Geishas are traditional performers of Japanese arts and music. They specialize in dancing, singing, and playing a variety of instruments including hand drums, shoulder drums, shamisen, and Japanese flutes. They train their entire lives, are highly skilled, and some become so famous that they are considered “living national treasures,” the highest artist status in Japan.
Geisha means “Artist”, although in Kyoto they are not called this way, but the term “Geiko” is used which means “Woman of Art”.
Geisha are called to teahouses, events, functions, and parties to entertain. In Japan, geishas also perform large public performances and annual dances, but according to ancient tradition it is normal for them to engage in small-scale private entertainment, where clients enjoy a meal at a tea house with friends or acquaintances and solicit from geisha to cheer them on while they eat and drink.
Geisha are highly cultured independent entrepreneurs. They manage their own clients, some have even kept them for decades.
Often they also handle younger geisha. Like any Western artist, musician, or actress, they can fall in love and have relationships, but this is always a private matter and never part of the job.
The first geisha were men, known as Taikomochi, they looked like modern comedians, storytellers, and musicians.
Many believe that geisha are submissive and subordinate people, it is the opposite.
Geishas are highly skilled artists, and they are allowed to converse with men on a wide range of subjects. They should read the newspapers daily to keep up to date and to be able to engage in conversations with influential clients. Instead of wearing a watch, a geisha’s working time is generally measured by the amount of incense burned during entertainment.
Traditionally, their faces were painted white to illuminate their beauty by candlelight. The most important compliment you can give a geisha is to tell her that she is beautiful. Geishas are not prostitutes.
This is a misconception based on inaccurate depictions in movies, after WWII, when prostitutes were disguised or mistaken for geishas by US Army soldiers.
Geishas emerged in the early 16th century to provide fun in the form of art in pleasure districts for those who did not want to pay for sex. Laws were written to prevent geisha from taking clients away from courtesans.
Unfortunately foreign visitors mistake the geisha for the Oiran, who were the superstars of the Edo period, being high-class courtesans.
While geishas are artists who animate and lead clients to a wonderful and secret world. Actually, the Oiran no longer exist, the geisha do.
Gion is the place where famous geisha live, the cultural symbol of the nation of the rising sun.
Okiya is the home of the geisha. There they live in private rooms and it is where they prepare before going to work in Ochaya (Ochaya literally means “tea shop”, where customers go).
In general, the Okiyas have a person who leads them, almost always an older geisha, now retired, called “Mother.” Today there are variations of this tradition and it depends on the Okiya, how it should be lived and who runs it. Having contact with a geisha is a luxury that only people with connections in the city or people on a good budget can enjoy.
In private rooms, geisha entertain guests with dances, songs, board games, and interesting conversations. Geishas are a living work of art, and therefore must be respected as such. In the Gion district there is also the “Gion Corner” or the corner of Gion, where you can see a musical performance performed by real geisha. Currently, geisha are seen as modern celebrities in Japan.
They are popular with tourists and businessmen. Modern geisha support an entire system within the ecotourism industries of Japanese cities.
They provide work for artists in all traditional skills of music, dance, calligraphy, who train geisha in their artistic work. Geisha also purchase top-of-the-line traditional goods such as kimono, umbrellas, fans, shoes, and more, keeping the artisans working and preserving the knowledge and history for years to come.