A geiko or “woman of art” is an entertainer in Japan who has trained in a variety of arts including dance, music, and painting. You may also hear a geiko referred to as a “geisha,” or “artist,” especially outside of Kyoto. These talented women are perhaps some of the most misunderstood figures in Japan, with many people believing that they engage in prostitution, which could not be further from the truth. In fact, geiko are skilled and valuable entertainers who can command high prices for their fully-clothed time, so they have no need to engage in prostitution.
The difference between “geiko” and “geisha” may seem subtle in translation, but it is an important distinction. In Kyoto, an ancient stronghold of Japanese culture and the geiko tradition, women who work as geiko wish to emphasize that they are trained in a variety of arts, and that in addition to being knowledgeable about traditional arts and culture, they also typically know several foreign languages, and they are conversant in history, current politics, and popular culture. Since the term “geisha” has been co-opted by prostitutes, geiko also wish to differentiate themselves as women of the mind, rather than women of the body.
Geiko/geisha evolved from oiran and tayuu, high-ranking courtesans in feudal Japan. These women were known for wearing elaborate makeup and very complex, formal kimono, but they were also valued as entertainers with sharp wits and skills in the arts. Over time, the functions of oiran began to diverge, with some women continuing to work as courtesans, while others focused specifically on the arts. In Kyoto, the capital of Japan until 1872, training of geiko is still taken very seriously, and geisha can be found in other regions of Japan as well.
Historically, women began training as young girls, learning to dance and play musical instruments while studying other arts, diverse foreign languages, and Japanese history. Trainees went through several phases in Kyoto before being elevated to the position of maiko, “dance child,” or apprentice geiko; outside of Kyoto, apprentice geisha are not known as maiko, and apprenticeships are usually brief. Apprentice geiko studied for as long as five years in Kyoto under the tutelage of “older sisters” who showed them how to navigate the entertainment district and introduced them to powerful clients.
When many Westerners think of “geisha,” they are actually usually visualizing a maiko. Maiko wear very ornate makeup, hairstyles, and clothing, changing to simpler styles when they “turn their collars” to become geiko. Both maiko and geiko wear kimono while on duty, but the striking kimono and obi of maiko are usually what catch the eyes of passerby.
When geiko arrive at a party or celebration, they traditionally serve tea or sake, with other staff being responsible for handling food. They keep the host entertained, ensure that the party runs smoothly, and sometimes perform music or dances when requested. Geiko may only be present at a party for a few minutes, especially if they are in high demand, and the ability to pay several geiko for their time is a powerful status symbol in Japan.
The highly refined and traditional culture of the “flower and willow world” in Kyoto began to come under siege in the 20th century, when shifts in Japanese culture changed attitudes about the arts and culture. Several organizations have worked to retain the geiko tradition, partly through reforms of the industry which are designed to attract modern women to the work. Many students of traditional Japanese culture agree that it would be a great shame to lose this entertainment tradition forever.
Where Can You Still Find Geiko?
Women working as Geisha exist in several cities in Japan, including Kanazawa and Tokyo. Japan's former capital, Kyoto, is still the most prestigious city for geisha, who are called geiko within the city, to work. About 150 geikos currently live in Kyoto. There are five main geiko districts, called hanamachi, in Kyoto. The Gion Kobu, Pontocho, Gion Higashi and Miyagawacho districts are located within or near the Gion district in the center of Kyoto. The Kamishichiken district can be found close to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.
Women working or hoping to work as geiko live in houses called okiya inside the geiko districts. Girls hoping to become geiko usually move into the okiya when they turn 15. They learn skills in communication, hospitality and traditional Japanese arts. Those who complete their training and pass an examination may become a geiko apprentice, known as a maiko. Most women who become geiko apprentice as maiko for several years first.
Where Do Geiko Dinners Happen and Who Can Go?
Geiko dinners usually happen in district tea houses called ochaya. The dinners take place in a room inside the ochaya called a tatami. The ochaya are exclusive locations that allow only trusted customers to enter. New customers are only granted access if an existing customer acts as a guarantor. Unlike most restaurants, an ochaya doesn't bill customers at the conclusion of the meal. Instead, the cost of the food, tatami room, geiko and taxi fares is added to a tab and billed to the customer monthly.
Can the Public Visit an Ochaya?
Ochayas are not typically open to the public; however, a building that used to be an ochaya in the Higashi Chaya district of Kanazawa has been converted to a museum that is open to the public. The museum allows visitors to see what a traditional ochaya looks like and includes tatami rooms, accessories, utensils and musical instruments.
What Happens During a Geiko Dinner?
Guests at a geiko dinner drink and eat their meals while the maiko and geiko provide entertainment. The job of the maiko and geiko is to engage the guests in witty conversation and keep everyone's drinks full. Geiko dinners also involve a variety of games, many of which involve the loser drinking another beer. The highlight of the dinner is a seasonal dance performed by the geiko. Another geiko provides traditional music to accompany the dance on a shamisen. The number of maiko and geiko at a particular dinner is determined by the size of the party and how much the customer is paying.
Can Tourists Experience a Geiko Dinner?
Geiko dinners have traditionally been pricey and exclusive events. However, because of economic losses in recent years, the dinners are no longer as restrictive as they once were. Currently, tourists who can afford the hefty price tag can arrange a geiko dinner through a travel agency or hotel.
The cost to arrange a geiko dinner using a travel agency is around 50,000 yen per geiko or maiko and another 10,000 to 30,000 yen per person for the meal. Geiko do not learn English conversational skills, so non-Japanese speakers may need to pay for an interpreter.
How Else Can I Experience the Geiko Culture?
If you do not want to spend the kind of money required for a geiko dinner, there are other ways to experience the culture. A theater that caters to non-Japanese tourists with performances in multiple Japanese arts features a daily geiko performance at the Gion Corner. In April, the Miyako Odori is held, which features daily one-hour dance performances by maiko and geiko on the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater in Gion.
Maiko studios in Kyoto provide tourists with the chance to dress up as a geiko or maiko. The service costs about 10,000 yen per person and includes photos taken outdoors or at the studio. You may also be able to see a geiko or maiko walking around Kyoto. Your best chance of this occurs in the evening around Pontocho or Gion.
Are Geiko Always Women?
The first geisha were men and their history dates back to the 13th century. In Tokyo, male geishas were known as hokan, taikomochi or tayu. Female geisha did not come into existence until 1751. However, female geishas rapidly gained popularity and in just 25 years began to outnumber the male geisha. While there were once 500 to 600 men working as taikomochi, there are now estimated to only be five. In the Kansai region, male geisha were called "geisha" and female geisha were known as "geiko."