Geisha, also known in Kyoto as Geiko, are traditional hostesses and entertainers for Japanese men. They are perhaps best known for their elaborate kimonos and white face paint, though geisha apprentices, called maiko, more commonly wear the bright white paint. While many observers believe geisha are prostitutes, traditionally geisha and prostitutes were different and distinct professions in Japan. While Japan once had an estimated 80,000 geisha, today the number is down to 1,000 to 2,000 geisha, most famously in Kyoto, but also in other cities including Tokyo.
In Kyoto, the Geiko districts are called Hanamachi, or flower towns. There are five distinct Hanamachi in Kyoto, Gion Kōbu and, Miyagawa-cho, Kamishichiken, and Ponto-chō. Four of these five areas are located around Gion Shijo Station on both sides of the river. Kamishichiken is the only area outside of the city center, but it is small with only about 25 geisha and maiko.
In Gion at a Geisha bar. Again, this was only possible via an introduction. The Geisha were more sophisticated than the Maiko. They focused on the male members of our party. I asked a friend who often attends functions where Geisha are invited to entertain and she told me this was perfectly normal. Women don't go to Gion bars. The Geisha in this picture was taking part in the Gion Odori (yearly Geisha dance) the next day, yet here she was up in the early hours of the morning the night before!
A geisha is recognised by the more subtle kimono (robe-like dress). It is often not as bright and colourful as the Maiko's (pls see sep tip). The kimono only got one colour most of the time and it's based on tradtional Japanese themes. Also the obi (the broad 'waistbelt') is more subtle than the Maiko's. A geisha wears white collars under the kimono and this is a sign of maturity. While a Maiko wears tall okobo (clog-like laquered shoes) a geisha wears flat ones called zohri. Both geisha and maiko got a full white make-up and very red lips.
A geisha is trained in entertainment skills such as dance, singing and playing Shamisen (a 3-stringed guitar-like instrument) but they should also be refined in the art of conversation. A geisha is a carer and entertainer of men visiting a tea house.
In Kyoto it is very popular to be 'geisha for a day'. In Gion you can get the full makeup and rent a kimono for the day and head out on the streets to get the feel of people staring at you and want to take pictures. So if you are after a picture of a real geisha sticking to the teahouses in Gion is a hot tip. On wooden boards on the walls you can see how many geisha or maiko work at the teahouse (pls see seperate tip).
Since I didnt have a pic of a geisha I borrowed this one from: http://www.pixelparadox.com/pic/images/geisha.jpg
A maiko is a geisha apprentice and as far as I know they are only found in Kyoto. A maiko can be recognised by the differences on her kimono and obi. They are often a bit more colourful and brightly coloured than the the ones of the more mature geisha. Also the obi is often much longer and tied in a different way. (The obi is the broad 'belt' around her waist. And kimono the dresslike 'robe'). A maiko wairs large wooden clog-like shoes called okobo - they force her to take very small steps which by old Japanese tradition is considered very attractive.
A girl can become a maiko at the age of 16 now days since all children must attend high school by law. The apprenticeship is usually 5 years so at 21 a maiko could become a geisha. The training consists of dance, Shamisen, singing as well as learning artistic pursuits. A maiko must also learn the social graces and old style Kyoto dialect.
On the walls on the tea houses in Kyoto there is wooden board telling how many maiko and geisha working there. Pls see seperate tip.
Ponto-cho which is between Sanjoji-dori and Shijo-dori is a formaer red-right district. There are typical old Japanese houses, shops, restaurants. You can see Miko/Geisha walking but never try to take their photo without permission or in an obvious manner. You will be frowned-upon.
It is said that there are between 100 and 150 Maiko and Geisha in Kyoto so if your intent on seeing one, without going through the complex process of official introductions and paying a wad of cash, you may have some luck if you hang out in the Gion district or around Ponto Cho.
I spotted my first Geisha in a black taxi, riding shotgun & looking downcast, with two old Japanese businessmen in the back seat. It was a pretty exciting moment. If you don't have the time to hang around these areas you may want to try going to a photo studio which specializes in photographing people in Geisha costumes. They will first do your makeup in the Geisha style, dress you in ornate gowns which could take about an hour, then photograph you in their studio. Afterwards they'll take the client into their sitting room and conduct the business of paying (about $150 usd) whicle serving you delicous green tea & sweets.
Geisha are the refined women who are versed in the arts that entertain guests. They are as much a symbol of Japan as any of the sights in the country. They are definately not to be confused with prostitutes. Maiko are Geisha in Training
If you go to Gion at the beginning of the evening to make some pictures of Maiko, bear in mind they won´t stop for you!
They run on their high healed shoes through the streets to their next appointment. So take a fast film in your camera.....
In Japan there are Geishas but in Kyoto they are called Geikos, the young ones (a kind of a geisha in practice, learning the profesion) are called Maikos.
It´s not easy to see them but if you are lucky you can see some of them walking in the streets going to work.
How do you learn the Art of a Geisha? Nowadays, since there aren't too many people who are willing to endure the rigorous training, the number of geisha is decreasing. Young girls who wish to become a geisha are usually introduced to an 'o-chaya' through someone who has a connection to the teahouse. The head woman of an o-chaya, called 'okami', interviews the girl and her parents, and provides details of the training. If the okami accepts the girl as an apprentice to her o-chaya, the girl can begin her training immediately and live in the o-chaya. Once in training, the girl cannot quit for 5 to 6 years. Along with doing chores around the house, the young girl learns customs and social skills and begins music and dance lessons. After about a half-year, she becomes a young geisha called a 'maiko.' From this point she develops the knowledge on how to interact with customers by accompanying the geishas. Once the girl decides to officially become a geisha, a ceremony is held entitled 'erigae.'
However, one does not have to learn the life of a geisha by living in Gion. There are ways you can incorporate the ancient practice of a geisha into your modern life. With some practice, patience and a little planning even the most dull relationship can get a healthy boost from this. In order to become the geisha girl - first and foremost you need to ensure that your attitude is good. Feel the power within yourself to be someone who can deliver sensuality to your partner.
If you really want to see Geisha and don't have a friend to introduce you, your hotel MIGHT be able to organise something. Otherwise the annual dances, such as the Gion Odori, Miyako Odori etc. are a good way to go. Easy to book by your travel agent and inexpensive.
I was lucky to go to dinner with a Maiko - young apprentice Geisha. A kind and well-placed Japanese friend organized it. What did I learn? Kimiko studies English in her spare time, learns the shamizen and all the other fine arts required, loves shopping and Japanese pop music. She was a good conversationalist and kept everyone included at all times. After she left, we were all lost for words for a while.