Japan's alluring, white-faced, kimono-clad, enigmatic geisha have long held the imagination of both east and west, and, along with Mount Fuji and the cherry blossoms, remain one of the most striking symbols of Japan.
Called geiko in the Kyoto dialect, geisha are disciplined artists under an elaborately-coiffed exterior, and Kyoto geisha's famously rigorous apprenticeship as maiko ensures that the women who choose the lifestyle are talented and dedicated musicians and dancers. Geisha have, for many years, entertained at the most exclusive and important gatherings in Japan, and are proud of their status both as artists and national symbols.
Though geisha were once the cutting edge of high fashion, both maiko apprentices and geiko now wear traditional kimono that reflect the seasonal changes so cherished in Japanese culture. The maiko's costume is an elaborate kimono in the old style, which is both longer, brighter, and considerably harder to wear than the modern version. This is worn with high geta sandals, the bases of which are hollow and contain a bell that rings with a distinctive sound as the maiko walk. Full geisha graduate to more subtle attire, which is no less beautiful and often of incredible workmanship.
The hanamachi, or flower and willow world of the geisha, is notoriously difficult to access, and though geiko and maiko can be glimpsed in the narrow alleys and cobbled streets of Kyoto's Gion and Pontocho districts, tea houses, or ochaya, where geisha traditionally entertain, operate strictly by invitation, and it is impossible to enter without an introduction.