Geisha. Without Memoirs

the tree from whose flower 
this perfume comes 
is unknowable /Basho/

–       Let’ s begin with the actual meaning of „Geisha” 芸者 where „Gei” means „arts” and „sha” means „doer”. So the straight translation in English would be „a performing artist”. Though there’ s an opinion of geisha being prostitutes, it’ s far from the truth. To bring more customers there were prostitutes who have called themselves geisha but the difference is distinct. Geisha tied their obi(sash) in the back but prostitutes – in the front. Reason? A very simple one – she couldn’ t tie it herself if it was in the back but being a prostitute she needed to tie and untie it quite often. 

 –       The geisha tradition evolved from the taiko-mouchi meaning „drum carrier” – similar to court jesters and the first geisha were male. They entertained guests in banquets while the latter were waiting to spend time with the courtesans. 

 –       Geisha were trained from young childhood in a wide variety of arts – playing Japanese musical instruments(shamisen), traditional forms of singing and dancing, tea ceremony, poetry, flower arranging(ikebana). At first they worked as maids  in a geisha house (okiya), then – as assistants(maiko) to the house’s senior geisha where they gained skills in the complex traditions of selecting and wearing kimono, different games and art of conversations with customers.

 –       The traditional geisha makeups included the heavy white foundation base that was originally made with lead(which was poisonous and, of course, not good for the geisha’s skin therefore within years was replaced with rice powder), with bright red lipstick and red&black decorative etchings around the eye area. Applying geisha makeup took much time and it had to be extremely precise. So…if you have enough free hours and patience, go ahead and give it a try! Just don’ t forget about crystallized sugar on lips in the end. To make them shine.  After a geisha had been employed as one for approximately three years, she usually made her makeup less dramatic looking. This subdued style showed she was more mature and was allowed to show more of her natural beauty. 

–       Geisha wore kimono that were the key identity seperating them from any other women. One kimono could take around 2-3 years to complete(it was handmade) and the color, pattern, and style of it depended on the season and the event the geisha was attending. Geisha clothes weighed 10 kilograms(about 22 lbs).  Tough cookies! Can’ t imagine so heavy dress but maybe jewelry would do. As for foot-wear, there were the flat-soled sandals zori outdoors and only tabi (white split-toed socks) indoors. In dreary weather geisha wore raised wooden clogs geta.

 –       Geisha hairdos had changed through the years and were held in place with wax, silk ribbons and inner bindings made of paper. A hairdo could weigh up to 3 kilograms(about 6.6 lbs). Not to mess up their hairdo, geisha slept on a wooden neck rest. Healthy? Probably. Easy? I wouldn’ t volunteer to do that.

 –       Everything about geisha left something to imagination. Less is more! When a geisha was serving tea and her kimono sleeve was pulled up enough to bare her wrist, it was a sign of sensuality.

–       Male patrons of geisha were called danna meaning „husbands”. They were supposed to pay for the kimonos, accessories and training and the total cost could run in the equivalent of hundred of thousands of dollars. Danna often supported a geisha for decades but in return the geisha had to be devoted to him exclusively. 

 –       Geisha followed a strict, almost samurai-like code of honor which prized discretion and forbade geisha from revealing anything about their private lives or the private lives of the their male customers.

 –       Geisha were allowed to get married but then they were expected to leave their profession. Geisha usually retired before they were forty but there were ones who continued working until they were in their eighties. 

 –       In the 1920’ s there were as many as 80,000 geisha in business while today there are believed to only be up to 2000.

Image courtesy of Michael Chandler

Other images – from web

P.S: To answer the probable question of non Japanese women – yes, there is Australian-born Fiona Graham who is also known by her geisha name Sayuki. Sayuki decided to become a geisha as part of her studies in Anthropology in 2007 and was making a living as a geisha in Tokyo till 2011.

60 thoughts on “Geisha. Without Memoirs

  1. This was a very interesting post and i read it start to finish without the blink of an eye.
    I remember i saw a Japenese drama “Osheen”…when i was in school.
    There i had first heard the word “geisha”. It was an amazing series about a very brave Japenese girl.
    Loved this post.


  2. I’ve been intrigued by Geishas for a long time and just this morning I decided to finally do some research on them… and I suddenly find myself here. Wow I love the synchronicity
    Congratulations on an extremely well written well researched post Esse 😀


  3. elkemurphy

    Thank you for this wonderfully researched and well written post – gives us great insight into the mysterious world of Geisha and adjusts the public opinion.


    1. I have always found it absolutely fascinating. So different from mine, yet so…strong with roots all the way to the past, traditions.
      I enjoyed the book a lot and movie for me was more…informational way about how other people had seen the book. 🙂


  4. A well-written informative post. I spent a couple days in Kyoto once, and spent the night in a traditional guesthouse in the same district where geishas live. I admired them from afar for the most part, but I did screw up my courage to ask a couple for a photo. They were so gracious, even though they must constantly be bothered by tourists. I really liked how gracious were all the Japanese during my visit.


  5. Thanks you for this excellent post – very enlightening.
    I had the pleasure of attending a Sumo tournament in Tokyo once and was mesmerised by seeing girls dressed like Geisha coming and going from the ‘back stage’ area. It was like living history to me.
    I don;t recall which way their obi was tied however 🙂


    1. Thank you for taking time to read, JRB. Must admit though had read quite a bit about geisha before, there’re many new things I bumped into while writing this post. Unfortunately I haven’t had a possibility to see this part of Japanese culture “live” but hopefully some day…would be a truly interesting experience. And have to remember to glance at the way their obi are tied…just to know. 😀


  6. If you ever get the chance you should go to Kyoto. That district is so interesting. There are traditional places to stay where everything is small and you sleep on a mat. Paper walls, the whole thing! Then you go out walking and see geishas. They are so gracious, though they are always being photographed.


  7. Thank you for the information. I went to Japan several years ago and had one of the most incredible evenings of my life at a Tea House. We had a geisha in training and I totally understand their purpose. The odd part a lot of the American women thought it was a form of prostitution.


  8. Pingback: Thank you Awesome Bloggers – here is an award for you | Perspectives on life, universe and everything

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