What Is A Geisha?
Geisha (meaning “artist” in Japanese,) refers to a woman who entertains guests by singing, dancing, or keeping the conversation flowing. They’re immediately recognisable by their appearance, as geisha dress in elaborate clothing like kimonos or yukatas, and have pale white makeup combined with complex hairdos and beautiful accessories.
If you’ve ever seen a geisha doll, that’s pretty much what geisha actually look like!
However, there’s a difference between geisha. Girls generally begin their training as a maiko (meaning “Woman of Dance”) for a couple of years before finally becoming a geiko (meaning “Woman of Art”).
It’s easy to distinguish the two: a maiko looks more like the traditional Western idea of a geisha, with heavy makeup and elaborate clothing.
The mature, fully-fledged geiko generally have more subdued clothing and makeup.
There are male geisha (called “Taikomochi”) that act a lot like traditional jesters, but their numbers are small compared to their female counterparts.
Since they’re so mysterious, there’s a lot of misconceptions that often surround the geisha. Sex isn’t a service that they provide – that’s more or less a misconception caused by the American occupation of Japan. A lot of things that we do know about geisha (which we get from books like Memoirs of a Geisha) are also pretty inaccurate or outdated.
At heart, geisha are the highest class of entertainers. They’re trained in performing arts like dance, theatre, and music – things that were commonly played at the dinners of the wealthy and royalty. If there is one aspect of geisha that has remained consistent, it’s that they are expected to be the representation of the ideal Japanese woman of their time.
Since becoming a geisha is so demanding, very few women enter the profession. It’s a far cry from being a hostess at a bar: geisha have to be charming, skilled, and mindful of their mannerisms at all times. Now imagine asking any Western entertainer trying to pull that off, and you’ll suddenly understand why geisha are so rare and respected.
The Heart Of Geisha In Japan
Geisha are not easy to find as a tourist. True geisha (the ones that have been trained with traditional methods) are clustered in small places around Japan.
The best place for you to find them would be the geisha bars around Tokyo, but for a better experience, you’ll need to go the heart of where all geisha are trained: the Gion district in Kyoto. There you can find geiko and maiko walking, performing, and generally living their lives around the city. If you want to feel like you’ve stepped back in 18th century Japan, it’s definitely the place to be.
But the best experience you can have with geisha is definitely by having dinner with two to three (usually one veteran geiko and two maikos in training) in attendance. You’ll get a first-hand glimpse of their talent when it comes to performance. They’re more or less the ultimate expression of Japanese art – something that many foreigners get dazzled by when they experience it firsthand.
Even if geisha have become more public over the years, the core of what they do still takes place behind closed doors. If you want to experience what it’s like being attended by a geisha, you’ll need to have someone on the inside (most of the time, a regular Japanese patron) that can vouch for you. Geisha dinners are invite-only, especially to foreigners, so if you get a chance to attend one, go for it! You might not get the chance again.
Girls Over Flowers
While there’s been extensive documentation and study on their way of life, our Western conceptions of geishas tend to be wildly inaccurate. If you’re really curious about the mysterious ways of the geisha, you might just have to book a flight to Japan and experience it all yourself.
As the Japanese might like to put it: koketsu ni irazunba koji-o ezu (“If you do not enter the tiger's cave, you will not catch its cub”), or as we might say it in the West; nothing ventured, nothing gained.