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Geisha: What are they and what do they do?

Snow-white skin, coal-black hair, bold red lips and extravagant silk kimonos. To me, Japanese geisha are among some of the most beautiful women to walk the earth (Bettie Page is totally on this list too!). But who are they and what do they do?


Geisha are professional entertainers who attend to guests during meals, banquets and other social occasions. They are trained in a number of traditional Japanese arts such as dance, singing, playing instruments and communication. Their role is to make guests feel at ease with conversation, drinking games and dance performances. Maybe I’ll hire a geisha for when I apply for Come Dine With Me! Makes a difference from the usual half-naked butler…


The word “geisha” consists of two nouns – “gei” meaning “art” or “performance”, and “sha” meaning “person” or “do-er”. The most accurate translation into English would be “a person of the arts or performance” – how lovely.

Dancing geisha

Roughly one hundred years ago, there were 80,000 geisha in Japan (80,000? That’s incredible!). Today, there are only around 2,000. Geisha can be found in several cities across Japan, including Tokyo and Kanazawa, but the former capital of Kyoto still remains the most renowned place to encounter geisha.

Geisha and a business man

So how do you become a geisha? Daughters of geisha usually became geisha themselves; however, it was also common for young, good-looking girls from poverty-stricken families to be sold to an okiya (a geisha house), or an ochaya (a tea house) to start their training. This practice is not common anymore, but future geisha are often trained from early childhood.

Geisha walking down the street

Even after becoming a geisha, girls continue taking lessons to develop their skills. Being a geisha is an honour to the girls who, when they become fully-fledged geisha, are then called geiko. If a girl begins her training to be a geisha between the ages of 15 and 20, she is called a maiko, meaning “dance child”.

Before you head off to the home of the geisha, grab your travel insurance for Japan.