Imagine a job ad that read like this: “Wanted: disciplined, hardworking 15-year-old who is not afraid of constant study and training, late nights and early mornings. Should be able to sing, dance, engage in hours of demure conversation and drinking games all while wearing elaborate, restrictive costumes.”
It sounds bizarre, but this is exactly what young Japanese women have been signing up to become for centuries when they enter the world of the geisha.
The novel Memoirs of a Geisha, Puccini’s tragic opera Madame Butterfly and countless movie references have provided the curious West with various views of what life as a geisha is like. But for those interested in getting beyond the fictional images, the best view of this intriguing profession is found in the geisha district of Gion in the ancient city of Kyoto.
A visitor strolling the cobbled lanes and alleyways of Gion without an informative and enthusiastic guide would miss the hidden clues and subtle hints that reveal this extraordinary way of life. Luckily for English-speaking visitors to Kyoto, Peter MacIntosh, a knowledgeable historian and a Kyoto resident, has offers walking lecturers of Gion titled “Geisha, Past, Present and Future.”
Peter’s understanding and respect for this fascinating world is based not just on history books and research, but also on his time spent as both a friend and confidante of these unique women.
The story of geishas starts in the early 1700s when the first male geisha appeared in the walled-in pleasure quarters of Tokyo and Kyoto. It was within these designated entertainment precincts that the chronin (merchants) spent their time and money cultivating the arts. The first female geishas appeared soon after, and while the assumption is that they were a mixture of courtesan, prostitute and entertainer, their role was always designed to complement the courtesans, not compete with them.
That role has changed little over the centuries. Geishas are still very much professional entertainers. Even after their initial apprenticeship, they continue to train in their arts of music, dance and singing. Their disciplined life and dedication is not unlike that of a professional dancer.
Nor are geishas simply legal prostitutes, as often portrayed in Western literature and film. Geishas keep the Japanese arts alive with their traditional kimonos, dance and music, and they are still admired for their role in society.
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