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Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West
by Lesley Downer

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geisha faq:

Whilst I enjoy and look forward to receiving emails from my readers, I am quite often inundated with many emails asking me the same questions over and over again. As much as I would love to be able to answer each and every mail individually, I am unable to. So as a result, I shall try to address the most frequently asked questions here.

Please do read through the below list to make sure that your questions have not already been answered. Please also keep in mind that my descriptions below are in a brief easy to digest form, as most of the information will be re-visited in a much more detailed manner in various articles through-out the website. If an article already exist in relation to one of the questions, you will be directed there at the end of the answer. If all else fails, and your question has not been answered, please feel free to contact me.

What is a Geisha?

The word Geisha literally translates to "arts person" or "one trained in arts" (gei = art, sha = person). It is also sometimes described as "women of arts, which is exactly what a Geisha is - a woman trained in the traditional arts of Japan such as dance, music, singing to name a few.

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What is a Maiko?

The word Maiko literally translates to "dancing child" (mai = dance, ko = child), but is also referred to as "dancing girl". A Maiko is an apprentice Geisha who must must undergo a period of training that generally takes 5 years, where she learns the various "gei" (arts) such as dancing, singing, music etc before she becomes a Geisha.

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What is a Geiko?

The word Geiko is another way of saying Geisha. It is predominately used by Geisha of the Kyoto districts.

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Is there a difference between Geiko and Geisha?

Whist their appearances are very similar, the main difference between Geiko and Geisha is largely their location, and also certain customs and traditions.

The word "Geiko" derives from the Kyoto dialect of the word and is generally used to refer to those from the Kyoto hanamachi.

The word "Geisha", which is the more well known version of the word, is actually the Tokyo dialect for "Geiko". It was primarily used by geisha of Tokyo and surrounding areas, but it is now used as the general term to talk about all geisha. It is also the word most recognized by foreigners than what "Geiko" is.

Unfortunately there is very little literature about modern day Tokyo geisha and hangyoku and their customs and traditions. There is also very little literature about other geisha that reside around the rest of Japan.

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I know there are Maiko in Kyoto, what about in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan?

The Tokyo geisha districts have a rough equivalent to maiko called Hangyoku (han = half, gyoku = the amount charged for a full fledge geisha, literally "half charge"). They originally were young girls who, at the age of 9 to 10 would join the Tokyo hanamachi and train in the various arts. A few years later, she would start to entertain at parties. Hangyoku were less elaborate than the Kyoto maiko and did not wear the long trailing kimono or obi. They did, however, wear the distinct red collar.

By the time Liza Dalby wrote her book, "Geisha", originally published in 1983, hangyoku had pretty much disappeared. It appears though that there has been a resurgence of them within the last decade. You can view a hangyoku in all her finery in the A&E documentary, "The Secret Life of Geisha". This same documentary also interviews one of the most well known, and rather infamous "punk geisha", Hana-chan, who was also a hangyoku. Unfortunately, there is little literature about hangyoku, so the length of training and duties are unclear at this point of time.

There is also a group of women in the Asakusa district who go by the name of "Furisode-san", who appear to mimic the look and feel of Maiko. It appears that the Furisode-san were created to help revive some of the older districts. Whether they can be called real Geisha or not, is debatable. To become a furisode-san, women have to be between the ages of 18-25 and undergo a training period of three months to learn basic dance and tea ceremony, along with correct application of the make-up and kimono dressing.

Official Furisode-san website
Interesting Article about Furisode-san
Hana-Chan's website

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Are Maiko and Geisha prostitutes?

Most certainly not! A Maiko and Geisha's profession is based on preserving the traditional arts such as dance, singing and music and entertaining in a non-sexual manner.

The confusion as to whether Geisha are prostitutes or not seems to have stemmed both from the close proximity Geisha had to courtesans in the Edo era and the fact that they did technically originate from the red light districts. The main culprit though appears to be from post World War II occupation by U.S. service men.

Many U.S. service came home from Japan with wild and raunchy stories of "Gee-sha Girls" whom, for most of the part where not in fact real Geisha, but rather, ordinary Japanese women or prostitutes masquerading or calling themselves "Geisha", largely because it was easiest for the service men to understand.

Of course, the large majority of service men did not know the difference, and despite the survival of the Geisha districts after the enforcement of the prostitution laws in 1957 and the subsequent closure of the red light districts, the misconception has haunted the flower and willow world ever since.

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Are Oiran and Tayuu "The Queen of Geisha"?

Certainly not! Oiran and Tayuu were the highest class of courtesans, or, to put it bluntly, the highest rank in the hierarchy of prostitution in the pleasure quarters. They were not Geisha, nor were Geisha Oiran or Tayuu.

Geisha used to work along side Oiran and Tayuu though, entertaining in a conversational manner and also dancing, singing and playing music. They were not allowed to compete with the Oiran or Tayuu for their customers, and many strict sumptuary regulations were placed on them to enforce this.

After the prostitution laws came into place, there was one Tayuu house that remained open, to serve as a museum and to preserve the artistic and cultural elements of the Tayuu lifestyle. This particular house is called the Wachigaiya, located in the Shimabara hanamachi.

Some of the women who took on the lifestyle of a modern day Tayuu (technically, "actresses" who mimic the life of a Tayuu minus the sexual aspect of it) could possibly have been geisha previously who,. in addition to their prior knowledge in the traditional arts, decided to help preserve the artistic culture of the Tayuu.

Website of Tsukasa Tayuu
Website of Hana-Koto Tayuu
Website of Hana-Ougi Tayuu
Website of Modern Day Kamuro

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How can I tell apart a Maiko from a Geisha?

It is actually very simple and easy to distinguish between the two. Starting from head to toe, the main points of difference are:

Hairstyle: Maiko have their natural hair dressed in various traditional styles according to their position in the Maiko hierarchy. Junior Maiko wear the Wareshinobu style and progress onto the Ofuku style as she becomes a senior Maiko. As a senior Maiko, she has the privilege to wear her hair in the Katsuyama style and Yakko Shimada style for special occasions, and finally the Sakkou hairstyle, right before she becomes a Geisha. The maiko of the Pontocho hanamachi wear an additional 5 hairstyles through the duration of their training: Umemodoki, Oshidori no Hina, Osa Bune/fune, Mizu/sui Guruma and Ikiguruma. Geisha wear a katsura (wig) in the Shimada-mage style (or traditional style of choice). Please read the hairstyle article for further information.

Kanzashi: Maiko wear a wide variety of kanzashi such as tsumami kanzashi (also called hana kanzashi) made from habutae silk. They also wear kushi or tenkazari with silk. These ornaments generally correspond with the relevant season and month. Geisha only wear a few pins and a kushi in their hair which are generally plain in style and not covered in silk. This was a direct result of the sumptuary regulations imposed on Geisha during the Edo era. The exception being a Geisha performing a formal tea-ceremony, where she may wear a small hana-kanzashi. Please view the kanzashi calendar for further information.

Make Up: Maiko paint their faces white, but leave a line of bare skin around their natural hairline. There is also a greater amount of pink blush on the cheek and eye area, and her eyes and eyebrows have a noticeable amount of red. She will also only partially paint her lips in (refer to the diagrams below). When Geisha wear the white make-up, they leave no bare hair line, due to them wearing katsura. They have minimal amount of red outlining the eyes and eyebrows, and the pink blush is subtle. She will paint her lips almost in full. A Geisha not wearing white make up will wear a subtle, often natural shade of make-up and her hair pulled back in a simple bun. Please view the make-up article for further information.

Junior maiko

• faces painted white leaving bare skin around hairline
• cheek/eye areas a noticeable cherry blossom pink
• eyes outlined in deep crimson and black
• eyebrows defined with red/pink under the black
• noticeable element - small proportion of her lower lip is painted in crimson.

   Senior maiko

•faces painted white leaving bare skin around hairline
• cheek/eye areas a subtle cherry blossom pink
• eyes outlined in deep crimson and black
• eyebrows defined with red/pink under the black
• lips partually painted in crimson.

Junior Geisha/Performance Geisha

• faces painted white with the most subtle hint of pink for contouring
• subtle outlining of crimson and black around eyes
• eyebrows faintly defined with red/pink under the black
• lips painted almost in full with crimson.

Senior Geisha

• subdued make-up of choice - generally of a natural colour or base.

Kimono:Maiko kimono is a noisy (yet tasteful) and colourful affair. She wears a hikizuri kimono which has the long furisode sleeves that hang down near her ankles. The upper half of her sleeve will have a tuck along the width, and her shoulders will also have a tuck. Geisha wear the much more refined hikizuri kimono with shorter sleeve length or homongi, if she is not wearing the traditional hairstyle and make-up. Generally, the kimono will be of one solid colour with a subtle pattern towards the bottom.

Obi:Maiko's obi are long and wide, generally covering a good proportion of her torso from her hip bone to her breast. The back of the obi bow dangles down to her ankles. Geisha wear a narrower obi of a more subtle pattern and generally tie it in the refined Taiko box bow.

Collar: With the kimono, Maiko wear a thick heavy embroidered collar. The collar starts of predominately red, with a smattering of white and silver patterns on it, and as she increases in age and experience, it slowly turns to white. The back of the collar though remains red until she turns into a Geisha. A Geisha wears a wide, yet simple white collar.

Geta: Last, but not least - Maiko wear Okobo - high, unpainted wooden clogs that have a bell on the inside of them. Geisha wear either zori or geta, depending on the occasion.

Of course, there are many other subtle differences that will be covered in deeper details in various articles.

Immortal Geisha Articles of Relevance:
Hairstyle Article
Kanzashi Calendar
Make-up Article
Kimono Article (coming soon)

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How can I tell an Oiran and Tayuu apart from Maiko and Geisha?

There should never be any mistaking between an Oiran or Tayuu with a Geisha or Maiko! The differences are very pronounced and recognizable. For those who are still confused though, the main five items are:

Hairstyle - Oiran and Tayuu wear the most outlandish, creative and ornate hairstyles. It is amazing that they can hold their head high and straight with all that weight! In addition to the hairstyle itself, they wear a jewelry box worth of kanzashi along with many different ribbons and cords tied in fancy knots. Whilst the hairstyles and adornments may have varied from pleasure quarter to pleasure quarter, there is absolutely no way to mistaken an Oiran or Tayuu hairstyle to the much more simple Shimada-mage, Wareshinobu or Ofuku hairstyle!

Kimono - Look at all those layers and padding! The screaming bright colours! The garnish designs and uchikake! An iki Geisha would never have been caught dressed like such considering their "iki" was based on simplicity! Not only were the kimonos very heavily patterned and embroidered, it was not unusual for Oiran to wear anywhere to 3 to 5 layers of kimono, or to at least mimic wearing so many layers by sewing false collars and padded hems to a single kimono! In addition to the regular kimono worn tied under the obi, there was also the uchikake (over-kimono) that was worn over the top of everything, which also, was generally padded with a thick heavy hem!

Obi - Geisha and Maiko never ever, wear their obi's tied at the front! The mental vision I am getting right now, trying to imagine a Maiko obi tied at the front, or even the taiko obi is quite amusing! There are two stories as to how it originated that Oiran and Tayuu wear their obi tied at the front. The first being that traditionally, married women tied their obi at the front - and as a masquerade that they were "married" to their clients for the night, they mimicked the front tying. The second story is that having the obi tied at the front obviously makes it much easier and faster to undress and get dressed. Both plausible, and both ring true. Needless to say though, it is quite a striking sight to behold!

Feet - Look at those cute little toes! Wait a minute?! You mean I can see toes? Oiran and Tayuu felt it was chic not to wear tabi, even more so in winter when it was definitely a show of endurance! In addition, nothing must have driven a man more wild, than to see a tiny hint of bare flesh.....a dainty toe, sticking out from underneath all the many layers of kimono. There was a certain group of Geisha who also used to walk around without tabi on, but this was not widely adopted by all Geisha, and eventually all Geisha and Maiko did the sensible thing and wore tabi - at least their toes were not freezing in winter!

Geta - Koma-geta (or mitsu ashi - three legs) were obviously the predecessors to the platform shoes of the 70's. An amazing skill of balance must be required to be able to strut your stuff on geta a good 12-15 inches high, along with a multitude of layers of kimono and a rather ornate hairstyle. Not to forget though, the ordinary form of walking was not quite striking enough that one particular Tayuu, Katsuyama (the famed tayuu of the very same Katsuyama hairstyle), developed a rather interesting way of walking, often referred to as the "Figure 8" step. Not wanting to be outdone, all the other Tayuu scrambled to imitate. Use your imagination, it is probably correct! Geisha and Maiko pale in comparison in the shoe department, wearing only zori or geta for a Geisha, or the rather plain looking (in comparison) okobo.

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Visual Guide to the Difference Between Maiko, Geisha and Tayuu/Oiran

Maiko Geisha Tayuu/Oiran
Maiko Geisha Tayuu/Oiran

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What is a "Hanamachi"?

The word "Hanamachi" literally means "Flower Town" (hana = flower, machi = town) and is the name used to refer to geisha districts.

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How many hanamachi are there in Kyoto?

There are six hanamachi that exist in Kyoto today. The five geiko hanamachi are named: Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Miyagawacho, Kamishichiken and Pontocho. Collectively, they are referred to as Kyoto's Gokagai (Five Flower Towns).

The sixth hanamachi is the old pleasure quarters of Kyoto, the Shimabara. After prostitution was made illegal in 1957, all but one ageya, the Sumiya and one okiya, the Wachigaiya remained open to serve as museums to help preserve the important historical customs and traditions of the pleasure quarters. Today, there are women who act out the life, art and customs of the Tayuu at the Wachigaiya, minus the sexual aspect.

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What are the mons (crest) for the Kyoto geiko hanamachi?

Gion Kobu Gion Higashi Kamishichiken
Miyagawacho Pontocho

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What is the Calendar of Events for the Kyoto Hanamachi?

Gion Kobu:   Gion Higashi:    Kamishichiken:
Miyagawacho:    Pontocho:

Dates Special Events Hanamachi
January 1st - 3rd New Year Celebrations
January 7th & 9th Shigyoshiki
January 13th Hatsyuyori
February 2 - 4th Setsubun
February 25th Baikasai
March 20th Ooishiki
April 1st - 30th Miyako Odori
April 1st Sun-3rd Kyo Odori
April 15 - 25th Kitano Odori
April 16th Heian Jingu Retaisai Hono Buyo
May 1 - 24th Kamogawa Odori
June 3rd Sat-Sun Miyako no Nigiwai
June (early) Miyabikai
June 1 - 29th Gion Matsuri
August 1st Hassaku
October 1 - 4th Zuiki Matsuri
October 1 - 6th Onshukai
October (early) Kotobukikai
October Suimeikai
October 22nd Jidai Matsuri
November 1-10th Gion Odori
November 8th Kanikakunisai
November (mid) Ohitakisai
December 1st Okencha
December (early) Kaomise Soken
December 13th Kotohajime
December 31st Okotosan, Okerabi

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