Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and similar books have sparked a curiosity in the Western world about the centuries-old institution of the geisha. Often mistakenly considered to be high-class prostitutes, geisha (which means “practitioner of the arts”) are in fact refined women who entertain affluent men with their various accomplishments, such as singing, dancing, conversation and playing a traditional instrument such as a shamisen (three-string banjo). English conversation skills are also becoming important, as a result of the international attention generated by the Hollywood film of Memoirs of a Geisha, which has brought overseas visitors into the teahouses of the hanamachi (“flower towns”), where geisha live and work.
It takes five years for an apprentice geisha – known as maiko – to master her art, training with the same focus and dedication of an Olympic athlete in the various arts and living according to a strict code of dress and deportment, almost like living dolls. The world of the geisha is shrinking, however: from a pre-World War II peak of eighty thousand there are now reckoned to be no more than a few thousand geisha left, the majority concentrated in Kyoto, the centre of the tradition. Though few fifteen-year-olds are tempted to sign up as apprentices, the internet is beginning to change this – some geisha houses have established websites to recruit apprentices, with successful results. Geisha have also started blogging; one Kyoto maiko has even translated her musings on life in a hanamachi into English (wwww.ichi-kyoto.jp).
It’s also becoming more common to be able to meet and talk with geisha and maiko in person. Many hotels and ryokan now offer exclusive dinner shows (see Major Kyoto festivals and annual events), where it is possible to experience a little of the elegant yet fun entertainment that has until recently been the exclusive playground of wealthy male customers. Don’t be fooled by daylight groups of “geisha” in Kyoto tourist spots: they are likely to be visitors who have paid for the chance to don the distinctive white make-up, lacquered hairdos and fabulously expensive kimono that constitute the epitome of geisha beauty.