Recognisable by her carefully constructed appearance, including traditional style of dress, make-up and hair, the Geisha is a revered symbol of Japan’s rich cultural history. While it’s rare to see a Geisha in modern day Japan, this historic tradition is still an active part of life in the city of Kyoto, where several hundred Geiko, as they are referred to in Kyoto, reside.
Being a Geiko, literally meaning “woman of the arts”, is considered a noble status, which takes years of training to attain. An apprentice Geiko, known as a Maiko (“dancing child”) will typically begin her training at 14 or 15 years old, becoming a fully-fledged Geiko five years later. During this period the Maiko resides in an Okiya (lodging house) where she is trained in various Japanese arts and customs. These include poetry, dance, music and conversation, skills to be perfected and later performed at establishments known as Ochaya (tea houses) where patrons are entertained. While the culture is based around the art of hospitality and entertainment, there is a common misconception in the West that a Geiko’s duty involves prostitution. This notion may have been due to the act of Mizuage, now outlawed, a ceremony in which the start of a Maiko’s training was signified by the loss of her virginity to a sponsored patron.
Each element of the Geiko’s physical appearance, including style of dress, hair and make-up techniques, is highly symbolic. The act of getting ready is a performative act in itself, a solemn procedure during which the Geiko’s look is assembled by specially trained stylists. While all Geiko and Maiko wear kimonos, the variants in colour, pattern, style of sleeves, obi (sash) and collar are all significant, indicative of status and years in training.