The Japanese word geisha means ‘person of the arts’ and a true geisha is said to be a living work of art. To the Westerner, she is a figure of mystery and intrigue. Her white mask-like makeup hides emotions, her traditional black wig is dressed with tinkling bells, and her small body is wrapped tightly in kimonos of breathtaking colour and exquisite design, bound in the middle with the wide sash or obi. In her thonged sandals, her white-socked feet take tiny steps. In her hand, she holds a fan, the complex and intricate use of which speaks a language of its own. The colour red was also a trademark for the geisha, and kimonos were lined with scarlet silk. It was believed that red symbolized fertility, and that wearing crimson underwear was essential for healthy reproductive organs. Lipstick — always red — was made from crimson flower petals.
A true geisha went through years of training for her art, and the training was expensive. Poor families were sometimes approached by geisha houses offering money for young girls. The young apprentice, called maiko, became skilled in playing traditional musical instruments and mastering ancient dance. Singing, calligraphy, poetry, tea ceremonies, flower arrangement and the correct serving of drinks were among her many skills. She was required to listen and sometimes engage intelligently in conversation with her clients and patrons, and to honour a code of silence with regard to what she heard. The success of a geisha depended on her talent, sophistication, beauty, and skilfulness in etiquette.