A Random PSA On The Gei of Geisha - Part 1

The questions surrounding what arts that maiko and geiko practice comes up regularly, and instead of just posting them onto one of the tabs I’d rather lay it out in a post here first.  

The “Gei” (芸) in Geisha(芸者)/Geiko(芸妓)/Geigi(芸妓) means “Art” and there are many branches and types of art that one can master. For this part we’ll be looking at the direct performing arts that everyone knows the geisha are renowned for: music and dance.

Dance - Mai (舞)
All traditional Japanese dance styles have their roots in Shinto ceremonies that date back at least two millennia. There are two main styles to traditional dance practiced today:

-Noh (能): Originally arrived in Japan from China in the 8th century and developed into the style we know today in the 13th century by Kan’ami (assisted by his son Zeami). Derived from the classical court style dances, it features small, precise movements to tell a story. It can be seen as “boring” or “obscure” if you’re not sure what to look for as you need to understand the movements to appreciate them to the fullest. This isn’t to say that it isn’t beautiful to behold without prior knowledge as it is quite enchanting! Gion Kobu’s Inoue school is part of the Noh tradition. 

-Kabuki (歌舞伎): Derived directly from Shinto ceremonies, it was created in 1603 by Izumo No Okuni, a shrine priestess who created her own style of dance and performed it on the dry riverbed of the Kamo River. She became so famous that she was invited to perform in front of the emperor! After seeing how popular the style of dance had become rival dance groups sprung up around her and established the kabuki that we know today. The style is known for its dramatic and often “wild” movements that are meant to be appreciated by the common people. Pontocho’s Onoe, Miyagawa Cho’s Wakayagi, Kamishichiken’s Hanayagi, and Gion Higashi’s Fujima schools are part of the Kabuki tradition.

Music - Raku (楽)
What would dance be without music? Music, like dance, can be broken down into two types: voice/song and instruments.

Singing - Uta (歌): Maiko and geiko learn traditional ballads that are performed alongside dance. There are two types: Kouta (小唄) which means “short songs/ballads” and Nagauta (長唄) which means “long songs/ballad.” They are learned by listening to an instructor and then repeating and/or transcribing the words and melody together. There’s no “set” way of reading or learning a song like there is for Western music, so it takes a large amount of practice to perform any uta properly (although there are a few methods that do exist).

Instruments - Gakki (楽器)
There are many instruments practiced in the karyukai, but I’ll only go over the most common ones that are seen and heard on a regular basis.

-Shamisen (三味線): A three stringed instrument that is played with a plectrum. It is the most common instrument in the karyukai as it developed as an instrument that the common people used. Most uta were created to be played with a shamisen. It resembles a simplified guitar and is played in a similar fashion.

-Tsuzumi (鼓): The all encompassing word for drums, but specifically dual sided drums that are roped together. There are three main types learned by maiko and geiko:

-Kotsuzumi (小鼓): Literally “Small Drum,” or sometimes known as the “regular” tsuzumi, it is held onto one’s shoulder and played by striking the drum with the free hand. 

-Ōtsuzumi (大鼓): Literally “Large Drum,” it is a larger size of the tsuzumi and features one end that is larger than the other. It produces a much deeper sound when struck.

-Taiko (太鼓): Literally “Great Drum,” they’re not the gigantic ones that are often seen at summer festivals, but rather closer in size to an otsuzumi. The taiko sits on a stand while the musician strikes it with rods known as bachi (桴). It is the closest equivalent to Western style drums.

-Fue (笛): The all encompassing word for flute, which in traditional Japanese style is usually made from bamboo. There are two types of fue that include:

-Shakuhachi (尺八): The high pitched iconic flute that is actually rare in the karyukai, it features 5 holes (4 on top and 1 underneath). Its sound is often described as “haunting” as it gently pierces through silence to deliver melodies full of both happiness and sadness.

-Shinobue (篠笛)/Yokobue (横笛): Flutes that are much closer to Western ones, but are still made from wood. It features 7 holes that allows it to play more notes than the shakuhachi. This type is often played with the end resting on the musician’s shoulder.

-Koto (事): A 13 stringed instrument that’s considered a type of lute although it plays closer to that of a harp. Due to its size it lays flat on the floor and the musician plucks the strings individually to produce sound. Those who are new to the koto often wear metal guards on their fingers to keep the strings from slicing into their skin until their hands have developed enough to withstand the pressure. 

-Kokyū (胡弓): Taught exclusively in Miyagawa Cho as it was once considered an instrument of the oiran, a kokyū is a smaller version of the shamisen that’s played upright with a bow instead of a plectrum. 

“Tomoe Gozen” (1879), Yamazaki Toshinobu (1857-1886)

“ That circle of men fell like autmun leaves, like a rain of petals torn loose by storm winds. Such was my fight, and all the warriors, sorely wounded

fell far back

till I saw them no more

fell far back

till I saw them no more »

From the 14th century Noh play “Tomoe”, anonymous author, translation by Royall Tyler

Masks of the theatre.

Legend in Japanese Art; a description of historical episodes, legendary characters, folk-lore myths, religious symbolism illustrated in the arts of old Japan

Henri L. Joly
London: The John Lane Co., Ltd., 1908.


Kimono. Taisho period (1912-1927), Japan.  The Kimono Gallery. An antique silk kimono with an unusual pattern design and techniques, featuring a complex shibori of fan and ‘tsuzumi’ (hand drum) motifs. See detail images to view a close-up of the techniques used. The inner hakkake lining is of wool. The tsuzumi is a traditional shoulder drum used by the Japanese in music performances and theatre. 'Sensu’ is the Japanese name referring to the folding fan. Both are used together in certain Kabuki and Noh play stage performances, and in earlier times, during the Heian classical period of a thousand years ago, by shirabyōshi court performances and Muromachi period Kusemai dances. Thus these two motifs on this kimono allude to the stage and theatre, and giving the wearer an aura of class, sophistication and worldliness. The artist and craftspeople involved in the creation of this kimono were elite: the subtlety of the meticulous lavender tie-dye contrasting against the bold yellow and red drum motifs is dramatic and effective. The drum motifs seem to have been created with a complex mix of techniques - localized double kasuri (ikat), shibori (tie dye, and supplementary three-dimensional wefts). The work would have likely involves several months of exacting labour under the direction of a master kimono artist of the day. The confidence, experimentation and wealth of the Taisho period are all reflected in this stunning kimono.

What if the Sisters wear Noh masks because of Sariatu’s betrayal?

Karasu, in a rather strained and sorrowful voice, screamed that she “felt loss only once”. Sariatu choosing humanity over the Heavens is the one time she truly felt sorrow. Would she have cried? 

Yukami was very upset as well. She said that all she wanted was “to be a family, in [their] home among the stars”. 

What if they did cry? What if that was considered weak and they vowed to never again reveal their sadness? Maybe that’s why they wear Noh masks with perpetual smiles.


Boy’s ceremonial kimono. Meiji period (1868-1911), Japan.  The Kimono Gallery. An exceptional plain silk miyamairi kimono used for initiating a baby boy at a Shinto ceremony. Yuzen resist-paste dyeing with painting highlights. The back of this remarkable kimono is unique: it is completely dominated by the image of a Noh actor performing in the auspicious ‘Sambaso’.  The front of this kimono is decorated with a number of family crest motifs. The 'Sambaso’ is a traditional sacred dance performed prior to certain Noh plays, celebrating fertility and good harvest, with the additional intent to thwart earthquakes and appease the gods. It is performed at New Year, theater openings and other ceremonies; it is a noble piece, solemn and elegant, yet somewhat humorous. During the 'Sambaso’, a man with the mask of an old man in long dark robes [not in this case!] and a tall hat enters with a fan. On his feet are tabi, Japanese split-toed socks. He uses a loud gruff voice and flaps his long sleeves to the beat of the drums. His feet primarily either slide from heel to toe, or stomp. His trunk remains static. When he glides, the performer moves in straight lines, in a box, making it feel like he is traveling long distances. The stomps are flat-footed, pressing firmly into the ground, and apparently are symbolic of harvest. A second man later joins the first on the stage. The two men face each other, and the newest wears the mask of an old man. The old man figure shakes a stick of golden bells in all directions, symbolizing happiness and harmony and forming part of a sacred ritual blessing. The stomping of Japanese dance is in great contrast to the jumps of ballet. While an oversimplification, Japanese dance tends to emphasize our connection to the earth versus some Western styles of dance that fight to defy gravity. In the case of this kimono, the Noh actor is carrying a fan which displays finely-rendered auspicious motifs representing good luck, prosperity and longevity for the child for whom the kimono was created. The family crest motifs on the front of this kimono include the small formal one representing 'bamboo’, representing constancy and integrity, a popular family crest with warrior families. The enlarged crests include one representing 'mist’, a motif popular for scrolls but not textiles; 'cloves’ representing health, comfort and luxury; 'triple 'pestle’ representing a tool utilized in the making of rice cakes served on festive occasions and so was regarded as a felicitous motif ; 'umbrella’ representing the status of the nobility; single and triple horizontal stripes which have strong martial connotations’ 'tomoe’ representing Hachimon, god of war, possessing both religious and martial qualities; 'turnip’ having quasi-magical qualities;’ 'star’ to represent the protective war deity “Myoken”, and 'crossed sickles’, signifying cutting down ones enemies. The type of motifs on this child’s kimono suggest that the owners were a wealthy military family.