The very word “geisha” means artist, and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art. -Mameha, Memoirs of A Geisha
Gion is a preserved district in Kyoto which was built in response to the food, drink, and accommodation needs of travelers who came to the Yasaka (Shinto) Shrine, designated from 1871 to 1946 as Kanpei-taisha which means it received first rank among government-supported shrines.
As Kyoto’s volume of visitors demanded kabuki drama and more elaborate forms of entertainment, Kyoto rose to become the most famous geisha district in Japan churning out the most highly trained performing artists in the skills of song, dance, poetry, kimono, makeup, and a geisha dialect. They are trained in the art of conversation. They are trained to sleep with a piece of wood as a pillow to accommodate geisha hair.
Here, geisha (meaning “person of the arts”) call themselves more specifically “geiko,” meaning, “woman of art.”
Starting after junior high school from age 15-20 years old, a young lady would train become a geiko for five years (during the training period, she is still called a maiko), sort of “sequestered” with limited (used to be prohibited) cell phone use (!) at a geisha house (okiya) under the supervision of the okiya mother (kami-san). The trainees do not earn a salary but all their expenses plus some pocket money is shouldered by the geisha house. If the trainee marries during the training period, the man must pay back the entire investment of the okiya mother, otherwise, she herself pays back the okiya mother when she is already a geisha.
At Gion Corner, seven Japanese traditional performing arts converge in one hour in one performance:
- Bunraku Puppet Theater
- Kyo-mai dance by geisha
- Kyogen theater
- Gagaku court music
- Koto musical performance
- Tea ceremony
- Floral arrangement
Some differences between a geiko (full-fledged geisha) and a maiko (trainee):
- GEIKO (GEISHA) MAIKO
- plain kimono colorful kimono
- short sleeves. long sleeves
- plain wig elaborate hairpins (kanzashi)
Fumi, my guide has the following commentary on this lady that we spotted: “Each geisha house has its own crest for identification where the maiko (geisha apprentice) belongs. This is placed on the obi belt that Maiko wears. This lady below, at her back, the bottom tip of her obi belt shows the crest. A very long time ago, maiko’s could be as young as ten years old so if they got lost, the crest will help send them back to their own geisha house. They wear fancy kimono that costs millions of yen. They walk fast because once they walk slowly, people will gather around them.”
Real geisha and maiko in attire do not like to be bothered to be photographed. They are usually busy and on the way to appointments. There is a widespread request that you do not stop them or talk to them or ask them for a photo. If you see a geisha-looking lady posing for photographs, most likely, it is an actress posing with tourists for a fee. You are always welcome to pose with them for photos.
Don’t confuse these ladies walking around in Yukata’s (light cotton kimono) or kimonos as geishas. Many times they are tourists taking in the culture or ladies on their way to a theme party.
This is a small shrine for the god of the arts:
Many buildings around Kyoto were used as geisha houses but the buildings have since been converted for other commercial use. Some examples are the restaurant on the left and the Bed and Breakfast on the right.
For the existing geisha houses, you can see the permit on the (vertical black sign, bottom right) and the individual names of the geishas on the left (light wood).
Ichiriki Chaya (below) is an elite historic by-invitation-only tea house where entertainment is said to cost a minimum of USD8000 per night.
If you see extremely narrow “streets” towards certain addresses, this is because properties used to be taxed based on the width of the property from the street. This gave birth to “eel” houses which are narrow in front but long to the back.
Each geisha district in Kyoto has its own pattern for their paper lanterns which geisha houses and restaurants hang outside and turn on when they are open.
If you see salt on a dish outside an entrance, it’s believed by the Japanese to be a cleansing, purifying agent to inform outsiders that “the place has been cleansed.”
“Remember Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans, and we’re not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty.” – Mameha, Memoirs of a Geisha
Geishas are not prostitutes. During the period of depressed economy, some women were forced into prostitution. By another token, prostitutes presented themselves as geisha’s. This led to the wrong notion that the geisha trade is a front for prostitution which some people still can not get over. A genuine geisha does not engage in the flesh trade. My tour guide said that for her daughters, if they expressed interest in becoming geisha, she would rather encourage them to be straight out actress or singer to avoid the misconception.
Through the geisha districts of Kamihichiken, Gion, Pontocho, Miyagawacho:
Kyoto Geisha Tour Summary: