Catching a glimpse of a geisha scurrying to an appointment in the narrow streets of Kyoto's Gion entertainment district is a moment of pure magic. With their startling white faces and brilliant kimono, they seem equal parts alien and apparition. If you're like most travellers, you may find it hard to believe your own eyes when you see one of these exquisite beings.

According to most estimates, there are about 1000 geisha in Japan, and many of them live and work in Kyoto, where they are properly known as geiko. Kyoto is also home to tomaiko (apprentice geiko), who are girls between the ages of 16 and 20 who are in the process of completing the four or five years of study it takes to become a fully fledged geiko. It's easy to tell the difference between the two: Maiko wear elaborate hairpins in their own hair and elaborate kimono, while geiko wear wigs with only the simplest ornamentation (usually just a boxwood comb) and simpler kimono.

A living tradition

The origins of today's geisha (geiko and maiko) can be traced back to the Edo Period (1600–1868), although they became most popular during the Taisho Period (1912–1926). To answer the most common question regarding geisha: they are most definitely not prostitutes. Rather, geisha are highly skilled entertainers, who entertain guests at private parties and dinners. In many ways, geisha are living embodiments of Japanese traditional culture: each one is well versed in traditional dancing, singing, musical instruments and occasionally other arts such as tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arrangement).

An evening of geisha entertainment often begins with an exquisite meal of kaiseki (Japanese haute-cuisine). During the meal, the geisha will chat with guests, pour drinks and light cigarettes. Following dinner, the geisha may dance to music provided by a jikata, who plays the traditional, three-stringed shamisen. Geisha may also engage the guests in a variety of drinking games, at which they excel, almost always resulting in guests getting progressively sozzled.

Geisha events

Considering the cost of a geisha's training and kimono, it's hardly surprising that geisha entertainment is quite expensive: dinner for two guests with one geisha runs about US$700 and parties with a jikata and two or more geisha easily tops US$1000 (making geisha entertainment a better idea for groups of travellers than individuals). These days, some hotels and ryokan in Kyoto offer regular geisha events for guests. If you happen to be in Kyoto in the spring or fall, the geisha dances put on by the city's five geisha districts should be considered must-sees. For those who want to arrange private geisha entertainment, it can be done through private tour companies and high-end ryokan and hotels. Finally, if you spot a woman who looks like a geisha wandering through the tourist districts of Kyoto during the daytime trailed by a photographer, you can be pretty sure she's a tourist who's paid to be made up as a geisha, and not a real maiko or geiko!

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