Thanks to the 1997 book, Memoirs of a Geisha, and the 2005 film of the same name, in modern times there has been a popular resurgence of interest in the geisha culture of Japan. At the same time however, many people aren't very familiar with what exactly a geisha is, and so we'd like to take this opportunity to introduce our readers to an important part of traditional Japanese entertainment and hospitality culture! 

Geisha, at the most fundamental level, are professional entertainers. They are trained in a variety of Japanese traditional arts, such as dancing, singing, flute, and shamisen (a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument), as well as the art of hospitality. They also play games and engage in conversation with visitors, all in service of providing the most welcoming and intimate environment possible. Although throughout history there have been cases of geisha engaging in prostitution, it has never been widely accepted a part of a geisha's traditional role, and thus the two occupations should not be conflated, especially in modern times. Before we get into some of the deeper discussions of geisha, let's first figure out, what does it take to become a geisha?

In order to become a geisha, one must study various traditional performing arts. Pictured here is a drum called  shimedaiko . ©TOKI

In order to become a geisha, one must study various traditional performing arts. Pictured here is a drum called shimedaiko. ©TOKI



How exactly does one train to become a geisha? It turns out, the process is a long and arduous one, taking maybe as long as medical school! Let's break this down and look at some of the most important steps.


1. Enter an okiya 

For most, the process starts from around the age of 14 or 15, when young girls enter schools that specialize in training geisha. (In the past, this training could start as early as before the age of ten, but this practice ended with the change in Japanese labor laws in the 1950s.) The new apprentices live in what are known as an okiya (置屋), a kind of female-only lodging house owned by a proprietress referred to as okāsan (literally meaning mother) and inhabited by other apprentices. Okiya and ochaya (tea houses) where geisha work are both located in hanamachi (花街, literally meaning flower town), districts exclusively designated for geisha

At the okiya the okāsan is the one who will pay for the apprentice's expenses. This includes clothing, instruments, food, housing, and the actual training, meaning that an apprentice will accrue a very large amount of debt before she can even begin working. A geisha will inevitably work years after completing her training simply to repay this debt to the okiya. Furthermore, she will remain contractually tied to it until she has repaid all her debts, after which she may choose to live independently if she prefers. 


Geisha exiting an okiya ©Saradakann

2. Enter the shikomi training period

A newly accepted apprentice first goes through a training period, where she is known as a shikomi-san (仕込みさん). During this time, she will attend her classes, do chores to help maintain the okiya, and also serve as an assistant to other geisha. Typically, this training period will last around four years. 

Apprentices must also begin attending nyokoba, vocational schools for geisha in training so that they can learn many kinds of traditional Japanese performance arts to entertain their guests. This includes a variety of musical instruments, such as the kotsuzumi (a small drum held on the shoulder played with the hand), shimedaiko (a small standing drum played with sticks), shamisenand fue (a flute made from a single piece of bamboo). 

Outside of classes much of her time is spent simply learning the proper demeanor of a geisha, including how she speaks to her elders and guests. 

3. Enter minarai stage and find a mentor geisha

During this period, an apprentice is called a minarai (見習い, literally learning by watching). She must find a mentor geiko (another term for geisha)whom she calls onēsan (literally meaning older sister) may accompany to ozashiki (お座敷, banquets in traditional tatami-mat rooms) events so that she may observe how her mentor and other geisha interact with guests. This way, once the apprentice finishes her formal training, she will have some real world experiences and know potential clients. 

As she is still an apprentice, the minarai will wear clothes similar to, but not entirely identical to maiko, the geisha apprentices who have already had their official debut, and whose appearance most resembles our typical image of a geisha. This includes the white face makeup and colorful clothing. However, the minarai wears a half-length obi (sash), called a han-dara obi

The minarai training period will start about a month before the apprentice's official debut, but even after she has her official debut, she will continue her learning through observation by attending events with her older mentor, and also continue her training in classical arts at the nyokobo. 


Dressed for the misedashi ceremony. ©Maikoclub

4. Complete the misedashi ceremony and become a maiko

After completing her shikomi period and roughly a month of being a minarai, the young geisha-in-training will have her official debut, called misedashi (店出し). For the ceremony, the apprentice will wear a kuromontsuki (a special black kimono with crests) and three pointed white makeup on the back of her neck, two special silver fan-shaped kanzashi (簪, an ornate hairpin) called ogi, and a pair of gold and silver hair ornaments under her topknot called miokuri

On the day of the ceremony the okiya walls will be decorated with red and white paper and auspicious images. Accompanied by her mentor, she will go around the hanamachi and visit various dance teachers and tea houses. During the ceremony, the apprentice will go through a ritual known as sansankudo (三三九度, the three-times-three exchange of cups, also done during wedding ceremonies) where she exchanges cups with her mentor, other geiko, and the senior maikoAfter this, the apprentice is officially a maiko (舞妓, literally meaning dance girl), a stage that can last for years until an apprentice finishes her training. As a maiko, she will take on the appearance that most people associate with geishaShe will wear prominent white makeup covering her face and red on her lips (taking sometimes more than two hours to complete!), brightly colored kimono with a long elaborate sash called a darari obi,  okobo (shoes) nearly 10 centimeters high, and also the large turtle shell hairpin. Maiko will also begin adopting the hairstyles most people imagine when then think of geishaFor the first two to three years, maiko adopt the wareshinobu hairstyle, where a bun is made by inserting two red kanako (padded silk)  Unlike most geiko who have completed their training, maiko use their real hair instead of a wig, and the constant pulling required for maintaining the hairstyle can actually lead to a bald spot in the center. Furthermore, to maintain the hairstyle, which requires going to a stylist at least once a week, maiko must sleep on takamakura, specially designed pillows to preserve their hair's shape, and can face punishment if they fail to do so. 

After finishing these years of training, many geisha go on to have fulfilling and illustrious careers as entertainers and masters of hospitality. We hope you've enjoyed this introduction to the world of geisha, and whether or not you have plans to visit and see for yourself, we hope you'll come back to read our other articles on geisha, including their historical significance in Japanese culture, as well as how to conduct yourself if you do indeed choose to experience their hospitality for yourself!