Before World War 2, there were around 90,000 geisha in Japan, but today they are becoming something of a rarity. The most common sightings are in the tourist areas around Kyoto, where visitors to the country are entranced by the appearance of the geisha, what with all their white make-up and elaborate kimono and hairstyle. Yet many people still associate the geisha with sex and prostitution.
Geisha live in traditional houses in areas called hanamachi (“flower towns”). Walking around Kyoto, I saw many of these areas, although it is hard for an untrained eye to know if they are real geisha, or just people in fancy dress. Geisha always wear kimono, while the apprentice geisha wear a highly colourful kimono with extravagant obi. Older geisha of Kyoto wear more subdued patterns and styles. I find their doll-like appearance quite creepy at times, but I seem to forget their tradition and history in Japan. I can remember seeing geisha and maiko in Sannenzaka Ninenzaka, Gion, and even at Nanzenji Temple during my visit to Kyoto. On each of these occasions they were the stars of the show, with the tourists even forgetting they were at a wonderful temple or shopping street, just to stare at these exotic entertainers and take photos! If there were thoughts of prostitution surrounding geisha these days, then tourists don’t seem to care!
There is a stringent hierarchy in geisha culture, where the most prestigious entertainers belong to hanamachi in Gion and Pontocho districts of Kyoto. Even politicians and celebrities “use” these geisha to entertain dinner guests. Yet at the opposite end of the spectrum you will encounter the hot-spring geisha. These geisha are viewed by most Japanese people as prostitutes. This is where confusion reigns, as while tourists don’t necessarily make any distinction between the two types of geisha, Japanese locals seem to despise the lowbrow version. The “prostitutes” normally cater to far less exclusive patrons, and are unsurprisingly much cheaper, and if traditional geisha were mistaken for the “prostitutes” they would be suitably horrified and dishonoured.
Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at little tea houses or at traditional Japanese restaurants. Interestingly, I also learned that the charge for a geisha’s time is measured by a burning incense stick. I wasn’t interested in that kind of thing during my time in Kyoto, but I found it enthralling all the same to see these kimono-clad celebrities on the move throughout the city. I guess whether you’re a paying customer or not, it’s always good to get a few snapshots of these superstars!
The featured image used in this post is courtesy of Travel Chowdown.