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Pale white face with dark eyes and hair, blood lips drawn in a bow, the geisha in modern Japan still evoke a sense of mystery and beauty. While real geisha are now far from numerous, their likenesses abound in movies, on television and impersonated in entertainment areas. Both foreigners and the Japanese have a fascination for these beautiful and mysterious women.

Geisha (or Geiko in the Kyoto dialect) are female professional entertainers who perform traditional Japanese arts at banquets or teahouses. The manager of the teahouse, the okasan, does not usually allow new customers unless they have been properly introduced. Originally, geisha were much more prolific and in different areas in Japan but now, they are limited more or less to the Gion area of Kyoto and Tokyo.

Young girls who want to become a geisha move into special "maiko houses" at a early age. These houses are like dormitories and are managed by a lady who takes care of the girls and their affairs. As an apprentice they are first called maiko and have to learn not only various traditional Japanese arts such as playing instruments, tea ceremony, flower arranging, singing and dancing, but also the Kyoto dialect if they are not local, conversation and other social skills. Only a few of the best among them will become geisha many years later after passing stringent tests in many different areas.

When the maiko reaches 18, there is a ritual called erigaishi where she moves from the dormitory into single quarters and stops wearing the very white makeup that most people recognise.

Geisha and maiko wear traditional silk kimono and wooden geta clogs. Their hair, in a high sculpted arrangement is adorned by metallic accessories. A red stripe is painted down the back of their neck and, the more of the neck that is exposed, the more risque the kimono is. Geisha tend to wear more subdued colours for their kimono which has shorter sleeves while the maiko's kimono is bright with draped sleeves. The kimono is bound with a wide, thick silk belt called an obi which can be tied in many different and intricate ways.

The future of geisha
In Japan today there are less than 1000 geisha. With the stringent lifestyle and emphasis on traditional arts, few young girls are willing or able to meet the standards of the professional geisha. Nonetheless, the geisha play a valuable role in preserving Japanese culture and history.