“You cannot call yourself a true geisha until you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look.” – Memoirs of a Geisha
There has always been something mysterious, alluring, and curious in the least, about the Far East. It could be because people in the rest of the world find it hard to understand the ways of the people there, the traditions, and history – it all seems strange, mystical, yet full of promises for an exciting experience.
When thinking of Japan, one often pictures the glorious cherry blossoms, the Samurai swords, and the stunningly beautiful faces of the geishas. Probably some of you have read “Memoires of a Geisha” or watched the movie, but let’s not forget it’s a piece of fiction after all. The first and foremost purpose here is to uncover some of the myths around these highly sophisticated, extremely skilled, and educated women.
The word “geisha” comes from the Japanese “geiko” – a person of arts. The first geishas date back to the beginning of the 18th century, but the art they perform is related to traditions from the 11th century, which makes their work all the more important for the preservation of the oldest Japanese traditions. That is, in fact, what draws young girls to the tea-houses, where they are taught and where they later start working.
Nowadays, geishas are no more than two thousand and are mostly located in Kyoto – the very heart of the remains of the geisha culture. Before World War II they were more than eighty thousand. The reason for the decline is partly because of the new lifestyle of people, partly the unspoken truth, but we shall get to it.
To become a Geisha a girl needs about five years of training. The apprentices are called maiko. Nowadays, they usually begin at the age of sixteen. That threshold used to be much lower a century ago. According to some historical evidence, some girls were sold to the Houses at the age of six and used as slaves. Later, they became maikos and after that geishas. Before World War II, sex with a Geisha or a Maiko was not uncommon.
According to various sources, auctions were organized for the virginity of a girl (sometimes at the age of thirteen) from the House, and the highest bidder was given the girl. Men paid incredible amounts for that “honor”. This, however, is something no one these days would like to talk about and it remains one of the most well-guarded taboos.
A Geisha is not a prostitute – that much is certain. Unlike the orians (expensive courtesans), Geishas do not offer sex, and touching them is forbidden during the hours the client pays for to spend time with her. Orians, exceptionally beautiful girls, were offered sex and provided extremely high-quality sexual services, but they had none of the sophistication and education of the geishas.
With the ban on prostitution in Japan in 1956, they disappeared entirely. Today, the organ tradition is honored by an annual parade, where girls are dressed in their bright and colorful kimonos, so much different from those of a geisha, and wear their 30-kilogram wigs on platforms so high – it’s impossible for a normal woman to step on, never mind walk or dance in.
A night with an organ used to cost fortunes, sometimes an annual salary, depending on the experience and age of the courtesan. However, that is well in the past and also a secret.
Maikos and geishas today are accepted in the Houses under certain conditions. They have to be entirely dedicated to the arts they learn, to the perfection of every move, every step, every noise they make, every word they utter, of every facial expression and smile.
That takes a lifetime to learn. The dancing and singing are just a minute part of what they are exceptional at. Listening to the soothing voice of these girls is well worth the unspeakable amount charged for dinner with a geisha.
“We have to sell dreams, to recreate a world that no longer exists, to take men to that world through our skills,” shares a twenty-one-year-old geisha. They do it with all the grace a woman is capable of. They agree with every opinion stated by the client, they do not contradict, they are able to talk about anything, match his drinks, make him laugh, listen to him, understand him. Watch, but do not touch! Despite what might have been or not have been in the past, today a Geisha is a joy for the soul, not for the body.
Geishas and maikos are clad in different kimonos for every month – one for the daily routines and one for the evening. One really has to go very deep into Japanese culture to learn the symbolism of each small detail on their outfit. Maikos appear with their natural hair and wear long sleeves – a symbol of childhood. When they become geishas, the sleeves are shortened and the flowers and embroidered ornaments on the kimonos disappear.
The breathtaking beauty of their kimonos is in their simplicity, as opposed to the bright and alluring colors Orians used to wear. A geisha must never show her own hair. It is hidden under a heavy wig. We have all seen their white faces – a tradition from olden times when the face was more visible in the dark, and the bright red lips painted in a manner unknown to the world.
Geishas are not allowed to use modern cosmetics. What they use for their make-up are natural oils and paints prepared in a century-old way. They are forbidden to dye their hair, to pierce their earlobes, and after a maiko becomes a geisha, the earlobes have to be hidden. A geisha cannot expose her feet or any other part of the body, apart from the neck and the hands.
After all, they sell the hint of sex, the idea of sensuality, the allure of what cannot be touched, and that makes it all the more intriguing for men. Why would they pay all that money? Not for the tea only, that’s for sure.
With two days off per month, and none in the past, with no cell phones, just letters to their families, they live in the House like sisters. More or less like a monastery, I would say, but their gods are different – they believe that beauty and kindness pave the way of mankind ahead.
Not being allowed to get married, nowadays many leave at the age of thirty or forty, but some stay for life, totally dedicated to teaching the new ones how to make men smile no matter what they feel inside.
“She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for Geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret.” (Arthur Golden)
If you happen to be in Kyoto and you see a geisha, please, do not stop and beg of her to pose for a picture. She will be too kind to refuse and then she will be in trouble. The customer pays for every second from the moment she leaves the house, and eating up his time will cost her a lot and not financially.
There is one very special ornament on the belt of the kimono. It is ancient, it is magical! It has been passed from the oldest geisha to the maiko to keep it and protect it. If a bomb falls, if disaster strikes, people will cover their heads.
A young geisha will cover that precious ornament, a symbol of the most common tradition of all – to be beautiful even when you are not really that attractive, to be gracious and desired even in times when writing a letter is considered ridiculous.
Do we have to uncover more about a geisha’s life? Certainly not. The mystery and the taboos around her are what we love in her.
– Geri Decheva
Also Read: How the Kama Sutra Became a Taboo