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Welcome to the Inscrutable World of Japan’s Geisha

If Japan had anything as pedestrian as a mascot, it might very well be an elegant Geisha, resplendent in her traditional silk robes, elaborate coiffure, and stylized make-up.  This 400-year tradition of professional entertainment is often misunderstood by foreigners, who tend to confuse Geisha with courtesans or modern-day call girls.  In fact, they are a highly-competitive, rather secretive guild of skilled practitioners of the traditional Japanese arts of flower arrangement, calligraphy, conversation, stylized dancing, execution of the symbolic but deceptively simple tea ceremony, and playing the three-stringed shamisan.  Although the number of Geisha is dwindling, they are still very much a key element in Japanese leisure and entertainment and can be found in many large Japanese cities, and most particularly in Tokyo, Kanazawa, and the ancient capital of Kyoto, which is known for its well-preserved Geisha districts.

Becoming a Geisha takes years of practice.  In previous centuries, young girls were sold into virtual slavery to Geisha houses known as olyeya.  Set on the bottom rung of a demanding apprenticeship, these young trainees known as Hanamachi or Maiko (literally “young dancer”) were obliged to serve as maids to the older and more experienced Geisha of the house.  Once successful apprentices graduated to Minari status, they were accompanied by a more experienced On-see or “older sister,” on engagements.  If a Minari mastered all of the necessary refinements, she became a full-fledged Geisha, as they are known in Tokyo or Geiko in Kyoto.  Contemporary Geisha training is almost as rigorous as that of the nineteenth century, described by Arthur Golden in his novel Memoirs of a Geisha (later made into a popular film) and many young women are eschewing the rigor, discipline, and necessary asceticism of a Maiko apprenticeship for conventional business careers.  

Still many do persist, and if you are strolling around the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto in early evening, you may well catch sight of a Geiko or Maiko heading to an engagement.  They are instantly recognizable by their traditional attire of a silk obi and kimono and the tap-tap on the cobblestones of their signature red clogs, raised on high wooden platforms.  Their make-up is highly stylized — the heavy flat-white foundation and bright red lips evoking traditional Japanese ideas of classical beauty.  The crowning glory, of course, is their hair, which is piled up in elaborate coiffures and secured with exquisite jeweled accessories that are rotated according to the season.  

Alexander + Roberts visit the Geiko quarters of Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto on a number of curated itineraries such as our escorted From Japan’s Inland Sea to the Alps and the independent Kyoto package.  Speak to one of our knowledgeable reservation agents to learn more.

Posted: 3/2/2017 11:46:13 AM by Alexander + Roberts