The wig worn by geisha is called katsura that is styled in the taka shimada hairstyle. At times, this wig can change and styled into a kyoufuu shimada style. In times when they are not wearing a wig, geisha put up a yohatsu hairstyle which literally means ‘western style’ since it is modeled to western updo’s or perms.

TRIVIA: In the olden times, geisha practiced ohaguro or the Japanese custom of blackening one’s teeth and it lasted until the end of the Meiji period (though at times, there are still some Kyoto geiko today who sometimes have pitch-black teeth). In those times, pitch-black objects were regarded as beautiful so they had their teeth blackened especially when they are coming of age as a sign of maturity and beauty (girls, boys, and even nobles did it too).

The geisha tradition is not as old as the samurai but it IS old and I must say… I’ve developed some sort of mild fear that they might eventually disappear too — which I hope to goodness, they won’t. This worry of mine makes a bit of sense because there aren’t that many of them anymore. To put it into numbers, back in the 1920s geisha numbered around 80,000. The current number? It is now estimated to be only 1,000 to 2,000! Because of this, I’ve actually made ‘meeting or seeing a legit geisha‘ as an item on the very top of my bucket list.
Their work often starts at around 6PM to 8PM so it’s possible to see them while they’re on their way to the teahouse (walking or getting on a taxi). But ordinarily, you can have a better chance of finding geisha or maiko at around 10PM to 11PM on the streets of Gion when they make their way back to their okiya. (Again, take note of my tips above on how to spot the real ones!).

TIP: If you want to do a guided tour around Kyoto and learn more about the geishas, you can join this geisha district tour.
Photo by: My Kyoto Photo / CC
In order to keep up with the times, some okiya have been accepting foreign nationals as geisha. So far there are only a few of them that have been admitted and below are their Japanese names. (Data below is as of 2016.)
Training to become a geisha in which you start as a maiko begins at 15 or 16 in Kyoto and 18 in Tokyo (in the past, it started at 3 – 5 years old). These days, girls must have at least graduated from middle school (except Kyoto who has special laws for it) before they can make the decision to train as a maiko and eventually become a geisha.

Why are geisha expensive to book?!

Geisha Facts

» What Is a Geisha?

If in case though that this is the first time you’ve heard of Japan’s geisha, it is therefore also my hope that you’ve now discovered a great appreciation and support for their wondrous traditions.

5 MYTH: Maiko goes through mizuage wherein a patron would pay to take their virginity. (As also seen in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’).
TRUTH: Nope, not at all!
This kind of mizuage was actually a ceremony done by young courtesans and prostitutes in the past — NOT by maiko. Though there are speculations that this mizuage (taking of the virginity) was done by some maiko in the past, what’s important to remember is that this is NOT done today nor was it ever traditionally accepted to be done by geisha for their maiko. The only kind of mizuage that maiko have done was a ceremony wherein older geisha would symbolically cut the topknot of the maiko’s hair to signify her coming of age (of becoming an adult).

Unfortunately, there is NO guarantee that you will see them as they can be elusive and they can be anywhere! Though if you have the time, it’s advisable to linger in one place to increase your chances of sighting them. It’s said that the most common hubs would be the street of Pontocho Alley end of Shijo-dori and Hanamikoji-dori (around 5-6PM) given that a lot of the okiya are found there. Plus, like I mentioned above, it doesn’t hurt to pass by the surrounding shrines or temples since they might have made a stop there to pray before going to work.
You will not see foreigner or non- Japanese geisha admitted (yet) in Kyoto since they still remain to be strictly traditional. Nevertheless, it is great to see that the rest of Japan is slowly opening its geisha tradition to others who love the culture, even if they are not of Japanese descent!

In contrast, geisha wear simpler kanzashi or smaller hair ornaments like a kushi (comb-shaped kanzashi), maezashi (small hairpins), tama kanzashi (single-colored bead hairpin), and hanemottoi (silver paper wires atop the hair).
NOTE: Don’t expect to see geisha and maiko in their full regalia around Gion during “Obon Festival”, the annual Buddhist event for commemorating the souls of one’s ancestors, because they don’t work at that time. This happens during the middle of August.

I say this because there are a LOT of misunderstanding about the geisha profession. In fact, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha is a prime example of this! Since it was made in Hollywood, it surely had several aspects that were false (if not overly romanticized) thereby contributing to the already growing misconceptions of the culture. Thanks to my discussions with several geisha, as well as to my long research sprees, I have come to learn MORE of the truth.
The first female geisha (onna) appeared around 1751 and she was called a geiko (which now remains to be the term for geisha in Kyoto). Eventually, teenage odoriko who were expensively-trained “dancing girls” or dancers-for-hire started to appear as well.

I definitely feel lucky for having the chance to undergo these breathtaking experiences, and now that I have met and seen them, my wish for their practices to continue for eternity has been strengthened even more! It is also my wish that more people would get to know their tradition — and the real one at that.
Come and check out these encounters and/or dinner activities that you can do either in Nagoya or Tokyo! (English translators included).

“When is the best time to spot a maiko or geiko in Kyoto?”

» What Is a Maiko?

1 MYTH: Geishas are prostitutes.
TRUTH: Geisha are NOT prostitutes.
They are and always will be highly-skilled entertainers. It helps to note as well that prostitution is illegal in Japan ever since 1956. Plus, even though there were some of them in the olden times who offered sex to their clients, it helps to note that it was NOT a part of their true traditional function or training — call them rebels if you will, and they might just be so since as I’ve discussed previously, a geisha is imprisoned in the past should they ever offer sex to others casually (also as a way to protect the oiran).
Thankfully, I’ve already made that dream come true from some of the many trips I’ve done to Japan! For instance, I talked to a geisha in Tokyo and Kyoto over a dinner banquet, I played games with 2 young senior maiko in Niigata, I caught sight of a legitimate maiko (who was on her way to work) in one of Kyoto’s narrow alleys, and I even watched two young Japanese maiko perform in Gion Corner among many others.
Ochaya are highly exclusive places that customarily only grant entry to regular or trusted customers. This is mainly because of how they operate: they don’t bill their guests at the end of the evening, but rather once a month for all the expenses accrued. That being said, there is a special level of trust involved. For instance, not just about anyone can go up to an ochaya without being introduced to it first by an already existing customer (and that existing customer would essentially risk their reputation by trusting the behavior of the person that they are introducing to the ochaya). Going by this train of thought, hiring a geisha to have a dinner banquet with is not easy especially if you’re not Japanese and not well-connected, as it is exclusive AND expensive.

3 MYTH: Young girls are sold to okiya (geisha houses) by their parents because of poverty.
TRUTH: It may have happened way in the past, but nowadays, NO.
Today, there are no young girls sold to an okiya due to poverty; after all, it is more of a personal career choice in order to become one. In fact, a lot of girls have to persuade their parents today in order to let them become a maiko/geisha. Once a girl’s parents consent to it, she will have to be interviewed first by the association as well as the female owners of the okiya (geisha house) before being accepted.

History of Geisha

» The First Geisha

In Tokyo, maiko are called as hangyoku (“half jewel”) and they can remain to be so until they are 23. For the sake of consistency in this article, I will use the word maiko.


Have you ever had the chance to watch the movie: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’? Or at least read the book? I’ve done both at a young age and I instantly fell in love with Japan’s geisha as I witnessed their unique beauty, grace, and discipline. In fact, ever since then, I have been deeply enamored by their mystifying world — which, thankfully, has still survived up to this day!
Minarai. At this point, you will start your formal training and be regarded as a minarai which literally means “learning by watching”. In this stage, you will have an older geisha for a mentor whom you will call onēsan (sister) and this will be a bond that will stay for life. You are then expected to accompany your onesan to ozashiki (dinner banquet events) so that you can sit and observe her as well as other geisha and maiko interact with the customers. Through this way, you will not only gain real insights into the job but you will also gain the chance to know potential clients. At times, your onesan will allow you to perform but she will keep a close eye on you. (FYI: Oftentimes, you’ll know if you spotted a real maiko or geisha when you see them being accompanied by a singular shikomi or minarai dressed in a simple kimono or yukata with no make-up or accessories on.)
» This training period starts a month before your official debut as a maiko.

TRIVIA: Wondering about the ‘bag’ that they usually bring along with them? That’s called a kago or a bag with a bamboo base and it contains business cards, dancing fans and other accessories — but never electronics, as they are not allowed to bring them while working. Moreover, even a maiko and geisha has differences in the bag: maiko have bright and colorful kago, while geisha have minimal or solid-colored kago.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The maiko in the photo above is wearing a black kimono because she has just officially debuted as a maiko. But overall, a maiko’s kimono is much more colorful and bold with bigger patterns (a geisha’s patterns on her kimono only start at the bottom hem and never goes over the waistline. You can even differentiate a junior from a senior maiko from the patterns on their shoulders — a junior maiko has them on both shoulders, whereas a senior maiko only has it in one shoulder.

• • •
Left & middle photo by: Japanexperterna / CC | Right photo by: Keisuke Makino / CC

» Is an Oiran a Geisha?

TRIVIA: All maiko have their hair styled elaborately every week. To keep their hairstyle intact, maiko sleep with their necks on small supports or special pillows called as takamakura. I can’t find an image online that I’m allowed to use but if you’ve watched the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The numbers of oiran steadily declined and then vanished when Japan outlawed prostitution in 1957. Today, there are only oiran “reenactors” who continue to perform in Japan (mostly in Kyoto) — but they do not provide courtesan services, they mostly do shows and parades known as oiran dōchū.
.On a typical day, a maiko will be seen wearing the most recognizable feature of geisha: the full white face makeup. Geisha, on the other hand, do NOT have this makeup on unless they are going to do a special performance or dinner banquet.
Left photo by: Japonismo / CC | Right photo by: Tugumi Yoshikawa. / CC
If we have to put it into numbers, as I’ve previously mentioned, there only about 1,000 to 2,000 geisha now, and they are found in several cities across Japan — Kyoto, Tokyo (with well-known hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa, and Kagurazaka) and Kanazawa. It is said that there are about 300 in Kyoto — but the exact numbers there as well as in other areas are unknown to us outsiders. When World War II began, geisha started to decline. They had to close their okiya (geisha houses) and the teahouses, as well as bars, had to close shop as well. As a result, they went to other places in Japan for safety or for work (such as in factories, etc.). It didn’t help either that some prostitutes started to refer to themselves as “geisha girls” to American military men.

Today’s Geisha

» Current number

Maiko have their hair styled in the wareshinobu style consisting of two “wings” and a big bun at the center; but when a maiko turns senior, she will put on an ofuku hairstyle and this usually starts after 2 to 3 years of being a maiko (the only difference with the wareshinobu style is how the ofuku style has a rectangular piece of cloth pinned at the bottom of the bun with no red fabric sticking out).

There are several stages to undergo if you first train as a maiko. First of all, the stage of…
Today, I will be imparting that knowledge with you so that you too can be cleared of any misconceptions that you may have about them.

» Foreigner or Non-Japanese Geisha

But certainly, like I mentioned above, a private face-to-face dinner banquet or party can still prove to be pricey. If such is the case for you — don’t fret because there are still other ways to see REAL geisha and maiko at a much affordable price as listed below…

  1. Ibu — Debuted in Anjō of Aichi Prefecture in the Ichikoma okiya on October 5, 2010
    • Eve is originally from Ukraine [Retired ~ source]
  2. Juri — Debuted in the resort town of Yugawara in Kanagawa prefecture
    • Maria is originally from Peru [Unsure if still working or retired ~ source]
  3. Fukutarō — Debuted in Izu-Nagaoka district of Shizuoka Prefecture in 2011
    • Isabella Onou is originally from Romania [Retired ~ source]
  4. Sayuki — Debuted in Asakusa district of Tokyo in 2007 and became the first registered foreign geisha in Japan. In 2011, she has been disassociated with the Asakusa Geisha Association and has since worked independently in Fukugawa district.
    • Fiona Graham is originally from Australia [Working ~ source]
  5. Rinka — Debuted in Shimoda of Shizuoka Prefecture on September 2011
    • Zhang Xue is originally from China [Unsure if still working or retired ~ source]
  6. Mutsuki — Debuted in Shinagawa district of Tokyo
    • Yixin is originally from China [Working ~ source]
  7. Kimicho — Debuted in Oimachi district of Shinagawa, Tokyo on August 2015
    • Sydney Stephens is originally from America [Retired in 2017 due to personal reasons ~ source]

A geisha, which translates to English as “performing artist” or “artisan”, is a high-class professional and traditional female entertainer in Japan trained in various forms of art. In the west of Japan such as in Kyoto, they use another name which is geiko. Whereas in the Kanto area (around Tokyo), they call them geigi. For Tokyo and other places, they just commonly use the word geisha.

Not at all! As I’ve previously mentioned, the geisha set themselves apart from oiran who were high-ranking courtesans.

Top Myths

KIMONO. A maiko usually wears a colorfully-designed hikizuri kimono (Japanese traditional garment) that has furisode or long-sleeves garment that almost touch the ground (commonly worn by unmarried women), along with a wider, longer, and heavier obi (sash) that is set to look like a bow as it drapes down to their back showing the end which has the kamon or the logo of the maiko’s okiya or geisha house — this obi is actually called as a darara obi. A maiko’s collar is also a distinct feature because it is thick and embroidered, hangs very loosely, and is mainly in the color red (other colors can only be gold or white). It will slowly have white embroidered patterns as they advance in their training but it will always remain to be dominantly red.

Of course, a geisha is free to pursue personal relationships with any man that she meets through work; but such would most likely never be casual nor will it ever be her goal for such an interaction. They live in a geisha district (hanamachi) which is a very closely-knit community, and given how greatly they value their reputation, they would always pick their relationships carefully. Should they ever fall in love and want to marry, then sometimes they must retire because geisha (most especially in Kyoto) are expected to be single. Nevertheless, there are now a lot of places in Japan like Tokyo that allow married, divorced, and/or women with children to become geisha.

I say ‘survived’ because I was also interested in the samurai (Japan’s olden warriors who typically serve a feudal lord or daimyo). I badly wanted to witness their noble way of life; however, it stumbled upon the upsetting fact that they no longer exist. Apparently, their social class has died down around the late 1800s after the emperor favored a modern western-style army. Today, there may be descendants and people who still try to practice samurai swordsmanship, BUT it’s not the same given how the whole samurai lifestyle and system are non-existent anymore.
Shikomi. As you are taken in, you will first be regarded as a shikomi or someone who basically works as a helper for the okiya as you do errands, help other geisha and maiko dress up, etc. During this stage, you are also slowly being trained into the lifestyle. Example: you’ll be taught to adjust to wearing a traditional yukata as normal clothing, grow out your hair, learn the proper demeanor, go to school (kaburejo or nyokobo) to learn the arts of the shamisen instrument, dance, tea ceremony, etc.
» This can last for about 6 months before going to the next stage.
In 1800, however, the oiran slowly fell out of demand when wealthy Japanese men and merchants started to prefer geisha as their companion of choice due to their ‘chic’ and modern demeanor..
Nonetheless, when the war ended, the returning geisha made it a point to reinstate their traditional standards as highly-skilled entertainers, and at the same time, they proposed increased rights for their profession.

How to Become a Geisha

Photos by: My Kyoto Photo / CC
TRIVIA: Some people will say that it is a ‘waste’ of money to have a geisha dinner if you don’t speak Japanese — the magic of it all may cease to exist! They say that this is because you’ll be missing out on one of their best talents: conversation or witty banter.

A maiko, which translates to English as “dancing child”, is an apprentice geisha.

You might have heard of makeover (henshin) studios in Japan that will dress tourists up as a geisha or maiko for a day. With this in mind, if you have ever seen one while you are around popular spots in Japan — like in parts of Kyoto or Tokyo — it is highly likely that you have witnessed or took a picture with a fake one.

» Maiko Training.

Anyhow, geisha and maiko alike are celebrated and they have a HUGE fanbase — not only in Japan but worldwide too!
Anyhow, geisha and maiko alike are celebrated and they have a HUGE fanbase — not only in Japan but worldwide too!
As you visit Japan, take note of the below points to help you quickly differentiate a geisha from their apprentice (maiko):

As you visit Japan, take note of the below points to help you quickly differentiate a geisha from their apprentice (maiko):

» How to spot fake maiko and geisha

As you visit Japan, take note of the below points to help you quickly differentiate a geisha from their apprentice (maiko):
As you visit Japan, take note of the below points to help you quickly differentiate a geisha from their apprentice (maiko):
As you visit Japan, take note of the below points to help you quickly differentiate a geisha from their apprentice (maiko):
As you visit Japan, take note of the below points to help you quickly differentiate a geisha from their apprentice (maiko):
2 MYTH: Geisha have personal relationships with a patron or danna.
TRUTH: This is NOT true today.
It may have been a tradition in the past for them to take a danna or a patron who was wealthy enough to support the expenses related to her training and other costs in order to have a personal relationship in return (which was not inherently sexual). But today, it is very unusual for a geisha to have a personal relationship with a danna, and should they ever have one (which is rare because most of them love to be autonomous now), it’s mainly because of the patron’s desire to help prolong the geisha arts and traditions — nothing more. Again, a geisha and her danna can fall in love but intimacy is never viewed as an exchange for the danna’s financial support.

  • Go and watch the show at Gion Corner in Kyoto. This is a theater that presents regular one-hour shows of 7 performing arts in Kyoto — one of which is the well-known kyo-mai dance performance by maiko dancers. There are 2 shows every day at 6PM and 7PM [see schedule here] with prices for adults at 3,150 yen ($30~ or Php 1,400). I went to this show and I loved it! (A lot of people on TripAdvisor left such bad reviews for this show, but that’s mainly because they didn’t read their pamphlet beforehand; most of them did not understand that there are 6 Japanese performances that are apart from the well-anticipated maiko dance.)
  • Go to Azuma Odori in Tokyo. A dance performance by the geisha of Shinbanshi, Tokyo is held annually at the Shinbanshi Enbujo Theater in May. (For more info, go here).

TRIVIA: Wanna know the most expensive item in a geisha or maiko’s outfit? It’s the pocchiri or obidome which is an accessory on the obi (belt) made of expensive real jewels such as jade, agate, quartz, pearl and more that can easily match the price of a luxury car.

In fact, most of the geisha experiences that you might have read in other travel blogs are actually experiences with a furisode-san. How do the Japanese feel about these people? A mix of approval and disapproval. Approval since they help gather interest in real geisha; disapproval since they deem it as disrespectful to the real tradition.

Left photo by: Joe Baz / CC | Circle & right photo by: Annie Guilloret / CC
UPDATE: I was told that as of 2012, there exists a working geisha who also owns an ‘okiya’ and he is male! His name is Eitaro, dubbed as Japan’s only male geisha who performs as a female dancer, and he is found in Tokyo’s Omori district.

Nevertheless, any girl who wants to enter the community does not have to begin as a maiko because it’s said that they can already proceed to be a geisha. Still and the same, they are required to do at least a year’s worth of training before debuting as a full-fledged geisha. For women who are aged 21 to 23 and above, they are deemed to be too old to become maiko so they already become a geisha when they get accepted to the community — again, still with training beforehand.

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