If you are anything like me, you will have been romanticised by Geisha ever since watching the film, ‘Memoirs of A Geisha’, despite the widespread criticism of the film.
But why am I so fascinated by Geisha?
Well…not only are these women experts in music and dance, both of which I am really not, but they are also an incredible expression of femininity, beauty and womanly charm.
A group of Geisha congregate for a photo.
Their distinctive white face, red lips and elaborately decorated hairstyles are an enduring image portrayed across the globe as the entrance to a world to which most of us mere mortals are not invited. From somewhat seedy beginnings, the current world of the Geisha remains a mystery to most foreigners and Japanese alike…and I guess this is where the fascination lies!
Like most countries the world over, Japan has always had some manner of pleasure quarter offering various forms of entertainment, including of course, the sexual variety.
As Japan cut off all contact with the outside world during the Edo era, the rich merchants of the cities continued to develop the arts of the country in the major urban areas. With the many courtesans of the time providing one area of fulfilment, the merchants looked for other types of entertainment, including music, dance and poetry. From these early stages, the world of the Geisha developed, providing a service to entertain and charm, working alongside the very desirable, and for most people unobtainable, courtesan.
A Geisha plays a Shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument.
Geisha are quite possibly one of the most fascinating groups of women in history…and they have to work really hard to deserve this title. A Geisha begins her life as a Maiko, a term which translates as “dancing child”. Effectively, they are apprentice Geisha, undergoing lengthy training in all the arts an accomplished Geisha needs to master, such as music, dancing, playing traditional instruments and singing. The training usually takes around 5 years, after which they become a fully-fledged Geisha.
- The white face make-up which a Geisha uses was historically made with lead. The fact that lead was poisonous wasn’t discovered until the Meiji era.
- When a Geisha serves tea, her Kimono sleeve is pulled up enough to bare her wrist. This is a sign of seduction and sensuality.
- Anonymity is an essential part of the training for a Geisha…apparently, it adds an air of mystery which is a crucial aspect of Geisha life.
- Geisha were trained to sleep with their necks on small supports, or takamakura, instead of pillows, so they could keep their perfect hairstyles intact overnight. Mentors would even pour rice around the base of the support: if Geisha’s head rolled off the support while she slept, rice would stick to the pomade in her hair! Oh the trickery!
- Geisha are not allowed to enter a relationship for as long as they choose to stay with the profession. If a Geisha marries, she has to relinquish her role.
Although it is now a rarity to see a true Geisha teetering along the streets of Kyoto in her traditional high wooden shoes, the allure of their lifestyle has never changed. And there are certainly a few famous Geisha who I would love to introduce you to!
Yoha’s name means “beautiful, shining autumn leaves”, and she was one of the most well-known and admired geisha in the Shinbashi district of Tokyo from the late Meiji era through the early Taisho era.
She originally debuted in Osaka after being sold into slavery at the age of 12 by her father. As a 15-year-old, she fell in love with an infamous playboy character of the time. When he decided to break up with her for a petty reason, she chopped off her pinky finger with a razor to prove her loyalty to him.
This scandal forced her to change her name, move to Tokyo, and debut again. She became a Buddhist nun later in life.
Manryu’s popularity soared towards the end of the Meiji era, and she was even elected as Japan’s number one beauty! She left the Geisha profession after marrying a doctor who had saved her from drowning in a flood. Tragically, he died a few years later from illness. She eventually remarried and taught the art of the tea ceremony.
Sadayakko was literate, a rarity for women of her time. She also took (secret) lessons in judo and horse racing – what a rebel! Sadayakko is often labeled as Japan’s first true actress. She toured famous theaters in the United States with her husband, Otojiro Kawakami. Before she was married, she was the mistress of then-Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito.