"Geisha," the word itself is probably
mispronounced as often as are the women it
identifies, misunderstood. Pronounced "gay-sha,"
the word translates as "art person" or "person of
the arts" and that is simply what geisha are,
practitioners of arts that reach back in time
more than three centuries.

Geisha are masters of those arts, having
undergone rigorous training in music, dance,
calligraphy, the tea ceremony, as well as
conversational and social graces. Geisha
are skilled story tellers and, singers, as well
as proficient accompanists on their
three-stringed shamisen.

The geisha system had its beginning during the
Tokugawa era, in the 17th century, when Japan
was at peace, isolated from the outside world
and when samurai and merchant had time
and wealth enough to indulge themselves
in the pleasures of the "floating world."

There was then, as there is today, a strong hint
of the exotic, of fantasy in thbe very word, "geisha"
and the sound of it can still conjure up images
of a time long past; a time when when the
sounds of laughter and shamisen drifted
from the tea houses into the night air as
samurai strutted down the streets of Edo.

The first geisha who appeared at parties and
celebrations banging their drums, singing songs
and telling funny stories were men; gradually
however, women began appearing to
challenge the male entertainers and by
mid 17th century, female geisha had
attained a dominance which
soon became their monopoly.

The beauty, gentility, grace and skill that
women brought to the geisha scene served to
inspire countless musicians, poets and artists
who sought to capture the spirit and images
of the geisha's "willow world."

In spite of the modern transformation that
Japan has experienced in the last one hundred or
even fifty years, tradition remains a strong, persistent
ingredient within the base of all that is new.

So it is with the geisha who, like the swordsmith
or kabuki actor or woodblock artist or even the sushi
chef, must undergo a long and trying apprenticeship
before she can officially attain the status of "geisha."
In early times, girls began this apprenticeship while
still pre teens; however,today the age for
entering geisha training is fifteen.

Fledgling geisha are called "maiko" and their dress, hair stlyles and makeup are quite different from that of their "elder sisters." Maiko wear somewhat brighter and showier kimono, bound at the waist with a long draping sash ("darari-no-obi") that nearly reaches the ground, and for footwear, distinctive high wooden clogs ("okobo"). Unique hair styles, hair ornaments and stark white facial makeup gives the maiko the
dream-like quality of a porcelain doll.

Perhaps because they still lack the
skills of their elder sisters, the maikos'
appearance must rely more on outward showiness
but, by the time they reach their early twenties,
diligent and successful maiko are ready to
put aside their doll like accouterments and
take up the subtler shades of kimono and
more sophisticated demeanor of "geisha."

Up until the end of the second World War, geisha
were the trend setters of high fashion and good
taste but with the changes that have taken place
since then, that role has disappeared.

In the late 1970's, the number of registered geisha
fell to around 1,500 and today, there are probably
fewer than a thousand women practicing the
profession and lifestyle of geisha.

In the tea houses ("ochaya") of Kyoto's Gion
and Pontocho districts geisha perform and
entertain their guests who usually have a long
relationship with the ochaya, as new customers
are rarely admitted without proper introduction.

As in times long past, when geisha helped
to soothe the worries and cares of samurai and
merchant, the sounds of shamisen and song that fill
today's ochaya are a haunting reminder of tradition's
persistence. Inside the teahouse of Gion or Pontocho,
it is now perhaps the tired businessman or harried
politician who half fancies himself as the bold
samurai of yore whose cares are eased and ego
lifted by the lovely, gentle geisha who fills his
sake cup and sings only to him!

A somewhat curious sidelight to this world
of geisha was provided by a recent article
that appeared in the travel section of
my Sunday newspaper.

The half page story related the success of more
than forty shops in Kyoto catering to Western tourists
and Japanese women as well who pay $100 to $350
to be made up and attired as maiko or geisha. For
a slight additional fee, these "90 minute geisha" may
obtain photographs of themselves and stroll around a
nearby temple ground reveling in the spectacle of
camera hounds jostling to take their pictures. More
than 70,000 patrons each year avail themselves
of the services of these "geisha studios"
contributing a not insubstantial boon
to the Kyoto economy.

Although the ranks of true geisha grow thinner
each year, and fewer teenagers find such a
ritualized and rigorous life attractive, it would be
far too presumptuous, in light of their proven staying
power, to predict the geisha's disappearance
in the near future.

Geisha are a link with the past
and Japanese are reluctant to abandon such ties.
If the number of paying customers at the busy
"geisha studios" is any indication, geisha are still
respected, imitated and even admired for their
commitment to a way of life that is admittedly
out of tune with today's Japan.

It may well be that geisha provide a comfortable reminder for the human need to remember the way things used to be. Women who pay a handsome sum
to stroll the streets of Kyoto in the guise of geisha
certainly offer testimony to the fascination
and mystique that these women who
"practice the arts" still possess.