In the Life of A Geisha

The flowers of Japan.

Master hostesses. Expert entertainers. It is undeniably a highly prestigious profession, one clouded with much intrigue.

Geishas dance, sing, and perform tea ceremonies within expensive traditional restaurants called ‘ryotei’. Make no mistake, these women once sat at the table of serious business negotiations and closed-door political discussions, and are skilled in the art of discourse.

Even when tourists visit Kyoto, one of the last strongholds of geisha culture, most stroll the streets keeping their eyes peeled for a once-in-a-lifetime experience: To catch sight of a beautifully painted Geisha.

Before we progress further though, just to clear the air – No, they’re not prostitutes. Geishas are deeply respected cultural performers, and masters of their crafts.

How Many Geishas Are There Left?

While there was no official figure released for the number of Geishas in Japan, it was estimated to be as many as 90,000 of them in the 1920s. By the 1960s, there was an estimated 400 geishas in the Akasaka district. Today, there’re reportedly only 21, an exceptionally steep decline from what once was.

Even though it’s a dwindling trade, the coveted title has to be earned, and it didn’t come easily at all. Think about it like how one graduates high school.

How to become a Geisha

Girls travel from all over Japan at the age of 15 to congregate in Kyoto to commence their training as a ‘maiko’. They’re trained for around 5 years, during which, the hours are incredibly long and they’ve very little to almost no privacy or downtime.

A maiko typically begins their days around 8.30 am, donning a kimono and heading to the school of art. They’re then educated on a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument, Shamisen, as well as dances and classical Japanese arts such as tea ceremony and flower arranging.

Those who weren’t Kyoto natives are expected to master the local dialect. These ladies then spend their evenings performing and entertaining at some of the city’s most exclusive teahouses.

Any money earned during that time is turned over to their mentor (or ‘okiya’), who controls the finances and makes micro-decisions right down to what the maiko wears, be it her kimono, hair ornaments, accessories, etc.

Girls can end their days as late as 1 am before calling it a day, only to repeat this grueling schedule the next day.

When a maiko turns 20 or 21 years old, her okiya then decides whether she is ready to progress to the next stage: Geiko. There’s no official examination for this – All she needs is her okiya’s go-ahead.

Strict Rules

This learning journey is deemed quite a sacrifice – Maikos only have 2 days off in a month, and they get to see their families only once or twice a year.

It wasn’t just that these girls had such punishing timetables, they’d barely have time for outsiders. It was a rule – Maikos are not allowed to date.

Geishas, on the other hand, cannot get married. It is part of the understanding that if you undertake this career, you’re choosing to the married to the art, not a man. As such, if they wish to get married, they have to quit the profession altogether. Once they do, it’s virtually impossible to return to the craft, provided they debut in a different city, under a different name.

This could be a few of the reasons most girls quit at the maiko stage. If the ladies do follow through, the trajectory is that they would one day become an okiya and possibly inherit the geisha house that had a hand in shaping the women they are or run their own.

A Maiko Experience

You can probably get your own maiko experience for 3,000 yen. Some places would offer you a chance to take photos with a maiko.

If you’re interested in catching traditional performances, Gion Corner is a good place. You can see a maiko perform a Kyo-main dance, one of the country’s oldest dances, or indulge in other performances such as a koto performance (Japanese six-stringed zither instrument), and kyogen theatre (comical plays) there. Adult tickets are priced at 3,150 yen.

For a more up-close experience, Yasaka-Dori Enraku in the Higashiyama district offers maiko performances twice a week. You can look forward to an evening playing traditional parlor games with the entertainer herself.

How Much Do Geisha Make

Though unconfirmed, it used to be that a popular Geisha can probably earn up to tens of thousands of dollars including the gifts she receives from clients such as expensive silk kimonos and gems. Unfortunately, as well-known as Geishas are, only the local elderly of today might have interacted with them. This quintessentially Japanese tradition remains unfamiliar to the young.

While the world struggled with COVID-19, so did this trade. Gone are the days people would splurge on gatherings and celebrations.

But a Geisha, disciplined as she is, still wakes every morning, paints her face white, perfects the position of the wig, and faces a new day.

If you are keen on exploring more about Japanese culture, you can also find our post on how much voice actors make.


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