Japanese Arts (I): Geisha
Geisha (or Geiko, a dialect in Kyoto) refers to Japanese artists who have mastery of traditional Japanese performing arts, such as dance, singing, instrument playing, and tea ceremony. They are professional entertainers and hosts to make guests enjoy conversation, drinking games, and dance performances pleasantly. They are featured by their pale-white facial makeup, long trailing kimono, and traditional hairstyles.
History of Geisha
Japanese Geisha originated in Tokyo and Osaka in the 17th century. To many people’s surprise, the early-stage Geisha were male performers. It was not until 1751 that appeared the first female. From then on, female Geisha gradually replaced male Geisha and dominated the industry. By the 19th century, the profession of Geisha was almost entirely female.
World War II drastically changed Geisha culture. In the 1830s, Geisha were considered the fashion icons in Japanese society and emulated by women. However, after the war, Geisha became a “tradition protector” rather than an “avant-garde fashion” in westernized Japan.
With the improvement of laws and the awakening of women’s rights, Geisha underwent shorter training time and enjoyed more personal freedom. Nowadays, girls choose to become Geisha out of their own interest in traditional culture rather than be forced to be a Geisha for scraping a living.
Misunderstandings of Geisha
1. Geisha are prostitutes.
Throw away the nonsense! Geisha are proficient performers providing the joy of the art and music rather than the excitement of sex. Their work includes dancing, singing, playing instruments, reciting verses, hosting tea ceremonies, and engaging in light conversation. Moreover, they are forbidden to engage in any sexual activity since the Meiji era (1868-1912CE). If they are against the rule, their name will be erased from the registered list, which is a severe punishment considering the time and effort they devote to becoming a Geisha.
2. Geisha and Maiko arethe same thing.
In Japanese, Geisha means “the person of arts” and Maiko means “the child who dances”. It’s easy to deduce that Geisha and Maiko have differences in age and skill. Maiko are apprentice Geisha training their skills in singing and dancing. They are kids from 15 to 20 years old that don’t master the technique of conversation while Geisha are professional artists over 20 years old who master all the necessary skills. It takes a Maiko 5 years to become a Geisha. Geisha and Maiko also have a different appearances. Their hair, makeups, shoes, and clothes all differ from each other. The most conspicuous difference is that the kimono of Maiko is flamboyant while that of Geisha is simple and elegant.
How to experience Geisha culture?
It’s deniable that Geisha culture is declining. Nowadays, there are only about 1,000 geisha in several major cities across Japan, including Kyoto, Tokyo, and Kanazawa. Among them, Kyoto, the capital of Japan 150 years ago and the birthplace of the Geisha profession originated, is the best to experience geisha.
Gion is the entertainment district of Kyoto, locating traditional townhouses, theaters, and teahouses. In the townhouse, you can have a chance to glimpse a Geisha in training. You can enjoy a Geisha dinner in the teahouses, which includes food, drinks, games, dance performance, and music performances. You can also go to the theater to enjoy the traditional Japanese arts, such as drama, flower arrangement performances, and traditional instruments.
Nowadays, there are many studios in Kyoto providing services of dressing up as a maiko or geisha. The dress-up includes makeup, costume, hairstyles, and photographs. It is important to note that the process of dressing up as a Geisha is very tedious - the makeup alone takes almost an hour. Please remember to allow plenty of time if you want to experience it.