Thursday, 3 January 2008

Geisha: Flowers of the Willow World

Often referred to as the "flowers of the willow world", Geisha are an enduring
symbol of Japan whose inherent beauty, grace, charm, and artistic talent have
been admired for centuries. The word Geisha means artist in Japanese, and they
have been traditionally considered professional performers who entertain guests
through a series of time honored arts such as Japanese ancient dance, singing,
playing of various musical instruments, flower arrangement, tea ceremony , and

Historically Geisha began their training at a very young age, and although girls
were occasionally sold to geisha houses known as okiya, this was not common
practice in most reputable districts in Japan. When girls first arrived to the
okiya they were expected to survive the first stage of training known as shikomi,
which involved hard manual labor as maids who were subject to the beckoned call
of their seniors. The work was exceedingly difficult, and was intended to test
the strength, will, and integrity of the young novices. In addition to the
strenuous work, they would be expected to wait late into the night for the
experienced Geisha to return from engagements to assist them before retiring for
the evening. When not working in the okiya, the shikomi would attend classes to
study dancing, singing, and the playing of traditional musical instruments. Once
the student became proficient they would then be required to pass a final dance
exam before advancing to the second stage of training called minarai. This stage
of training relieved them from their housekeeping duties, and allowed them to focus
on applying what they had learned by attending banquets called ozashiki, in
which the guests present were attended to by Geisha. Soon thereafter they begin
the third, final, and most important stage of training known as Maiko. Maiko are
apprentices who study under established Geisha. The training involves
accompanying the mentor to her engagements and observing the proper etiquette of
the seasoned professional. This relationship is extremely important to the Maiko,
as it teaches her the proper way of serving tea, playing the shamisen, dancing,
and the art of casual conversation, all of which are essential to master to assure
future invitations to various tea houses and social gatherings.

Contemporary Geisha, though much fewer in numbers, still live collectively
during their apprenticeship in okiya in areas called hanamachi, and often begin
their training after completing junior high school, high school, or college.
Maiko still study instruments such as the shakuhachi and shamisen, and are well
versed in literature, poetry, tea ceremony, wearing kimono, and traditional
Japanese dance. The district of Gion Kobu in the city of Kyoto is now considered
the epicenter of contemporary Geisha. The life of a Geisha still resides in the
elegant cultured world known as karyukai, and they are often hired to attend
parties and gatherings at tea houses and traditional Japanese restaurants. The
time spent with guests is measured by burning an incense stick known as


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