Experiencing Geisha Entertainment - The Icing on the Cake for Any Trip to Japan

After the samurai, the geisha is the most popular icon often associated with Japan. Up to this day, geishas can still be seen roaming the streets of Japan, particularly in the cities Kyoto, Tokyo, and Kanazawa. Their ultimate purpose is to help make guests comfortable through different forms of entertainment, which has unfortunately led many to believe that a geisha is Japan’s equivalent of a call girl or prostitute. The truth of the matter is geishas undergo rigorous training to become professional entertainers skilled in traditional Japanese dance, music, arts, and communication.

What is a Geisha?

The roots of the geisha can be traced back to as early as the 7th century when female entertainers called the Saburuko, meaning “those who serve”, first emerged in Japan. Their roles often revolved around waiting tables and holding conversations with guests and sometimes around sexual favors. A lot of ordinary saburukos came from destitute families while several saburukos who performed for the elite were considered to be of a higher class or level.

Come the 13th century, female dancers, or individually referred to as shirabyoshi, became quite prominent especially in the Japanese Imperial Court. They often performed at celebrations and for the nobility. The main purpose of shirabyoshis is to serve as entertainers but some of them did become concubines of their patrons, even giving birth to their children.

Several cities in Japan started developing what they called “pleasure quarters” by the 16th century. These places housed yujos, or courtesans, which were licensed prostitutes. Yujos were classified by the government according to their skills in traditional arts and beauty. Members included in Japan’s highest social class such as samurais were not allowed to avail any services made by yujos. However, they found ways around the restrictions and became frequent customers of pleasure quarters.

As the increase of high-class clientele increased, so did the service of female entertainers. Many of them started developing their skills in playing musical instruments, singing, and dancing. In 1750, a talented player of the shamisen (a Japanese guitar) and prostitute named Kikuya from Fukagawa was the very first one to style and call herself a geisha. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, performers at pleasure quarters started to become known as dancers, poets, and musicians instead of sex workers.

By 1813, the geisha was considered as an occupation completely separate from Japanese courtesans in Kyoto. Although the profession greatly suffered during World War II when women were required to support war efforts and work in factories, geishas continue to be a part of Japan’s culture today, preserving the traditional Japanese culture and arts.

What is the typical appearance of a geisha?

Tourists can easily spot a geisha by looking for a woman wearing a kimono and donning a face covered in white makeup, red lipstick, and black accents. However, a geisha’s look does change throughout her career. Typically, younger geishas are more heavily styled and made-up while older geishas carry a more somber style.

What is the difference between a Geisha, a Geiko, and a Maiko?

The term geisha can be translated into English to mean performing artist, artisan, or simple artist. Tourists may also hear the terms geiko and maiko being used to refer to ladies that clearly identify as geishas. Basically, geisha can be understood as a broad title while geiko and maiko are more specific titles used for geishas in Kyoto and apprentice geishas, respectively.

Kyoto is considered to be the center of the geisha world. Here, maikos undergo five years of training to become geikos. The training is quite expensive and requires a contract with the okiya or geisha house. All of the maiko’s food, lodging, kimono, and other essentials will be taken care by the okiya but must be paid back from her earnings.

A maiko, meaning dance child, is often aged between 15 and 20 years but initially starts as a minarai, meaning learning by watching. Minarais are required to quietly sit and observe other maikos and geikos entertain guests to get an overview of their future occupation and clientele. They can often be seen working at tea houses where they learn different techniques in serving and communicating.

Once maikos have gained enough of the basics, they move forward in their training and become maikos. Senior maikos or geikos serve as mentors for new apprentices. Their relationship is similar to that of siblings, where the older sister teaches the younger everything she needs to know including dancing, playing musical instruments, serving tea, and engaging in conversations. The training undergone by maikos can be categorized into three main elements – formal art training, entertainment training, and social skills training.

Tourists can easily distinguish maikos from geikos or geishas by taking note of the following differences:

  1. Hair
    Unlike geishas that often use wigs, maikos are required to style and show off their natural hair. Their hair must always be kept neat and in place. As such, some maikos use a takamakura, or a special neck brace, instead of a pillow when sleeping. Also, a maiko will keep a thin area around her hairline free from makeup while a geisha will typically feature makeup that goes right up to her hairline thanks to her wig.
    In terms of accessories, maikos wear Kanzashi (large decorative hairpins) while geishas wear smaller and simpler ones. The styling of a maiko’s hair changes according to her stage in training.
  2. Makeup
    The makeup of maikos and geishas differ in their use of red. A geisha usually just uses red for her upper and lower lip while a maiko creates a younger look by using it on her eyes and cheeks, as well. Some also use pink for a more subtle impact.
  3. Kimono
    In terms of kimono, maikos wear more colorful and patterned ones, with longer sleeves that fall almost to the ankles, than geishas.
  4. Obi
    The obi is a part of the kimono outfit that can best be described as a sash. Just like the sleeves of their kimonos, the obis worn by maikos are also longer and wider compared to those worn by geishas.
  5. Collar
    A maiko’s kimono often features a red decorative collar. Geishas, on the other hand, wear kimonos with white collars. Maikos are strictly not allowed to wear white collars to easily identify them as apprentices.
  6. Wooden Clogs or Sandals
    Kimonos are often worn with wooden clogs. Maikos often wear high, unpainted wooden ones called the okobo, while geishas wear lower and more decorative called the geta.

After the maiko finishes her training, she will be granted the title of being a full-fledged geiko or geisha through erikae, a ceremony that literally means “turning of the collar” in English.

Where does a Geisha Live?

Throughout the training process, maikos usually live at their respective okiyas and are taken care by the mother of the house called kami-san. Okiyas are often located in a geisha entertainment district, or hanamachi, meaning flower town. Maikos are not allowed to build any romantic relationships or get married until they become geishas. Afterward, they can choose to live freely on their own. Some geishas decide to marry, open up bars, and start their own okiyas while doing their part to preserve the culture and traditions of Japan. There are also several cases where geishas leave their profession to pursue other things in life.

How Can Tourists have Geisha Entertainment arranged for them?

Regardless of whether one is a Japanese citizen or an outsider, experiencing geisha entertainment cannot be made possible without the help of an existing customer or of an okiya. However, there are some travel agencies that actively collaborate with okiyas and geishas to help arrange performances for tourists. The geisha experience comes in various forms such as private dinners, tea ceremonies, musical performances, and calligraphy sessions.

What is the cost for experiencing Geisha Entertainment?

Having a private geisha entertainment arranged is in no way cheap. One dinner with a maiko, geisha, and shamisen player usually costs about 100,000 yen. This price can easily go up a few thousand yen more depending on the food and drinks consumed throughout the affair.

Where Can Tourists Find Cheaper Geisha Entertainment?

Geisha entertainment is not limited to private settings so tourists can easily find more affordable options, particularly in Kyoto. Gion Hatanaka ryokan offers the most popular one called the Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening. Visitors are provided with a nice dinner with several geishas performing their skills in music, singing, and dancing. Guests can also enjoy several drinking games with each other while geishas go around the room from person to person to engage in conversation. An interpreter is often present to help with the language barrier. The rate for this experience is around 19,000 per person and is happens every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 6 PM to 8 PM.

The Gion Corner is another place to catch geisha performances at cheap prices. The theater hosts several shows revolving around traditional Japanese arts, which include dances done by maikos.

For those who just want to see a geisha or maiko, the streets of Kyoto are great places to come across these professionals, especially during the evening. However, tourists should keep in mind that many of these artists are most likely on their way to a job or performance and not cause them any delays. In recent years, many geishas have been complaining about foreign travelers crowding around them to pose for photos, which truly can be quite annoying for any individual. As with the locals, geishas should also be given proper respect and privacy.

Which Spring and Fall Geiko (Geisha) Dance Performances Should Tourists Not Miss?

Tourists should also make it a point to at least see one of Kyoto’s annual geisha dance performances. The five main shows happen during the spring and fall seasons and are among the things not to be missed by foreign travelers. Tickets can be bought through hotels and ryokans.

  1. Miyako Odori
    The Miyako Odori, or Dance of the Capital, is held daily throughout the month of April. It is Kyoto’s biggest and most extravagant spectacle among all geisha dance performances. The dance was first done as part of the Promotion of Domestic Industry Exhibition in 1872 to encourage positivity and prosperity in the city after the capital had been moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1869. Over the years, the dance has been modified numerous times to incorporate new concepts and ideas in line with Japan’s modernization. Tourists can catch it at the Gion Kobu Kaburen-jo Theater, which is just 5 minutes away from the Higashiyama Yasui bus stop by foot.
  2. Kyo Odori
    The Kyo Odori, or Kyoto Dance, is held every day from the first Sunday to the third Sunday of April at the Miyagawa-cho Kaburen-jo Theater, a 5-minute walk away from the Shijo Station. It is considered as Kyoto’s second best and biggest geisha dance performance done by Miyagawa-cho Kabu-kai’s maikos and geikos. The dance provides the audience a look into Kyoto’s most popular things and places.
  3. Kitano Odori
    The Kitano Odori, or Kitano Dance, is held between March 25 to April 7. The Kamishichiken-kaburen-jo Theater, which is a 4-minute walk away from the Kitano Tenman-gu-mae bus stop, hosts the performance daily. It is highly recommended for those who want to watch a dance tastefully made for Japan’s elite class.
  4. Kamogawa Odori
    The Kamogawa Odori, or Kamo River Dance, is held daily from May 1 to 24 at the Ponto-cho Kaburen-jo Theater. Tourists only need to walk 5 minutes from the Shijo Station or the Kawaramachi Sanjo bus stop to reach the theater. The dance was first performed in 1872 for the Kyoto Exposition. A wide array of fans is used by the maiko and geikos throughout the performance.
  5. Gion Odori
    The Gion Odor, or Gion Dance, is held every day during from the 1st to the 10th day of November. Tourists can watch it at the Gion Kaikan Theater, which is just a 15-minute walk away from the Shijo Station and Kawaramachi Station. It is a charming dance performed by maikos and geikos of the Gion Higashi Kabu-kai. The dance, which dates back to the year 1952, is popular for its unique planning and style.

Can Tourists Dress Up as a Geisha?

Several places across Kyoto offer the maiko henshin, meaning maiko transformation, service for tourists to enjoy several hours of their trip dressed and made-up as maikos or geishas. The usual cost for a head to toe transformation, with photos taken in Kyoto’s scenic places or in a studio, is around 10,000 yen per person. As such, foreigners who will come across women that look like geishas during the day at Kyoto’s sightseeing districts should not get too worked up as they might be fellow tourists, as well.