History of Kyoto Geisha

The roots of Kyoto maiko started almost 300 years ago. Women who gave tea and dumplings (dango) to the visitors of Kitano Tenmangu and Yasaka temple are told to be the start of Kyoto Maiko. At first the women only gave out tea and dumplings to the visitors, but after a while, they started to sing and dance in front of the people who gathered at the tea house. These women are what we call Geiko now. The tea houses then started to compete with each other. They made cute girls wear kimono and make them dance in front of the people. This is the start of the Maiko. From the next paragraph, I will talk about the history of Geisha from the real origin in detail.

When you trace up the history of Geisha, you will come back to Shirabyoushi(白拍子), asobime(遊女), and medium(巫女). Shirabyoushi is a type of Kabu (to dance and sing), happened from end of Heian period to Kamakura period. Mainly girls who dressed like men who sang and danced were called Shirabyoushi, but there were men shirabyoushi too. Asobime is a prostitute, “A women who amuses the guest.” Medium is a maiden in the service of a Shinto shrine.
In the Heian period, when the Miko showed a dance in her pilgrimage during her mission, the Shirabyoushi who sang and danced wearing the white Hitatare(直垂) and Suikan (水干) with Eboshi (烏帽子) is born. (Women dressed as a man). Many Shirabyoushi were high in status and insight because they went to many noble houses.

The Shirabyoushi continues until the Kamakura period. However, after the war period starts, they eventually start to fade out. In Muromachi period, the grounding of the Japanese oldest Hanamachi and Geisha is made. The trigger of this happens in 15 century when Kitano Tenmangu’s part of it is burned down. When this temple was being fixed, they made a tea house in what is now Kamishichiken(上七軒). In 1582, when Hideyoshi Toyotomi held a banquet in Kitano, he uses the tea house as a lounge. After this, he gets the right to practice the tea house. Also in Kitano, there were many Miko. When the Miko becomes mature, they had to find a new job. So the Miko who became mature worked as a tea house lady and played the Shamisen(三味線) , sang, and danced in front of many visitors.

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1603, in Kyoto, Izumono Okuni(出雲阿国) entertains many people with her songs and dances. When she played in Kyoto Shijyou Kawara (京都四条河原), she entertained many people who went to the tea house and became very famous. After this, many Asobime imitated Izumono Okuni, playing the Shamisen; they are then called the Asobime Kabuki.

The Asobime Kabuki spreads all around Japan, also in Edo. The Asobime Kabuki then are called the Odoriko(踊り子). However, because the origin of them was an imitation of the yakuza, and because they appealed the women’s body too much, in 1617, the Kabuki is banned in Edo and Suruga.

In 1618, Yoshihara Yuukaku(吉原遊郭) is made. (This Yoshihara is pictured in the drama “JIN”.) After the Yoshihara is made, the Asobime worked in the Yoshihara or they became the Odoriko and went to noble houses to perform.

In 1779, a place to supervise the Geisha is made to clearly define the difference between Geisha and Asobime. They then made a rule for the Geisha to wear a specific type of clothes so they won’t be mixed up with the Asobime.

In the 1750’s, the first Geisha appears in Kyoto, were the Odoriko was born. The origin of the geisha is the same as Yoshihara. In the Bakumatu period, Gion(祇園) starts to get a high status in the west of Japan.

In Kyoto, many famous Geisha is born. For example, Ikumatsu(幾松). After Meiji Ishin, the Hanshi(藩士) and the Geisha gets involved with each other probably because the Hanamachi’s high class Japanese style restaurants and Ozashiki gained high credit from them.

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In the Meiji period, Geishougi liberation law(芸娼妓解放令) is released. This law prohibited prostitution and also prohibited the indentured servant of Geisha. After this law, Geisha became free in the society. Also, three more rules were made which said that, girls who want to become a Geisha must send in a report to the governor and get permission. And if you are permitted, you must pay 3 yen monthly. After this rule, Hanamachi becomes a place for the Geisha.

After the Miyako moves to Tokyo, Kyoto contrives Miyako Odori(都をどり) to call in tourists. This Miyako Odori was something new then, because the play was danced by 5 to 10 people at once. This Miyako Odori became a yearly tradition in Kyoto, and calls in many tourists now.

After the Geishougi liberation law, many women lost jobs. Because of this, company’s such as sewing are made. In Gion, many tea houses and Okiya was built because the burden of earning land was much lower, and investment of the Geisha culture was made early. The company that was made for women to work later on became a place to practice for the Geisha.

During war, the restaurants couldn’t board food, and many places closed the store. However, after war, the geisha business flourishes again. People from the government to people from small company workers came to the Ozashiki. The Geisha becomes much more publically popular. Because of this, choices other then Shamisen and dancing in the Geisha world are made.

The law again changes the world of Geisha. For example, to become a Geisha, the girl has to be 17years or older. This law made it harder for the Geisha business to foster Geisha like they use to. Many places closed the Geisha business because of this. Rich men such as politicians and presidents of a company who went to Geisha started going to bars and clubs, especially in Shinbashi and Akasaka. In the Heisei period, Mostly all the high class Japanese style restaurants closed business in Akasaka and Yanagibashi.

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However, Kyoto’s Gion is still doing well in the Geisha business, compared to many places in Tokyo. This is because of the old town features like the temples in Kyoto, and because the town as a whole is trying to sustain the Geisha culture. Also Kyoto is holding many events to entertain tourists. For example, in the beginning of April, they hold the Miyako Odori and Kyou Odori. In mid April, they hold the Kitano Odori. In May, they hold the Kamogawa Odori. In November, they hold the Gion Odori. Another reason that the Kyoto Geisha flourished would be that in each tea houses, they teach Maiko songs and dances, tea and flower arrangements when they are 15 years old for free.

My grandparents live in Nara, so I have many opportunities to go to Kyoto and see the town where the Maiko and Geisha business takes place. So when I go to Kyoto, Geisha and Maiko is something very close and familiar. But when I come back to Tokyo, Geisha and Maiko becomes something very far, and unfamiliar. I even think some people now only think that Geisha and Maiko exist in Kyoto. Since I did not know that the Geisha Business existed in Akasaka. By looking at the history of Geisha and Maiko, I found out that the Geisha and Maiko was not only something that flourished in Kyoto. It flourished all around Japan, but many circumstances made the Geisha business close down in many places. Even though the Geisha tradition is not flourishing as it used to be, I hope this Japanese culture is kept forever.


相原恭子(2001)『京都 舞妓と芸妓の奥座敷』文藝春秋

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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