The Geisha: one of Japan’s most famous, but also misunderstood cultural icons. A common misconception is that these illusive women are some kind of high-class call girl, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In short, their role is simply to entertain clients, male and female, with conversation, dance, music and drink pouring.
The art of the Geisha is something that has passed down through generations of young Japanese women, who enter into training as Maiko (apprentice Geisha). Both Geisha and Maiko are instantly recognisable by their distinctive white face, painted on red lipstick, pencilled in eyebrows and hair pulled up into an elaborate chignon to reveal the nape of the neck.
It is, however, the kimono that distinguishes a Geisha from a Maiko, the design, colour and pattern of which, as well as the contrasting obi belt and how it is tied, says a lot about each individual’s level of experience, as well as their okiya (the boarding house in which the Maiko or Geisha lives, owned by the woman who pays for their training).The Geisha belonging to the wealthiest okiya will have hundreds of exquisite kimonos to choose from and are never seen in the same outfit twice.
In Japan today there are less than 2000 Geisha and Maiko, compared to 80,000 in the 1920s, so for many travellers to the country, catching a glimpse of a Geisha shuffling down a lantern-lit cobbled street is the highlight of their trip. One of the best places to do this is Kyoto, where tradition is still very prevalent. Guided tours are possible, with local guides who lead you on an evening stroll through the city’s Gion district. If you are ever going to catch a glimpse of these charming ladies, this is the best place to start.
Alternatively, for those with the budget, it is possible to attend a dinner and Maiko performance whilst in Kyoto. During the six years of training it takes for a Maiko to become a fully-fledged Geisha, they learn skills such as dance, singing, instrument playing as well as how to entertain guests with conversation, so to be a part of one of these special performances is a unique experience.
Katy Pannell – Online Travel Editor
Audley Travel is an award–winning tour operator, specialising in tailor-made trips and small group tours for the discerning traveller, to over 80 countries around the world.
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