They say that Geishas are one of the most misunderstood aspects of Japanese culture. But despite what you understand or do not, there is no denying the excitement you feel when you happen to finally see a real one (and I don’t mean one of those tourists that have paid to dress up like one for a day) but a real, true to life Geisha on her own turf.
Geisha, Geiko, Maiko – Let’s clear up some confusion if we can. Firstly there are Maikos – typically young girls, newbies who must pass a test after many months of training as an apprentice. Once they are official Maikos they train for another 5 years to become a certified Geiko, which is what we call a “Geisha.” For the sake of brevity I will call them both Geishas from here on.
A rare breed – In Tokyo there are only about 20 geishas and in Kyoto there are around 200 Geishas. There used to be thousands. They are now a rare breed and it is rare to spot a real one.
Hands off – Geishas are typically confused with being courtesans but they do not sleep with clients, they are hired to entertain at private parties as a hostess. (Imagine going out for a drink with your friends…fun… now, imagine going out for a drink with your friends and some geishas … really fun – a memorable night is guaranteed!)
Maikos are around 15-18 years old. Geikos are older and have mastered their craft. Both are free to choose a lover if they desire, but it’s their choice, it’s not a requirement. They can decide to marry and leave the profession too. Most are probably too busy for love. The geishas work from morning studying their craft until late at night entertaining. It’s not a carefree lifestyle, its hard work.
Geishas are living, breathing, walking artists. The title Geisha itself means “artist or artisan.” Not only do they study music and various instruments such as the Taiko drum and the shamisen, they also study dance, tea ceremony, calligraphy and poetry. They are trained entertainers of the highest caliber. But, they are also trained at making good conversation, pouring you sake, playing classic drinking games and performing comical Noh skits. Those geishas can also make you laugh. They will mystify you and delight you. They create a hypnotic, fantasy world that makes you feel as though time has stood still.
A Geisha paints her face white because most places used to be dark and candle lit. The white paint makes them stand out in the night. The way their make up appears also tells you something. If only their bottom lip is painted they have been in practice for less than a year. A Maiko will also have two points of bare flesh (not painted white) behind her neck. This is considered a sign of beauty.
As mentioned earlier there are many tourists who come to Kyoto and pay money to get dressed up as a Maiko to tour and walk around Kyoto just for fun. Many tourists get excited and start snapping away, but tricks on them – it’s a fake geisha!
So how can you tell if it’s a real Geisha? Geishas are not only living works of art because of the art forms they practice, but also because of the artistry behind each little piece of clothing and accessory they wear. Geishas wear only the highest quality kimonos, hair pieces, obi sashes etc. You can tell a Maiko by the very long Obi sash that hangs down her back. A Geiko will have a smaller one.
Each piece they wear are sometimes made especially for them by famous, local artisans. Some of which come from families that have been making these crafts for many generations. These pieces are worth a pretty penny and are usually one of a kind. The high quality of the makeup, hair pieces, shoes and kimono are one easily recognizable ways to tell a fake, tourist geisha from a real one.
Another way to tell the difference is that a real geisha is not easy to spot and when she is spotted in the street she will typically hide behind her assistant and will be quite camera shy. In general tourists have been known to harass and chase them down with cameras, so the Geishas will walk quickly and discreetly down small back alleys or even hop out of taxis in order to get around. If you happen to see one, be respectful and discreet with your camera. Don’t grab her or holler at her. Typically they do not want to stop for photos when they are working and running from one appointment to another. Would you? So be polite and discreet. However a fake geisha seems more than happy to pose for photos in the crowd, if you ask her politely.
When can you see a real Geisha? The geishas stay out late entertaining and attend classes in the morning. She will not be out sight seeing early in the day like the fake geisha tourists. The best time and place we’ve found to see them is in the evening when they are coming and going to their appointments. Pontocho alley (about midway) has many geisha houses. We found high traffic around 10pm – 11:30pm of geishas coming and going. The back alleys of the Gion district tea houses are also famous for Geisha spotting. Maikos should make it home before 11pm we’ve heard, but some stay out until 3am at parties.
A costly affair or a free one – Private Geisha entertainment can be quite difficult for a tourist to attain. It can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the circumstances. People who want private parties must have approved and connected relationships with a geisha house. Otherwise, there are a few organizations where you can experience a performance:
Sayuki – the first Australian woman to become a real Geisha has her Geisha house in Tokyo. She tries to educate people about Geisha life and make it more accessible. Interesting! http://www.sayuki.net
Gion Corner in Kyoto does an affordable show in a theater for around $25. We didn’t go, seemed too touristy. Gion Hatanaka in Kyoto does dinner and a show for a smaller audience for around $300. Too pricey for us and we heard the food was bad on Tripadvisor.
Instead we went to a free, monthly performance at Fureaikan museum of traditional crafts. The museum is also free and you can see the painstaking labour and beautiful craftsmanship of how some of the geisha gear gets made. Once a month they do 3 shows by a local Maiko. She will dance, show off her outfit and you can hear her speak about what it’s like to be a Maiko. Wonderful! See above photo. http://www.miyakomesse.jp/fureaika/
Why would anyone want to be a geisha these days? Apparently most modern-day maikos seem to get into the business because they too fall in-love with how beautiful the geishas look. They also say that geishas are treated like local celebrities – they get to eat and drink at the best restaurants and meet famous people and important figures. A fantasy life indeed, but in reality long hours and a lifetime of dedicated work mastering the arts.