Geisha Most Japanese have seen true geisha only on television or in festival parades; the onsen geisha in spa resorts may well be only hookers in fancy dress. Genuine geisha entertain the political and industrial elite in exclusive traditional ryōtei [料亭] restaurants, cha-ya [茶屋] (teahouses), and machi-ai [待合い] (assignment houses) - all antiquarian establishments boasting inner gardens graced with flickering stone lanterns. Numbering about 100,000 before World War II, the geisha declined with the rise of the bar hostess after the war; they now number barely 8,000. The geisha have their origins in the pleasure quarters - the Floating World - of 300 years ago. More than mere bordellos, the great Green Houses of the 17th-century pleasure quarters offered banquets enhanced by courtesans adept at singing and dancing. Itinerant entertainers and musicians often accompanied them, the most skilled being dubbed otoko geisha [男藝者] (male arts people). By the 1700s the best female entertainers became known as geiko [藝子] (arts girls), a name still used in some regions. To call them by any other name in Kyoto would ruffle their fine plumage but, elsewhere, the generic geisha stuck.

The geisha, her face whitened and her mouth reduced to little petals of brilliant red, became a living work or art, an icon of womanhood. Spirited, garrulous, talented, and sexy, she had all the dazzle that Confucian strictures forbade in a virtuous wife. Geisha are also table entertainers, sought for their wit and powers of conversation. Even in advanced years, some geisha continued to be revered as exponents of traditional performing arts. At first, many geisha doubled as prostitutes. Infuriated by the rivalry, the courtesans successfully petitioned the government to pass a law forbidding geisha to sleep with customers in the pleasure quarters. As a result, the profession went upscale.

Geisha Today's geisha earns a lot of money. She has to, for her wardrobe includes a collection colored according to each season. She shuns wearing the same kimono before the same customers twice. The goal of most geisha is to find a danna - a wealthy patron to support her as a mistress. Some have been brides for prime ministers - Katsura during the Meiji era and Yoshida in the 1950s. A scandalous affair with a geisha in 1989 felled Prime Minister Uno after just two months in office. In the old days, girls trained as geisha from childhood; nowadays they start in their late teens. Hundreds of girls still aspire to become geisha, but only three out of ten weather the harsh training as maiko [舞子] (apprentices) at the okiya [置屋] (geisha house), where they are strictly schooled in singing, dancing, playing the samisen [三味線] (Japanese three-string lute), and deportment.

You might see geisha in Kyoto's Gion where the maiko - gaudy little dolls with whitened faces - bustle along, pigeon-toed on high sandals, while the geisha glide past in their silken finery with regal nonchalance. Appearances are deceptive, however, Tokyo, where they are rarely glimpsed, has about a thousand geisha. In Kyoto, despite their higher profile, there are slightly more than 500 left. Geisha are not as old-fashioned as they seem. Their conversational skills are utterly contemporary, and many attend corporate functions in modern dress. If geisha disappear altogether, it will not be because they are out of tune with the times, but a matter of simple economics. Catering to a dwindling elite, they have priced themselves out of the market.


Riih Rion is bashful when facing cameras and video-cams. But she soon realized she is more comfortable behind a PC screen than in front of a lens. Riih is passionate about beauty products, paranormal & folk lore from anywhere in the world and sushi. Especially sushi. Come visit her blogs or drop her a comment :D

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