The world of the geisha
The unmistakable white face, red lips and elaborately decorated hairstyle of the Geisha is an enduring image portrayed around the world as the entrance to a world to which most of us mere mortals are not invited. From somewhat sordid beginnings, today’s geisha world remains a mystery to most foreigners and Japanese alike.
Memories of a Geisha
Like most nations, Japan has always had some kind of pleasure in offering various forms of entertainment, including (of course) the erotic. As Japan cut off all contact with the outside world during the Edo era, the wealthy merchants of the cities continued to develop the arts of the country in major urban areas.
With the many courtesans of the day providing an area of satisfaction, merchants sought out other types of entertainment, including music, dance, and poetry. From these early stages, the world of geisha developed, offering a service to entertain and enchant, working alongside the highly desirable courtesan, and for most people unattainable.
As this form of entertainment progressed, the first geisha on the scene were actually men, appearing around the early 18th century. Women soon caught on, and geisha as we know her today came up with strict rules not to outshine courtesans or steal from their clients. As courtly entertainment waned after the mid-18th century, geisha took their place, peaking around the 20th century in Tokyo.
She is a modern woman
Today, if you yearn to experience geisha culture, you must head to the cultural capital of Kyoto. Fewer than a hundred geisha remain in the city, living and working in the traditional teahouses as they always have. The inevitable decline in numbers due to the strict and secular world makes this profession as elitist and enigmatic as it has ever been.
The modern geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) begins life in Kyoto okiya (geisha house) today around 15 years of age, although traditionally much younger. After learning skills in hospitality and traditional arts, she will become a maiko, an apprentice geiko.
The young maiko will follow her mentor and geiko “big sister” to appointments, observing their movements and observing the ability to replicate and reserve with clients. As a professional entertainer, the role of the geiko is not just to play music and dance, but also to make clients comfortable with witty conversation and even engage in drinking games as the evening progresses. As a hobbyist, the maiko is not expected to be all that charming and entertaining, instead relying on the ornate jewelry, rich kimono, and young looks to speak for her.
Geiko and Maiko can go on a lot of dates a night, starting around 4 p.m. and working late into the morning, running from bar to bar on their wooden geta sandals. They are usually taken on Sundays, changing into jeans, wearing their hair, and going shopping like any other young woman. If you walk through Kyoto on a Sunday, you may be passing by a geisha without even realizing it.
If you want to meet and even drink with a maiko or geiko, it’s all about who you know, and they aren’t cheap. Most only work in licensed ochaya (teahouses) in geisha districts, often hiding behind anonymous wooden doors, with small unobtrusive signs that most passersby would not detect.
For many Japanese, even those who live in Kyoto, the closest they have come is perhaps the glimpse of a geisha getting out of her taxi and disappearing behind a nameless sliding door. The ochaya manage to maintain their reputation for exclusivity with expensive bar bills and members-only rules.
When a maiko arrives for her appointment with hundreds of thousands of kilos of exquisite kimonos, jewelry and hairpieces, it is imperative that the ochaya know that she will be safe. The ochaya also bills his clients by the month, keeping a list of drinks, taxis, and geisha services running, which requires a high degree of trust. Therefore, new leads can only join if a current member recommends them and is prepared to act as guarantor.
Sisters do it for themselves
Inevitably, due to the demanding lifestyle of geisha and the pressures of the modern world, the numbers are decreasing. Competing hostess bars, karaoke boards, and the recent economic downturn have meant that tea houses have had to be less restrictive and welcome new customers and even foreign tourists. If you have money to spend, you may have a chance to meet a geisha, enjoy her company, and play the necessary drinking games in the evening.
The image of Japan is one that is constantly moving into the future, and while some may say that the geisha world is out of date and losing its dignity, the ties to the past and tradition in Japan are astonishingly long-lasting. As long as Japan continues to maintain its rich and respected primordial culture, the world of geisha as we know it will continue to survive.