Explore the enigma of these Japanese female figures.
If there’s one occupation that comes to mind whenever you think of Kyoto, it’s the geisha. It’s also one of the most misunderstood professions in the world.
The Chinese characters for "geisha" mean "practitioner of the arts," and training in the arts is mandatory. Music and dance are primary, and a practiced geisha also elevates conversation and being a good hostess to an art. Shamisen (the three stringed Japanese lute) and shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) are typical instruments, as is the trained voice.
To become a geisha requires years — if not decades — of practice. Young geisha in training are called maiko, and these are the young women you’re most likely to glimpse in Kyoto’s Gion District. You’ll recognize them by their dazzling kimono, white-painted faces and elaborate wigs bedecked with shiny ornaments. Established geisha tend to wear much less showy costumes.
Some outside Japan have an impression of geisha as prostitutes, which may date back to the post-war period when women posed as onsen (hot spring) geisha and provided services to occupation forces. A real geisha, by contrast, might take on a danna, an admiring man who helps pay for her considerable expenses such as training and new kimono.
It is estimated that there were about 80,000 geisha throughout Japan in the 1920s, but now there are only about 10,000.