A group of highly-trained and highly-cultured women called the geishas, are a representation of Japanese culture. Meeting one can be an once-in-a-lifetime event, even for many Japanese. Though you will see many geisha throughout Japan, Kyoto is known as the birthplace of the culture.
The paper-white skin, painted red lips, and jet black hair are all instantly recognizable parts of the geisha’s design, though it wasn’t always this way. This style evolved over a long period of time, and in fact, the very first geishas went by a different name entirely: Saburuko. The Saburuko waited tables, made conversation, and often sold sexual services to their clientele.
Later in history, the Yamato Japanese culture emerged with an emphasis on beauty and the origin of samurai warrior class. The samurai were considered the highest class and with a higher class of customers emerged a higher class of female entertainers. The new Geisha proper became more skilled in dancing and singing, no longer requiring them to rely purely on their initially offered services. In fact, during this time, the most prized geisha were those who were talented with calligraphy.
The geisha saw a peak in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries, but with World War II, most women were expected to earn a living in the factories while the men were at war. Though the geisha culture saw a significant drop after the war began, the occupation still existed. To this day, you can still catch glimpses of the modern-day geisha.
Today, the geisha women still uphold many of the same traditions as their predecessors—focusing on the high-class performances and talents that were needed to be successful.
Although we often call these women geisha, in Kyoto they are referred to as Maiko and Geiko. Maiko are apprentice geisha that usually begin around age 15. Traditionally, they started training anywhere from age 4 to 9, but in the modern day most girls finish their education before beginning their training. At age 20, the Maiko become Geiko and are considered mature enough to entertain high-class customers, men and women.
The Maiko go to a special school to learn such traditional practices as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, traditional music and dance, among others. Training is also learned by observing and practicing these talents during lower-level performances.
The hairstyle of the geisha have varied throughout history, changing with certain periods. The traditional shimada hairstyle emerged around the 17th century. In the past, the Geisha would sleep with their necks on little supports so as to keep their hair perfect, but in modern days Geiko wear wigs and Maiko style their natural hair.
The makeup of geisha is another differentiating factor. In modern days, the full white face is characteristic of Maiko while Geiko tend to go without it. In general, the Geiko wear more subdued clothing, makeup, and hair compared to the Maiko.
In modern times, many geisha are powerful, successful business women. Only women run the geisha society. They run the teahouses, the geisha house all while managing the geisha’s finances and teaching the new generation of geisha their trade. This female-dominated society was a way for women to make a living without marrying. Geisha women are expected to be single and flirtatious hostesses. They are allowed to marry but must then retire from the geisha lifestyle. Occasionally men are permitted to work with the geisha as hairstylists or dressers but only as guests.
Many people will camp out along the Gion district waiting to snap a picture of a geisha travelling to an evening performance at one of the many teahouses. It can be a rare occurrence to actually meet one in person, even for the Japanese.
If you’re looking for a full experience, head to Gion corner and catch one of the budget performances at the theater. You’llexperience the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, koto playing, gagaku, kyogen, Maiko dance, and bunraku. At the end, one or two Maiko will dance a traditional Japanese dance. You can experience all of this for as low as 32 dollars.
If you want an once-in-a-lifetime experience, head to the Gion Hatanaka. You can enjoy traditional Kyoto cuisine while a Maiko and Geiko come to the room. They will dance, pour sake, and talk with the guests. At this time you can take pictures with the geisha and enjoy the traditional piece of Japanese culture. This will cost just under 200 dollars.
Many would simply like to snap a picture of an actual geisha and though it may seem easy, to snap a quick picture of the woman in a kimono and paper-white face, it isn’t quite that easy. If you want the real thing, there are a few tips to know. If you find a geisha that is being quite friendly and readily posing in the street, she likely isn’t the real thing. The best way to spot an actual geisha is to stand on the main street of Gion where the majority of teahouses are. The geisha will be seen briskly walking through the street heading to their evening entertainment jobs at one of these teahouses. They likely won’t have time to pose for a picture as they have a schedule to adhere to. In Kyoto, this Gion district will be your best chance as most geisha live in geisha houses.
If you want to partake in the traditional dress, feel free! Many visitors will embrace the full face and full kimono to celebrate the traditions.
Kyoto’s geishas follow the seasons and switch up their outfits, makeup and accessories based on the weather. While they have the flexibility to change on a dime, it’s harder for you to do while travelling. Cover your holiday plans with travel insurance from Cover-More at your back and enjoy every part of your time in Kyoto and the rest of Japan without worrying about the weather, or any other small annoyances that may arise.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Kate Nevens.