5 Things You Didn’t Know About Geisha

Illustration of a maiko (apprentice geisha).

1. Geisha = Artist

The literal meaning of the word “Geisha” is artist, where “gei” means art and “sha” translates into person. Geisha is the term used in Tokyo, but they are also called “Geiko” (Kyoto) or “Geigi” in other parts of Japan. From a general Japanese perspective, Geisha are regarded as living works of art, as they are experts in traditional dance, classical music, tea ceremony, and more. Additionally, geisha are trained to be skilled conversationalists and must therefore possess a respectable dose of intelligence. In western terms, geisha are often mistakingly assosciated with prostitutes, a misunderstanding which probably arose during World War II, when Japanese prostitutes presented themselves as geisha to attract American soldiers.

2. Maiko

In Kyoto, where most modern-day geisha can be found, apprentice geisha are called maiko (“dancing child”). Maiko train several years before they can become geiko and are usually between the ages of 15 to 21. Only Kyoto maiko are allowed to start training at 15, as girls in other parts of Japan, including Tokyo (where apprentice geisha are called hangyoku), start from a minimum of 18 years old. Maiko go through several different stages of juniority and maturity, reflected in their kimono, hairstyles, hairpieces and make-up. As can be seen in the picture above, maiko wear special platform clogs, which is a sure way of identification, as geiko never do.

3. Real Hair or Wigs?

Upon seeing a geisha you might not even notice it, but most of the time geisha wear special wigs called “katsura”, made by professional traditional wig makers. Except for special performances, you will not spot a geisha with her own hair in “shimada” hairstyle. Apprentice geisha in Tokyo will usually wear a wig as well. In contrast, the maiko of Kyoto will use their own hair to create their signature hairstyles, like the “wareshinobu” updo, although it is not uncommon to use human hair extensions in the process. Since it is impossible to style their hair every single day, maiko are expected to keep their hair in perfect condition until the next visit to the hairdresser, so they sleep on a special support (takamakura), instead of a pillow. After an extended period of wearing their hair in such styles, which places much stress on the scalp, a bald spot may develop, which is sometimes referred to as a “medal of honor”.

4. Make-up

Geisha will only use the colors red, black and white. Maiko wear the most elaborate make-up styles and will always have their faces painted white for business engagements and formal events. When wearing the white make-up, maiko will leave some areas on their nape unpainted, usually forming a typical W-shape pattern. Seniority is reflected in their use make-up as well, as first year maikos are only allowed to paint their bottom lip red. Typically, maiko will only fill in part of their lips, as small mouths were traditionally considered to be beautiful, though as geisha become more mature, they will sometimes paint their lips almost fully red. Established and senior geisha will not wear the typical geisha make-up anymore, except for formal events like special performances. Although it is not practised very much anymore, there are some apprentice geisha who will paint their teeth black for a while (“ohaguro”) as they enter their last stage of training, which used to be a common practice for married women.

5. Kimono

Apprentice geisha usually wear colourful kimono with even brighter “obi”, or sashes. Styles vary across Japan and Kyoto maiko are quite famous for their “maru obi” or “darari obi” (dangling sash), which is also depicted in the illustration above. In real life, the okiya (geisha house the maiko belongs to) crest will have been included on one end of the obi. Maiko will also wear their kimono sleeves much longer than mature geisha, as to give them a youthful image. Kimono patterns will be more extravagent for junior maiko and will become increasingly subdued as the maiko becomes more mature and eventually becomes a geisha. Geisha’s kimono are therefore more modest and their colors will be more subtle. Additionally, geisha have much shorter obi, usually tied in “taiko musubi” (drum knot). For both apprentice and full-flegded geisha, kimono colours will vary according to the seasons.


One thought on “5 Things You Didn’t Know About Geisha

  1. Great to know.. Today was in Kyoto happend to see many geisha s ., all doubts are cleared after reading this😄

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