Geisha: Past, Present and Future

About Geisha

The geisha, along with Mt. Fuji, samurai and sushi have been symbols of Japan ever since the reopening of contacts with the West in the mid-nineteenth century. With the disappearance of the samurai and the influx of Western influence in Japan, only the geisha and their world still remain a mystery to both foreigners and Japanese alike.

Since medieval times Japan has always had some form of pleasure quarter offering various forms of entertainment, including, of course, the erotic. However, it was during the Edo period’s sakoku  (1639-1854) when Japan cut off all ties with the outside world, that Japanese culture, as it is known today, flourished.

It was in these walled-in pleasure quarters such as Kyoto’s Shimabara, Tokyo’s Yoshiwara, and Osaka’s Shinmachi that the chonin (merchants) spent much of their time and money cultivating the arts. With carnal satisfaction guaranteed, the merchants looked for other forms of entertainment.

The courtesans of the pleasure quarters were trained in various arts: music, dance and poetry as well as other forms of court entertainment that up until that time had been known only to the nobility. As times changed so did the tastes of the customers; the formality and expense involved meant only the elite were able to patronize the Tayu (the top level courtesans).

With the change in attitudes came a new type of entertainer. It was in the early 1700s when the first male-geisha appeared on the scene. However, it was not long before some entrepreneurial female entertainers followed suit and the first women geisha, as we know them today, made their debut. Their role was simple:

1. No flashy kimonos or hair ornaments.

2. No sitting next to customers.

3. Do not interfere with the courtesan’s customers.

Courtesan entertainment peaked in the mid-18th century and from then on the geisha would become the most skilled entertainers in the ‘floating world’ of the pleasure quarters.

Suddenly hanamachi (geisha quarters) began appearing all over Japan, reaching their peak in the early 1900s. In modern times to experience authentic traditional geisha entertainment one must go to the ancient capital, Kyoto. Some may argue that Tokyo geisha still retain some of the charm of the past but the buildings and attire of the geisha in Tokyo cannot be compared to the geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) of Kyoto.

In Kyoto’s five hanamachi, Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Ponto-cho, Miyagawa-cho and Kamishichiken, geiko and their apprentices the maiko entertain their customers in the traditional ochaya (tea houses) in the same kimono-clad fashion as they have done since the eighteenth century.

Although numbers are declining, the modern geiko still practices her arts with the same dedication as her fore-sisters did, always trying to add to her repertoire of gei (arts). Competition with art-oriented hostess bars, karaoke and a waning economy makes mere survival a challenge for newcomers to the trade. Many find the lifestyle and schedule too demanding and eventually leave the hanamachi for a less disciplined line of work.

The transition of the geiko from fashion innovator to cultural curator has raised the question of the very future of the hanamachi. Some say that the geiko are old-fashioned and should disappear while they still have their dignity. Others believe that as long as Japanese men still feel nostalgia for the past, the geiko will always have a place in Japanese society. Whether it be a graceful slide into extinction or a complete sell-out to the tourist industry, their numbers will inevitably decrease, taking with them an important part of Japanese culture and history.


Most Often Asked Questions About Geisha

What exactly are geisha?

They are female entertainers. The meaning of gei is "art" and sha means "person of". Geiko is a Kyoto term for geisha that means more of a "specialist of the arts". Maiko are young geisha ranging in age from 15 to 20 or 21 years old. Mai means dance, and and ko is specialist of dance

I read the book and saw the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”.  Is it like that in the geisha world today?

 “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a fictional novel set in the 1920’s in Kyoto.  The author was not alive during this time and very few geisha living today were either.  It is a well researched book. However, I will let you decide after the walking lecture.

Why is meeting a geisha so expensive?

The geiko/maiko wear very expensive kimono $30,000-$80,000 onwards.  If you were to hire a professional entertainer for a private party in the west it would probably be just as expensive or probably more.  It is much cheaper than premium Super Bowl tickers or F.A. cup tickets and much more private and personal.  The geiko/maiko are much more beautiful and charming.

 Are they sold into the Okiya (boarding houses)?

No, it is highly unlikely that Kyoto geiko/maiko were ever sold into Kyoto okiyas.  The young women choose this life and most times have to try and persuade their parents to let them enter this world.

Can anybody hire geisha?  Even foreign guests?

Kyoto tea houses and many restaurants have what is called ichi gen san o kotowari  Lit: by introduction only–no first time visitors. To become a customer of a tea house one must be introduced to the house by a regular customer.  This is not something to be taken lightly because the person who gives the introduction must risk their reputation and take responsibility financially and for the behavior of the new customers.  Being a foreigner does not matter if you have the proper introduction because the house must treat the new customer with respect in order to show the regular customer respect. See VIP services.

 Do they ever have sexual relationships with their customers?

They are not paid for sexual favours.  However, the geiko/maiko are women and just like other women throughout the world they too fall in love and sometimes even marry their customers. 

To learn more about geisha, we recommend taking one of our walking lectures.