Painted Ladies: Geishas of Kyoto, Japan

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Photos: Arif Iqball

Kyoto, capital of imperial Japan and hub of the country’s pre-modern culture, is the last bastion of the geisha. It is an exquisitely anachronistic calling, one that perseveres here as it does nowhere else.

The geisha—or geiko, the term used in Kyoto—elevates hosting to high art.  The city’s traditional teahouses are her place of work, graceful entertaining her specialty. One books a geiko when one wants to celebrate an important occasion or seriously impress some guests, and her services do not come cheaply.

It is a popular misconception that sex with clients is part of the job.  The profession emerged, centuries ago, as one distinct from the courtesan, and has always placed more of an emphasis on dance and music. (Geiko translates at “performing artist.”) Layers of artifice are at work here, including a foundation of rice-powder face paint and elaborately wrapped undergarments that ensure a narrow silhouette. A fluency in social graces is paramount, from proper greetings to pouring sake. Geiko are expected to be conversant in many topics, even if unseemly displays of knowledge are taboo.

The training period to become a geiko usually lasts from the age of 15 to 20. An apprentice is called a maiko, and dresses in a way that instantly identifies her as such: brighter clothes, higher shoes, more ornaments in the hair, and a much longer obi (sash) and kimono sleeves.  The ceremony by which a maiko becomes a geiko translates as “changing of the collar.” As a geiko, she also dons a wig.

A geisha district—of which there are five in Kyoto—is called a hanamachi, or “flower town.” The word for wages translates as “flower money.” The arcane customs of the geiko have their own terminology, one that is unknown even to most Japanese, and only tentatively have these consummate performers adapted to the times. They are paid by the hour now, not by the number of incense sticks that burn down during a shift.  Enterprising geishas have their own websites, and—in Kyoto, at least—seasonal dances are now performed in public venues. But the very appeal of this profession, with its rigorously maintained formalities, lies in its perceived distance from contemporary life—and its closeness to that decadent, privileged social domain that pleasure-seekers of the imperial era referred to as the “floating world.”


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