In Japan, a geisha district is referred to as “hanamachi” where hana means flower and machi means town. There were several of these districts situated in Tokyo, Osaka, Kanazawa and Kyoto.
Hanamachi were preceded by and should not be confused with traditional prostitution districts known as yukaku. Established in the early 1600s in Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (now Tokyo) they consisted of Shimabara (Kyoto), Shinmachi (Osaka) and Yoshiwara (Edo). You may have heard of Yoshiwara, as it has been incorrectly featured in several geisha themed films including “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Geisha actually developed about a century later, in the mid-1700s.
The popular misconception is that geisha are prostitutes. Geisha in fact, are highly valued entertainers not prostitutes. The confusion probably arises from the name given to prostitute hostesses, called “makura geisha” (pillow geisha) and “onsen geisha” a prostitute working in the hot spring resorts. Early on, the maiko (apprentice geisha) had their virginity auctioned off between potential patrons. However, the winning patron was not permitted to have further relations with the maiko afterwards. This practice was abolished in 1959.
In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today they number less than 2,000. Gion, a district in Kyoto, Japan is the most famous hanamachi. The geisha in the Gion district (and Kyoto generally) do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, Gion geisha use the term geiko. While the term geisha means “artist” or “person of the arts,” the more direct term, geiko, means “a child of the arts” or “a woman of arts.” The Kyoto geiko are the most renowned in Japan.
There are currently five active hanamachi in Kyoto. There were six previously, but Shimabara is now defunct and serves only as a tourist attraction.
Gion Higashi (East)
Gion came into existence during the Middle Ages and is situated in front of the Yasaka Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. Today, Gion remains dotted with old-style Japanese houses called machiya, which translated means “townhouse.” Some of these townhouses are actually ochaya or “tea houses.” These are the traditional establishments where the patrons of the geiko, ranging from the samurai of old to modern day businessmen, have been entertained by them for centuries.
Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi split many years ago. Kobu is larger, occupying most of the district, while Higashi is smaller and occupies the northeast corner.
Inside the ochaya is a private and closed world where the evening’s entertainment may include cocktails, conversation and games as well as traditional Japanese music, singing and dancing. To this day, geiko and maiko can be seen moving about through the streets of Gion in the evenings. But beware, not everyone dressed in an elaborate kimono, wearing white makeup is a geiko or a maiko. It is very popular for women visiting Gion to dress up as geiko for the day. There are various kimono rental shops scattered around the district who also offer hair and makeup services as well as photo sessions.
The kimono, a major element of geisha attire, has changed very little since the seventeenth century. Over time, the obi (sash) evolved from a narrow belt to a long, wide, stiff cloth. Courtesans/ prostitutes were required to wear heavy brocaded obis tied in front with a large knot resembling a pillow to distinguish themselves from the geisha and other women who tied their obis in the back.
Another characteristic element of a geisha is the elaborate coiffure. By the 18th century, Japanese women’s hairstyles, not only the geisha but also the courtesans and nobles, became so complex that women could not style their own hair but had to rely on professional hairdressers who went from house to house. They used various ornaments for decorative purposes which ranged from combs to hairpins made from different materials. Today, geisha/ geiko wear such hairstyles on the most formal of occasions, although almost all now rely on wigs.
The geisha/geiko are also strongly associated with white facial makeup, which allows them to be more visible and expressive in low lighting conditions. This is the same reason was Kabuki actors use this type of makeup.
It takes many years of apprenticeship to become a skilled geiko. The apprentices are trained in such skills as dance, music, tea ceremony, and ikebana. They acquire skills in conversation and gaming from their okaasan (“mother”/ tea house owner) or their oneesan (“older sister”/ the geisha that will be their mentor). As often seen in other Japanese traditional arts, the apprentices first learn by observing.
So if you happen to be visiting Kyoto, take a moment away from the temples and gardens and wonder into the historical Gion district. It will present you with yet another opportunity to step back in time and experience Japan of a bygone era.