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Geishas: Beyond the Myth

Geisha in Kyoto
Portrait of a geisha
Detail of geishas
Geishas in Fushimi Inari

The city of Kyoto is perhaps the most often associated with the world of Geisha, but Tokyo is catching up fast.
Geisha originated in the early Edo period (1603-1868). At that time, there were two rival geisha districts in Tokyo: Yanagibashi and Yoshiwara. The first was a prosperous, more liberal area, while the second was more conservative. Neither of the two exist today. All that remains of Yanagibashi is a hairpin decoration on the bridge of the same name.
The Edo period coincided with a time when the country’s prosperity was on the rise. From an historical point of view, it was a peaceful time when cultural pursuits were popular. Tea houses began to emerge close to temples, to serve the faithful who visited them. This became the origin of the neighbourhoods where the geisha lived and worked, the so-called hanamachi.
Poor families would sell their daughters into the profession, thereby improving the family economy. To become geisha, the young women entered the okiya, a residence where they underwent a long training period with the owner. This consisted of thorough training in traditional singing and dance, and also in the jargon of the hanamachi. Living in the hanamachi would require full dedication. It was not compatible with any other activity.
During World War I, there was great demand for fun and entertainment, hence the increase in numbers of geisha and hanamachis. Businesses connected with the war effort attracted businessmen with high purchasing power. These, along with army officials were the main consumers of leisure and entertainment. The economic boom nosedived with the earthquake in Tokyo in 1923. Later, in World War II, the economic power came crashing down again as the Allies gained more ground in the conflict and numerous geisha and maiko were incorporated into weapons factories. After the war, activity in the hanamachi returned, thanks to new clients: the occupying forces.
Today, hanamachi are a kind of association responsible for spreading the Japanese culture and preserving traditions like the tea ceremony and music and dance performances. Tokyo geisha now work in ryotei haute-cuisine restaurants, located in traditional Japanese-style buildings. The décor is carefully detailed to create a peaceful environment that allows guests to relax and enjoy their stay. There are six geisha districts in Tokyo: Mukojima, Asakusa, Kagurazaka, Yoshiko, Akasaka and Shimbashi.

Spring Dances

Every year, in May, the Spring Dances (Azuma Odori) are held at the Shimbashi Embujo theatre in Ginza. The tradition has taken place since 1923 and is a unique opportunity to see geisha dancing in public. Prices are reasonable and the event is a real attraction for tourists and other geisha who come to enjoy the show.

The Price of Being a Geisha

The kimonos worn by geisha come at a high price. The most economical cost around 200,000 yen. They are made from about five metres of natural silk and hand painted. A geisha must have a kimono for each season of the year. The sandals, called okobo, also cost around 200,000 yen. Other accessories include gold or silver pins, precious stones and tortoisehell combs to embellish the costume.

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