17th-century women started becoming geishas. By the 1750s, female geisha began to outnumber the men.

What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (5)

Perhaps the misconception that geisha were courtesans is linked to their roles of being assistants to oiran, who were high class courtesans during the Edo period from 1603-1886. Oiran were in fact high class courtesans who lived in the pleasure quarters of the cities, yet they began to be replaced by geisha in the early 1800s despite the regulations that had been set in place preventing geisha from having personal relationships with customers. Geisha were cheaper and more accessible which contributed to their rise in popularity; about 80,000 were present throughout Japan in the 1920s. Today they are vital to upholding Japanese traditions, history, and culture, and their diligent training starts as early as the age of 14 and takes more than 5 years to become a geisha, officially.

Geisha in Training

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The aspiring girls must board at a house called an “okiya” where they will live and train amongst each other under the guidance of their headmaster or “Okaa-san” (lit. “mother”). Here they will learn a large variety of behaviors, dances, and other performances. When the training starts, the girls receive the title of “shikomi,” which lasts about 3 months to a year and is followed by a short stage called “minarai” lasting only 2 weeks to a month. After that, they receive the title of “maiko” which is the longest stage lasting about 2-6 years. After a maiko is 20 years old, she is able to become a geisha at the discretion of the Okaa-san; there is no official test to determine this transition.

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While their style of solid white with red accents is simple, it is actually a very difficult process that is a feat to perfect and takes hours every time it’s applied. The white base is actually a white powder called “oshiroi” and is mixed with water to create a paste. The back of the neck is not fully covered in oshiroi, and features 2 or 3 lines to accentuate this traditionally erotic area. Light pink powder called “tonoko” is used for contouring, especially around the nose and eyes. Eyebrows are painted black, and sometimes geisha shave them off to make the process easier.

What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (10)

The lips are painted with a red paste called “beni,” and it is applied differently depending on age. Younger maiko only have their lower lip painted to make them appear more innocent, while older maiko as well as geisha have both painted to show maturity. The whole process takes up to an hour and is done before the kimono is put on to avoid it getting dirty.


What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (11)

A geisha’s hair is just as intricately prepared as any other part of the appearance, with a myriad of different styles and ornaments. Much like the lipstick and other things, the age and status affects how the hair is styled and prepared. Geisha actually wear wigs, whereas maiko are required to use their own hair. at a point in history, the supplies for making wigs became scarce, so what was available was used for the higher-level geisha. Using their natural hair is quite a feat as it takes hours to style, they cant wash it for a week at a time, and requires a special pillow while sleeping. The styles also vary, the first is called “Warenoshinobu” that a maiko will wear for the first 2-years until they switch to “Of*cku”.

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Geisha will have their wig styled in the “Geiko Shimada” style. The ornaments called “kanzashi” are also very important; they are carefully placed and chosen specifically to reflect the geisha’s status or the season. For example, plum-themed ornaments are used in February, while sakura-themed ornaments are reserved for April.


What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (13)

Maiko and Geisha wear kimono that are different from typical kimono that women wear in Japan. There are actually a variety of different types of kimono, all used for different situations. Geisha and maiko almost always wear the type called “hikizuri,” named for the trailing skirt style and its length. These also feature a collar that droops down further behind their neck as this area of the body was historically a sensual focal point. They are also known to have a long, flowing style to accentuate the elegance. Though, the appearance of the kimono also varies quite distinctly between geisha and maiko.

What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (14)

You may notice that the lining, called “nagajuban” (especially seen behind the neck) is either white or red; red indicates the woman is a maiko and white indicates they have graduated and become a geisha. Maiko also usually wear much more vibrant designs and colors with very long sleeves, both to grab attention and to signify their immaturity or innocence. Geisha wear much more subdued yet elegant varieties to show their maturity and sophistication and they are even less extravagant than many kimono you may see worn aside from maiko and geisha. Another difference between them is the obi, or belt/sash that wraps around the middle of their body and is affixed decoratively on their back. Maiko will have a much longer, heavier, and more elaborate style, whereas geisha will have a shorter (about half) and lighter style.

If you want to try on kimono and explore the city in it, check out the kimono rental shops!
Kimono Rental Shops

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Where to See Geisha Today

What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (17)

In contrast to the staggering 80,000 geisha that graced Japan in the past, only about 1000 geisha are traditionally performing and entertaining today. Most of them work in Kyoto, where they are actually called “geiko.” They can be found in Tokyo and Kanazawa, but Kyoto is clearly the most prestigious and has the strictest practices. In Kyoto, there are 5 “Hanamachi” (lit. “flower city, meaning a geisha district); 4 of which are located in the Gion area, which is regarded as the geisha “capital” of Japan. Hanamachi ” are where the okiya are found, as well as “ochaya” (tea houses) and “ryoutei” (high class, traditional restaurants) where they perform and entertain.

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The ochaya and ryoutei are extremely selective with their clientele and only allow trusted individuals in; it’s not uncommon for the establishments to only accept customers that are connected with already trusted customers. In some cases, the customers are not actually billed at the end of the experience, rather they are billed monthly in the form of a tab that includes the room costs, taxi costs, as well as food and costs of the geiko’s services. A word to the wise: as a visitor, you must be very respectful to any geiko or maiko you may see. In recent years, complaints of tourists behaving inappropriately towards geiko and maiko have been increasing rapidly. In order to protect their heritage and livelihood, be sure not to disturb them as they go about their business.

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We hope you’ve learned about who geisha are, what they do, and how such a livelihood has come to be. Japan has a precious heritage that spans across many customs, professions, art, and traditions, each with their unique characteristics and depth. Geisha especially are experts on various types of Japanese traditions and customs; interacting with them is a privilege and an eye opening experience of Japanese culture. These fascinating individuals have dedicated precious time into their profession and are highly respected by locals, so be sure to join them and show your respect as well! You’ll certainly be lucky to be able to enjoy an authentic geisha experience!

Japan Wonder Travel Tours in Kyoto

When you are visiting Kyoto and you need some help organizing your trip, you came to the right place. We’re happy to help you make your trip to Kyoto the best trip ever. We can advise you on where to go or even better, show you around with a local, English speaking guide. Let us help you create safe, comfortable, and unforgettable memories in Kyoto!

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Kyoto Arashiyama Best Spots 4h Private Tour with Licensed Guide
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If you’re looking to learn more about the culture and the local cuisine of Kyoto, this is the perfect tour for you! Take part in this Kyoto food and drink tour and explore the 400-year-old market and the famous surrounding areas.

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Find Other Experience

Kimono Rental
Kyoto is the best city to explore in kimono, Japanese traditional clothing. You can choose the one you like the most from several patterns and colors at the rental shop. In Kyoto, two locations are both accessible from the main tourist attractions which makes it easy to try it on and explore the city for a day!

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What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today (2024)


What is a Geisha? History of Geisha and Where they are Today? ›

The word 'geisha' stems from the Japanese 'gei' (art) and 'sha' (person). Put together, the word literally means 'artistic person'. People in the geisha profession are also referred to as 'geiko', which is the word for geisha in Kyoto dialect, the city where most of today's geishas now reside.

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 a geisha in modern times? ›

Geisha (芸者) (/ˈɡeɪʃə/; Japanese: [ɡeːɕa]), also known as geiko (芸子) (in Kyoto and Kanazawa) or geigi (芸妓), are female Japanese performing artists and entertainers trained in traditional Japanese performing arts styles, such as dance, music and singing, as well as being proficient conversationalists and hosts.

Do geishas still exist today? ›

Nowadays, there are just 1,000 geisha left in Japan, most of whom live and work predominantly in Tokyo and Kyoto. These modern geisha tend to remain within their district, where they're treated with the utmost respect by Japanese locals, and not approached for photos or conversation.

Are geishas allowed to marry? ›

Geisha cannot get married. The rule of this profession is “being married to the art, not a man”. If they want to get married, they have to quit the job. Once they quit, it's usually impossible to come back, however they can debut from the beginning in a different city, under a different name and rules.

Why do geishas have white faces? ›

The white face makeup customary to geisha and maiko originated in China. At that time, they wore thick white makeup because it looked better in the light, particularly if they were to perform to or entertain nobles. In the dim candlelight, wearing thick white makeup created a porcelain look.

What is the purpose of being a geisha? ›

If you've ever wondered about Japan's most intriguing cultural tradition, look no further. Geishas are highly respected in Japan. The primary role of a geisha – throughout history and in the modern day – is to professionally entertain, usually at teahouses and restaurants for parties of businessmen.

Do geishas get paid? ›

Jimae Geiko get all of the money they earn, but also have to pay rent for an appartment in their hanamachi or close to it (which are expensive), bills, lessons (at least 2,500 USD a month), makeup, the hairdresser (mainly during odori-season), have to pay an okiya or ochaya for scheduling their appointments and are ...

Who is the most famous geisha today? ›

Mineko Iwasaki - The Most Famous Geisha

I think that her story is amazing and inspiring, and I want to share with you some of the key points. Mineko was born in 1949 in Kyoto and was adopted by the owner of an okiya (geisha house) when she was five years old.

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.

Do geishas still sleep with clients? ›

Geisha never sleep with their clients as it goes against the rules of the organizations they belong to.

Is Memoirs of a geisha a true story? ›

No, it is not based on a true story. However, a real geisha, named Mineko Iwasaki, sued the author of the book because of defamation. Surprisingly, not the plot, but some characters in the book resembled some of the real characters in Mineko Iwasaki's life that she shared with the author in a private conversation.

Can you take a picture of a geisha? ›

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 ($102 AUD).

Can a geisha 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.

Who is the longest living geisha? ›

Tsutakiyokomatsu Asaji, 102, believed to be Japan's oldest geisha. Born Haru Kato, Asaji spent nearly 90 years as a geisha, a word literally meaning “arts person.” She had continued performing the refined songs and dances of geisha tradition until April, when illness forced her to retire.

What did male geisha do? ›

These male “people of the arts” (the literal meaning of the term) would attend parties in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and keep guests entertained by singing, dancing, and making jokes.

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.

What is a geisha's daily routine? ›

A typical day for Nanoha starts at 9am. There is a group dance practice at 10am, then a group lunch, followed by a short nap. By 4pm, she starts getting ready, has a light meal and heads off to her engagements by 6pm. Her night usually ends by 1am and she returns to the okiya (maiko house).

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.

What is the life of a geisha girl? ›

Geisha, at the most fundamental level, are professional entertainers. They are trained in a variety of Japanese traditional arts, such as dancing, singing, flute, and shamisen (a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument), as well as the art of hospitality.

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