The Gion District and the World of Geisha in Kyoto, Japan

Tourists dressed in kimonos take leisurely walks around Gion district

The Japanese are the frontrunners in saving, preserving, and nurturing ancient traditions, cultures, and architectural treasures. One proof is the Gion District in Kyoto, a traditional entertainment district developed to service pilgrims to the Gion shrine.

The Gion district is widely known as an entertainment area for travelers and to those who visit the shrine in the 15th century. Through the years, it became strongly related to the geisha arts. Geisha, also known as geiko plays a vital role in keeping the traditional Japanese entertainment and hospitality culture alive. They are professional entertainers trained in a variety of Japanese traditional arts, such as dancing, singing, playing musical instruments as well as the art of hospitality. They also play games and engage in conversation with guests all in the service of entertainment.


In 1617, the Tokugawa Shogunate designated a pleasure quarter where prostitution is legal. The women of pleasure or courtesans for low-ranking guests are called "yujo" while the higher rank was referred to as "oiran", both were licensed and privy to their personal life. Oiran was considered a celebrity during the day.

These pleasure quarters rose to popularity in the 17th century and became known as entertainment districts by adding dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments to performances.

The first-ever geishas who performed to the general public in the 18th century were men. They go from one banquet to the next to entertain the oiran’s guests through song and dance. Another entertainer was known as “odoriko” were trained adolescent girls hired as dancers to entertain the oiran’s guests as well. Many of these odorikos had also begun offering sexual services as they reach maturity. Those who were not young enough adapted other titles to continue working – with one being geisha. 

A beautiful and elaborate makeup of a maiko

By 1800, geisha was seen to be a distinct female profession. Once established as an independent profession, laws were then introduced to protect the business of courtesans and separate the two. Geisha were forbidden from selling sexual pleasure and wearing particularly bold and extravagant hairpins or kimonos, both of which were distinctive features of a courtesan.

Despite being a lower-class entertainer, geisha were continuously admired especially by the merchant class, who prospered after the civil war and considered themselves patrons of geishas. However, due to their social standing, they were unable to access oiran. By the end of the 19th century, courtesans slowly lose their popularity and continued until the criminalization of prostitution in Japan in 1956.

There had been as high as 80,000 geishas all over the country. However, geisha districts inevitably closed during the Second World War where most of them shifted to different jobs to survive. Although some returned to being geisha after the war, many stayed on their wartime job as it is a more stable form of employment.

A maiko wearing traditional Japanese clothing called kimono

The credibility of geisha was also tainted as some prostitutes both during and after the war called themselves “geisha girls” to members of the American military occupying Japan that also caused the decrease in the number of geisha in the country.

Between the years 1945 to 1952, the geisha profession started to prosper once again although not with the intensity and the social and cultural importance they once had. Many of the customs have changed and were moderated as modern-day geishas can get married, study, and work wherever they want.

Yuko or Fumi Kikuchi in real life, one of the oldest geisha in Japan started training in her teens, and a quarter of a century later still works and mentors aspiring geishas. With respect and love for the profession, she vowed to never stop working and will continue to be a geisha until she dies. Those who took on the training to become geishas did not do it for survival or as a livelihood, but because of their passion and devotion to preserving the culture.


1. Girls from ages 14 to 15 can start training at a geisha house once she is accepted by the "okāsan" (owner) who will pay for all her expenses throughout her training such as food, lodging, and classes. 


2. A newly accepted apprentice will enter the "shikomi" stage where she will start attending classes to learn different kinds of instruments and ways to entertain, do house chores and maintain the geisha's house. Helping another geisha prepare for work is also part of their tasks. They are also taught the proper demeanor and attitude of a geisha.

Geishas perform a traditional Japanese tea ceremony

3. Once the shikomi stage ends, the apprentice will now enter the "minarai" stage, a month before her debut as a maiko, where she has to find a geisha who will be her mentor. She will accompany the geisha to banquets to observe and learn.


4. The apprentice will debut as a maiko through the "misedashi" ceremony. The maiko will continue her training with her mentor geisha.


5. After years of training as a maiko, she will officially become a geisha through the "erikae" ceremony or the “turning of the collar”. She can now perform at banquets alone where she can earn money to pay off her debt to her okasan and will continue to do so until it is paid off. Once all debts are settled, she can choose to stay in her geisha's house or she can work independently.  

Maiko walking along Gion district's old pathways wearing kimono.

Geishas are beautiful and mysterious creatures brimming with tradition, passion, and discipline. They convey courage and resilience by continuing and reviving a dying Japanese fortune. Meeting one in person is a great privilege and is an authentic Japanese experience.

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Blog Contributed by: Ms. Louise de Ocampo

Photos by: Rakso Travel


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