The Geisha

The Geisha: Past, Present and Future

Geisha 芸者

Photograph of a Kyoto Geisha.

Peter Macintosh, a long-term resident of Japan's ancient capital, has established a rare insight into the exclusive and hidden world of Kyoto's Geisha.

The geisha, along with Mt. Fuji, samurai and sushi, have been symbols of Japan ever since the reopening of contacts with the West in the mid-nineteenth century.

With the disappearance of the samurai and the influx of Western influence in Japan, only the geisha and their world remain a mystery to both foreigners and Japanese alike.

Since medieval times Japan has always had some form of pleasure quarter offering various forms of entertainment, including, of course, the erotic.

However, it was during the Edo period's sakoku (when Japan cut off all ties with the outside world) that Japanese culture, as it is known today, flourished.

Pontocho Maiko, Kyoto, Japan.
Gion geisha in the Pontocho district of Kyoto
Memoirs of a Geisha: buy this book from Amazon.

It was in these walled-in pleasure quarters such as Tokyo's Yoshiwara, Osaka's Shinmachi and Kyoto's Shimabara, that the chonin (merchants) spent much of their time and money cultivating the arts. With carnal satisfaction guaranteed, the merchants looked for other forms of entertainment.

The courtesans of the pleasure quarters were trained in various arts: music, dance and poetry as well as other forms of court entertainment that up until that time had been known only to the nobility.

As times changed so did the tastes of the customers; the formality and expense involved meant only the elite were able to patronize the Tayu (the top courtesans).

With the change in attitudes came a new type of entertainer. It was in the early 1700s when the first male-geisha appeared on the scene.

However, it was not long before some entrepreneurial female entertainers followed suit and the first women geisha, as we know them today, made their debut.
Their role was simple:

1. act as supporting staff to the courtesans
2. don't steal the courtesans clients, and most importantly,
3. no sex with the courtesan's customers.

Courtesan entertainment peaked in the mid-18th century and from then on the geisha would become the most skilled entertainers in the 'floating world' of the pleasure quarters.

Suddenly hanamachi (geisha quarters) began appearing all over Japan, reaching their peak in the early 1900s. In modern times to experience authentic traditional geisha entertainment one must go to the ancient capital, Kyoto.

Geisha Fans From Kyoto.

Some may argue that Tokyo geisha still retain some of the charm of the past but the buildings and attire of the geisha in Tokyo cannot be compared to the geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) of Kyoto.

In Kyoto's five hanamachi (Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Kamishichiken, Miyagawacho and Pontocho), the geiko and their apprentices the maiko entertain their customers in the traditional ochaya (teahouses) in the same kimono-clad fashion as they have done since the eighteenth century.

Although numbers are declining, the modern geiko still practices her arts with the same dedication as her fore-sisters did, always trying to add to her repertoire of gei (arts).

Competition with art-oriented hostess bars, karaoke and a waning economy makes mere survival a challenge for newcomers to the trade. Many find the lifestyle and schedule too demanding and eventually leave the hanamachi for a less disciplined line of work.

The transition of the geiko from fashion innovator to cultural curator has raised the question of the very future of the hanamachi. Some say that the geiko are old-fashioned and should disappear while they still have their dignity. Others believe that as long as Japanese men still feel nostalgia for the past, the geiko will always have a place in Japanese society.

Whether it be a graceful slide into extinction or a complete sell-out to the tourist industry, their numbers will inevitably decrease, taking with them an important part of Japanese culture and history.

Maiko, Kyoto.
Gion maiko attending a shrine festival in Kyoto

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