Well for a start, I shouldn't be calling them geisha when we are talking about Kyoto, as here, they are known as Geiko. And they are very elusive; you have to be in the right place at the right time to spot one, usually as she is hurrying to an appointment. Many people think they see a Geiko, but in fact it is either a Maiko, or just a normal person dressed up. I'll come back to that, and how you can tell the difference, later.
So what really is a Geiko. Contrary to what some believe, they are not prostitutes. But they are escorts and entertainers. The word Geisha translates as 'person of the arts', and that is really what they are about. In fact, the first Geisha were male, with the first female coming in around 1750.
Geisha became a popular alternative. They had a simpler style, and their focus was on artistic entertainment, such as dancing, singing, music, storytelling and conversation. Because they were forbidden to sell sex, they were able to provide their services in normal tea houses. Many prostitutes in Japan do dress as Geisha, for the benefit of their customers who want to believe they are having sex with a Geisha, which perpetuates the myth that Geisha are prostitutes.
They were subject to strict rules about their appearance; their hair had then, as now, to be in the shimada style, with limited ornaments, their kimono were simple, and their obi - or belts - were tied at the back rather than the front. This was a key symbolic and practical difference to the prostitutes, as the obi being tied at the back meant that they could not dress and undress themselves.
But the fact that they were not prostitutes, does make make the practice entirely innocent. They are not permitted to provide sex for money, but the people that they entertain are normally wealthy men, usually a limited number of regular clients. Amongst them, they may well have a patron, who may support them, and with whom they may have sex. But it is more of a relationship, more like a mistress than a prostitute; indeed, some Geisha marry their patron.
And until it was made unlawful in 1958, the mizuage - the initiation from apprentice to full Geisha - included allowing a wealthy sponsor to pay heavily for the privilege of 'deflowering' her. This was seen as an essential part of making the transition into womanhood, and after that one sexual encounter, the sponsor was permitted no further interaction with the Geisha.
So that is the history, now let's look at the path to becoming a Geiko. It used to be that's case that families would sell girls into Geisha houses the same way they would sell them to brothels; these days girls join voluntarily. They join their house and start their first shikomi stage acting as maids to the Geiko. During this time they learn the artistic skills such as traditional dance and music.
Once they pass this stage, they become minarai. They train alongside an onee-san, a Geiko who acts as an older sister to teach her things like the tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arranging, and how to look and behave. She will attend events with the Geiko, but only as an observer. She will also work in the tea house with the okaa-san, or house mother, learning to have conversations and play games.
The last stage is the Maiko. Still attending events with her Geiko older sister, she may now participate in them, assisting the Geiko, doing things like pouring drinks. The older sister will help her to choose her professional name. When she completes this stage, she will become a full Geiko, and will have her own clients.
So how do you recognise a Geiko. Well, let's start with the general. It is actually a pretty famous look, and most people will be able to spot what seems to be a Geiko pretty easily, by the clothing, hair and makeup. The traditional kimono and obi, the hair up in the shimada style, the whitened face and the red lipstick.
But the question is, is she real? Or is she either a Minarai or Maiko - still interesting, but not so exclusive - or just any old person playing dress up for the day. It can be tricky to tell, but there are a few pointers to help you out.
Firstly, what are they doing? Unless they are attending a public event, which is rare, you are unlikely to see a fully dressed up Geiko, or even a Maiko, just wandering around or visiting a tourist site, or even during the day at all. Whilst she may have her hair the same, if she doesn't use a wig, a Geiko does not wear the clothes and makeup when she is off duty, and when she is working, she is paid for her time to get to and from the event as well, so she will be hurrying. She won't be stopping to have her photo taken. Events are usually in the evenings, so early evening and very late are the times you are most likely to see her.
So if you see someone at a tourist area, posing for photos, then tell chances are she is just someone doing one of the many 'get dressed up as a Geiko' packages. And if she is, then the chances are she is actually dressed more like a Minarai or Maiko, as firstly, that look is actually slightly prettier, and secondly, part of the deal for letting companies dress people up is that they include a few little differences.
The next thing to look out for is the clothes and makeup, and in particular, whether all of the various aspects are consistent.
Let's start with the lipstick. A Geiko has both of her lips painted red, as may a Maiko towards the end of her training, whereas most Maiko all Minarai, and often those dressing up, will only have the bottom lip red, the top lip will be white like the rest of her face. This is probably the best and easiest test, both in consistency and being able to spot it.
Eyes next. Maiko and below will have only red in their eye makeup, whereas a Geiko with have her a yes lined with black eye makeup too.
The next one is the hair decoration. At all stages, they will wear kanzashi, or hairornaments. The type of kanzashi become more simple and elegant as they progress, so a Geiko's will be less obtrusive. Most people who dress up, wear a very pretty hair ornament, with little strings of flowers trailing from it, called a hana-kanzashi. This is what the Minarai wear. So if you see this in the hair, it is either a Minarai or a dress up. Look at the rest of the signs, to see what matches. If she has both lips painted red, it is inconsistent, so she is a dress up. If just the lower lip is red, she could be either.
The shoes are also a good indicator. Both Maiko and Geiko will be wearing those wooden sandals, but the Minarai and the Maiko wear the higher okobo, around three inches, whereas the Geiko's zori are flatter, only an inch or so. Also, they trained to walk in them, so if they are wobbling around, they are dressing up.
Then the clothes. Pretty, flowery, bright and pastel colours are more for the Maiko. Geiko will tend towards more refined and elegant choices. A particular aspect to take note of is the obi. The Geiko has a thinner obi, which is tied in a square knot, whereas the Maiko's is wider, and tied in a bow, with long training ends.
The collar area is also important. The Maiko's collar drops further down at the back. There may also be a clue in the colour; if it is predominantly red, or another bright colour, it is likely to be a Maiko. Traditionally, the collar becomes increasingly whiter as they progress, and when they become a Geiko, it is completely white. However, I am not sure quite how reliable this is these days, so it is probably harder to get this right.
Finally, and this is the most difficult, take a look at the colours and patterns, and think about whether it matches the season. Maiko and Geiko will wear kimono and kinzashi that are relevant to the month and season. So if you see a cherry blossom pattern in the height of summer, you know they're just dressing up. But unless you really know your stuff, good luck with this one!