All About Japan

Things I Learned About Geisha, Firsthand

| Geisha , Kyoto

Geisha have been an iconic cultural symbol of Japan for centuries. While they are known to perform duties observed only in Japan's traditional culture, such as tea ceremonies and calligraphy, misconceptions about their duties exist. My firsthand opportunity to chat with a maiko attempts to answer a few questions many want to know.

10. Geisha are Trained to Entertain

A maiko is a geisha-in-training, and is first expected to be an "entertainment master."There are many forms of entertainment a maiko has to learn during her apprenticeship before she can become a full-fledged geisha. This shouldn't be surprising; after all gei (芸) means "art" or "performance," and being a geisha means being able to perform however the customer would like. Art is any traditional form of entertainment, such as dance, calligraphy, literature, poetry, music as well as a specific type of entertainment, called asobi (literally, "play" or "fun"). When playing a game like in the video above, the geisha sings a "game song" in her melodic voice while trying to outwit the opponent. A point is scored whenever the opponent fails to form their hand into a fist the moment the geisha picks up the wooden container. It looks easy, but it's surprisingly tricky, since their singing and countenance can be quite distracting!

9. Geisha Must Keep Their Hair Long

The term "crowning glory" is taken seriously among geisha. A geisha avoids too much sun exposure because of the possibility of damaging their hair. Even if the hair of the geisha is usually tied up and fixed with fancy adornment, they are required to maintain long locks, as it symbolizes femininity. Their famous puffed shimada hairstyle demands that they sleep on special pillows so they can keep their hair in the same pristine condition day after day.

8. Geisha Aren't Allowed Boyfriends

The training of a maiko costs the geisha house a considerable sum of money, so it's important that they get a return on investment, so to speak, through the years of service of the geisha. And so a geisha is not allowed to have a boyfriend that may compromise their affinity to their house. Modern geisha say that they could possibly keep secret relationships, however due to the time restrictions and demands of work, maintaining a love affair could also prove to be quite inconvenient.

7. But Geisha Can Get Married

Geisha aren't allowed to have a boyfriend. But in the course of work, of entertaining patrons with Japan's highest forms of cultural entertainment, a patron may become fond of a particular geisha. While intimacy to a patron is never offered by a maiko, even to anyone willing to foot her expenses in the okiya (maiko school or geisha house), sometimes, a strong bond is forged. Whenever this happens, a geisha can be a permanent "mistress," which means a regular patron sponsors her living expenses in exchange for the geisha offering him priority for entertaining services. In extreme cases, a geisha can choose to get married, which means she has to leave the okiya. Since whatever a geisha earns usually goes to payment of debts (for the shikomi or "training period") and living expenses (hairdresser, kimono, obi etc.), a geisha doesn't typically have big savings to lean on if she decides to leave the okiya (although some in-demand geisha can become quite wealthy). Thus, if she decides to get married, it is expected that the patron would pay her debts and would also be able to support her outside the okiya.

6. It Doesn't Take Long to Dress

For the novice, putting on a kimono alone can take forever. Wrapping the obi (belt) properly is another feat in and of itself. But according to the maiko I interviewed, it surprisingly only takes about 30 minutes to get dressed for those who are accustomed to the tradition. This preparation time includes having hair (usually just retouching and putting adornment) and make-up done. Since the maiko resides in a geisha house, getting help when dressing up is customary.

5. The Okiya Shoulders the Cost

Once a girl is accepted into an okiya maiko school or geisha house—which is usually run by retired geisha—all costs for training and adorning the maiko is shouldered by them. The kimono alone, which even geisha-in-training wear (just like what our maiko was wearing), costs about ¥300,000 (about USD$2,700).

4. Geisha Don't Play Sports

Geisha don't play sports—in fact, they can't! They cannot play sports for two main reasons; they need to avoid damaging their hair, skin and body in physical activities, and they also need to devote their time in mastering every form of traditional art possible. According to the maiko I interviewed, she usually spends her idle time reading books instead, which made yours truly really envy the geisha life!

3. They Have Many Chores

The delicate geisha, who is considered a highly-esteemed entertainer and "ambassador of culture," spends time doing house chores! When a maiko is taken in by an okiya, the training house becomes her second home. The maiko even calls her superior okaasan ("mother"), as her stay in the house goes beyond simply preparing for a career. While a maiko has no patrons, her time is spent doing chores and practicing her various arts, such as performing tea ceremonies.

2. Geisha Start Young

The maiko who entertained our group said that she started when she was fifteen. Fifteen, according to her, is the typical age for a maiko to begin in training (although centuries ago, they started at a younger age). Contrary to the old, common perception that maiko were sold into geisha houses by their parents, most of the modern maiko choose to become one on their own. In fact, for the maiko we spent time with, she said that she had to convince her parents to allow her to get into a business that has historically been wrapped in much controversy.

1. Geisha Can Work to 90!

"Kyu-ju?!" (90), I said in disbelief, after previously asking the maiko the typical age of retirement. The only prerequisite to keeping the title is that the geisha doesn't get married. It's a misconception that geisha are prostitutes, and that behind the facade of a very dainty woman is someone who would allow her body to be used by patrons. Geisha are entertainers, premiere hostesses that can entertain their dedicated clientele with their mere presence. Unlike most Japanese industries, there's no retirement mandated in the geisha life, apparently.