After 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.
7. 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.
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