17 Things You Might Not Know About Geisha Culture

geisha2After reading Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, I realized how very little I actually know about geisha culture, and how many misconceptions I held about what a geisha is and does. I mean, are they courtesans? Prostitutes? Slaves? (No, no, and no.) So I picked up a book at the library: Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art by John Gallagher. I thought I’d share a few of the interesting tidbits I learned about geisha culture from this book.

1. Geisha are highly trained professionals—experts in traditional Japanese dance, music, tea ceremony, games and poetry, etiquette, deportment, and repartee.

2. The geisha world is also referred to as the flower-and-willow world.

3. Geisha traditionally started their training at the age of six years, six months, and six days. This combination of numbers was considered very auspicious.

4. In the 1950s, the forced adoption of children into the flower-and-willow world, thankfully, ceased.

5. Young women who wish to become geisha begin as shikomi—essentially maids in their okiya.

6. Maiko, or apprentice geisha in Kyoto, wear much more elaborate, colorful kimono, obi (sashes), and hairpieces than geiko, or fully trained geisha, do. In fact, their ensemble can weigh up to 20 kilos (44 lbs!) and that’s even not counting the many ornaments on their heads.

geisha77. A geisha’s outfit will usually include most or all of the following: figured satin, silk damask, brocades, gold leaf, gold thread, silver, silver thread, jade, coral, tortoiseshell, diamond, amethyst, agate, paulownia wood (for the shoes), and fabrics such as pongee, ro, and sha. Their accessories are made of handmade paper, boxwood, silk and bamboo, and the wigs of older geisha are made of real human hair.

8. Maiko wear red collars. As they progress in their training, the collars are slowly appliquéd over with silver thread on both sides. When the silver meets in the middle of her shoulder blades, she is ready to become a geiko.

9. A geisha’s kimono will typically cost a year’s salary or more.

10. Nightingale poop was a traditional ingredient of the white makeup worn by geisha. Yikes!

11. A maiko is trained by an older geiko known as her Older Sister. The two are bonded in a special ceremony in which three cups of sake are passed and sipped three times.

12. Prior to the 1940s and ‘50s, an important part of a geisha’s career was mizuage, or the loss of her virginity. After the deed was done, she effectively announced it to the world by sporting a new, simpler hairstyle.

geisha113. One of the most erotic areas of the body in Japanese sexuality is the nape of the neck. Young geisha use a stencil to leave a W-shaped area of skin unpainted on their napes.

14. Geisha often spend part of their day reading up on current events and researching guests they plan to entertain—often high-profile politicians or businessmen—so that they can keep the conversation going.

15. Taikomochi, or male geisha, are becoming increasingly rare. Their job is to liven up parties by entertaining both the guests and geisha present. However, they must not amuse the geisha too much, or the guests may become jealous.

16. Although geisha are not allowed to eat at ozashiki (parties), they are allowed to drink (often sake or beer).

17. A night spent at an ozashiki is outrageously expensive. To avoid ruining the mood, guests do not pay immediately after the party. Instead, the bill is sent monthly to their homes.

Of course, a list like this is only a grain of sand on the tip of a mountain of information when it comes to learning about a culture. Furthermore, this information comes from only one of many possible sources. But I thought this book was very interesting, and I found geisha culture to be very complex, impressive, and beautiful.

Have you ever read a book that made you want to learn more about another culture?


Photos courtesy of Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art by John Gallagher


4 thoughts on “17 Things You Might Not Know About Geisha Culture

  1. Very interesting article! I just read “Geisha of Gion” by Mineko Iwasaki. She was one of Japan’s foremost Geishas until she retired, and her experiences are very interesting to read. I think she had her fair share of heartache, but her book concentrates on the professional aspect and the amazing skills which are acquired throughout a Geisha’s career, contrary to “Memoirs of a Geisha”, which seems to dwell on the misery and mistreatment at the hands of the Okiya owner and other Geisha.

    1. Ah, yes, Mineko Inwasaki was mentioned several times in the book I read. I will have to check out Geisha of Gion. It’d be nice to read something by an actual geisha, as opposed to by an outsider (a male one, no less!). Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Mineko Iwasaki also wrote her own memoir titled Geisha: A Life. You’re facts are very well done ^^ You may want to note that today girls won’t start their training until they are done with their education, before they take their highschool entrance exams, so around the age of 15. Once a girl decides, the different okiya will interview her and she must be accepted into the household where the Shokomi stage, as you mentioned, will last about 6 months, afterwhich she will take an exam where she has to show what she has learned in her arts classes (As well as being a maid, shikomi do take classes~) If she passes she will make her debut, which is called her Misedashi (personally, it’s my favorite regalia that they wear). A Maiko will train for about 4 or 5 years before making her official debut as a Geisha (Geiko for geisha in Kyoto) This debut is called her Erikae (turning of the collar) And while a Maiko’s red collar will transition from red to a cream color through different designed under collars, they really don’t sew into those collars because the okiya will generally re-use them for more Maiko coming in. A few other facts you may be interested to hear~ There is currently a male geisha entertaining in Tokyo with the name Eitarou, Kyoto Maiko are called Hangyouku (Half jewels) Maiko will get their natural hair worked into the complicated hair styles, which they will keep without washing it for a week, while Geisha/geiko will normally wear wigs (Because or premature baldness) but Geisha can get their natural hair worked into the style as well for special occasions like tea ceremony. A maiko in her first year of training will only have her bottom lip painted to give her a more pouty innocent look. And I forgot, there is a very brief stage before a shikomi takes her arts test where she will be instructed to only sit and watch her Maiko and Geisha older sisters entertain. This is called the Minarai stage. It’s becoming more and more accepted for people who are willing to offer the money to be entertained by Geisha and Maiko, but you still have to be invited unless you only want to go to certain bars where Maiko and Geisha can be called on for you. One last bit of information; there are girls called “Onsen Geisha” They are primarily in resorts and casinos and do aim at selling their bodies, but they also preform dances, kind of like entertainment at disney world, they will happily pose for pictures with you but they should not be confused for real ones. Finally, there are places where tourists can get dressed up as Maiko and Geisha for a fee (The higher you pay the better quality) But by law they have to get a few things wrong so they can be distinguished from the real thing by those with trained eyes. Luckily there is a huge following who will be happy to tell you if they are real or fake (Myself included) and within those groups there are a few who can accurately identify who the girls are by name (I’m starting to get there but I’m not quite at that level) I hope you found these added facts interesting because I certainly enjoyed sharing them ^^

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