• Shona McCarthy

The Geisha of Gion 園芸者

(An image of two true Maiko, or apprentice Geisha. Their hair ornaments and distinctive long, hanging obi knots show their status. Used by permission from

Gion is probably one of the most famous and popular tourist locations in Japan. Thanks to films and books like Memoirs of a Geisha, or Geisha of Gion, most people associate it with highly sophisticated nightlife. But I feel it matters for tourists to go in with some awareness of what geisha really are. Many people seem to enter Japan unaware that geisha are not prostitutes. Historically, their cultural function could more easily be compared with that of pop stars. They were known to have their own fans, to start fashion trends. People sold merchandise based on their reputations. Their style of dress was considered sexually provocative. But they did not sell their sexual favours.

Oiran vs. Geisha However, the confusion is understandable. Oiran, a type of ancient and highly sophisticated form of prostitute, performed some of the same skills that geisha did, but also sold sexual favours. Prostitution became illegal in Japan in the 1950's. So there are no more Oiran in Japan today. However, Geisha and other carefully selected women will sometimes dress as Oiran for parades and festivals. However, even then, these women can not be bought and sold, regardless of what books or movies would claim. In fact, it is heavily frowned upon for geisha to be sexually active. They usually live in communal share-houses with their peers and employers. So it isn't as though they could have secret sex lives, either. So while it may be tempting, it is important that tourists in Kyoto avoid asking Geisha for sexual favours. Not only because it is against Geisha rules. Not only because it would place these, sometimes underage, girls in an awkward and uncomfortable position. But also because even if they said yes, you and they would almost certainly face prosecution.

(This is likely an image of a true Maiko. Note the way she holds her skirt up with her own hands as she walks. This is typical of true geisha as they walk outside. Used by permission from

Real Geisha vs. Tourist Geisha But it's also important to know that if you do see what you think is a Geisha, more often than not, you will be wrong. True geisha are extremely rare these days. But tourists being dressed as geisha are increasingly common. However there are clues on whether you are seeing a real Geisha or a fake one. The easiest clue that you are looking at a fake or tourist geisha is how their skirts sit when they are outdoors. If it has been hoisted up and tied with a scarf, it's almost certainly a tourist who has been dressed by a "henshin" or transformation studio. If the skirt trails on the ground, it's probably a tourist who doesn't know much about Japanese culture but owns a kimono. If they are daintily holding the edges of their skirt with their finger tips so that it doesn't touch the ground at all, it's more likely that you have found a true geisha. True geisha typically won't have the time to stop and take photos with you. When geisha go out fully dressed, they will be on their way to an important appointment. If they are late, they can't simply apologize. It brings shame on their geisha house or Okiya. So if they do stop and chat, it's probably a tourist. For this reason, it's considered inappropriate to grab a geisha, follow her, or to take photos without her permission. Signs around Gion will warn you of this. You're not only taking up her time and shaming her, but she might not even be a geisha. She might be just a young tourist trying to have some fun. To have people following her around can be intimidating and uncomfortable for her.

(Even off duty, Maiko are still recognisable, since they can never undo their hair. So you may sometimes see them walking around without make up and wearing more casual styles of kimono. This is contrasted with Geiko, who wear wigs they can take off any time. Used by permission from

Geisha Don't Technically Exist The term "geisha" is an anglicised umbrella term for the multiple stages of training maiko and geiko would go through. As I discuss in another post, most geisha are either maiko or geiko. They differ in that Maiko are usually younger and are meant to depict virginal innocence. Throughout her time as a Maiko, a young woman will spend a period of time in isolation from her family and friends, she will behave as a servant to the older or more experienced geiko who trains her and she will attend lessons in traditional Japanese arts like poetry recitation, the playing of traditional instruments, dance, manners and conversation. She will also be hired by clients to perform these skills. But it will be understood that since she is a maiko and not a geiko, full sophistication can't be expected from her. Once she reaches a certain skill level, she will be able to attend an exam and if she passes it she can become a geiko. At this point, a kind of graduation ceremony will occur foe her and her clothing and hair will become more prosaic. Geiko are meant to symbolise the sophistication, wit and mature beauty of older women. So, they will usually be better conversationalists and they will display better refinement in their tastes and knowledge of local culture. Some clients will prefer maiko, others will prefer geiko, and some will like both. It depends on personal taste. Prior to Maiko, there is a stage of training called "minarai" where the woman will dress similarly to a maiko, but with fewer hair ornaments and a slightly more simple outfit. At this stage they are simply watching how the maiko and geiko perform so they can later replicate the results.

(Note that Geiko tend to wear fewer hair ornaments and in general their outfits are more prosaic and simple than those of Maiko. This is a sign of their inner maturity and sophistication. Used by permission from

Why Geisha? Many are inclined to say that the dwindling number of geisha is due to a decline in interest in traditional culture. But to understand why geisha were necessary in the first place, the traditional roles of women in Japan need to be better understood. For a man to be able to sit and have an extended conversation with a woman was unusual in old Japan. Women were either wives or daughters for the most part, and both roles were considered to be private. The women would look after the home and children, but the public life of the husband was usually conducted away from her. What geisha did was they gave men a woman they could have fun with and even flirt with without creating scandal or forcing his wife to behave in a manner considered inappropriate by the surrounding culture.

So if the Danna, or sponsor of a geisha died, it was often the geisha who would organize his funeral. His wife would attend and thank the geisha for performing this service. If marriage itself is a business arrangement of sorts, then geisha provided the emotional and social component the wife couldn't.

(In the rain, Maiko need to protect their precious kimono, which often cost thousands of dollars. So they will wear both a raincoat and an umbrella as depicted. Note the little fork painted into the back of her neck. This is a very distinct Maiko trait and is meant to be a little sexy. Used by permission from

Finding Real Geisha Within Kyoto there are multiple ways of intentionally accessing true Geisha. I will detail these in other posts. But these ways include: - Veltra Walking Tours - The Kyoto Museum of Traditional Culture - Dinner Experiences booked through Klook - Some Festivals - The Kyoto Tower Maiko Experience These vary wildly in terms of cost and level of interactivity. But always, you get to see a true Geisha. I may later write in detail about the experiences I have gone for, explaining their pluses and negatives. Part of the reason you should go to see geisha in Gion if you get the chance is that they are increasingly rare and their numbers are dwindling. So any chance you get is going to be special and provides the geisha community with needed support. But as I mention in another post, getting dressed as a geisha at a "Henshin" studio is also a valuable experience. Knowing how heavy and difficult geisha dress is to wear gives you a greater sense for the worth of what they do.

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