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Geisha (pronounced /ˈɡeɪʃә/), like all Japanese nouns, has no distinct singular or plural variants. The word consists of two kanji, 芸 (gei) meaning "art" and 者 (sha) meaning "person" or "doer". The most literal translation of geisha into English would be "artist" or "performing artist". Another name for geisha used in Japan is geiko, which is usually used to refer to geisha from Western Japan, including Kyoto.
Apprentice geisha are called maiko (舞子 or 舞妓, literally "dance child") or hangyoku (半玉), "half-jewel" (meaning that they are paid half the wage as opposed to a full geisha), or by the more generic term o-shaku (御酌), literally "one who pours (alcohol)". Maikos' white make-up and elaborate kimono and hairstyle is the popular image held of geisha. A woman entering the geisha community does not have to start out as a maiko, having the opportunity to begin her career as a full geisha. Either way, however, usually a year's training is involved before debuting either as a maiko or as a geisha. A woman above 21 is considered too old to be a maiko and becomes a full geisha upon her initiation into the geisha community. However, those who do go through the maiko stage can enjoy more prestige later in their professional lives.Tokyo geisha are more likely to start at 18 years old for hangyoku, so on average, Tokyo hangyoku are slightly older than their Kyoto counterparts.
Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi(花街 "flower towns"), particularly during their apprenticeship. Many experienced geisha are successful enough to choose to live independently. The elegant, high-culture world that geisha are a part of is called karyūkai (花柳界 "the flower and willow world").
Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing middle school, junior high school, or even high school, or college. Many women begin their careers in adulthood. Geisha still study traditional instruments: the shamisen,shakuhachi, and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dances, tea ceremony, literature, and poetry. Women dancers drawing their art from butō (a classical Japanese dance) were trained by the Hanayagi school, whose top dancers performed internationally. Ichinohe Sachiko choreographed and performed traditional dances in Heian court costumes, characterized by the slow, formal, and elegant motions of this classical age of Japanese culture in which geisha are trained.
By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled dealing with clients and in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, a floor length silk robe embroidered with intricate designs which is held together by a sash at the waist.
Kyoto is considered by many to be where the geisha tradition is the strongest today, including Gion Kobu. The geisha in these districts are known as geiko. The Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also well known.
In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today, there are far fewer. The exact number is unknown to outsiders and is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000, mostly in the resort town of Atami. Most common are sightings of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.
A sluggish economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the exclusive nature of the flower and willow world, and the expense of being entertained by geisha have all contributed to the tradition's decline.
Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (茶屋, Chashitsu|ochaya) or at traditional Japanese restaurants (ryōtei) . Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn and is called senkōdai (線香代, "incense stick fee") or gyokudai (玉代 "jewel fee"). In Kyoto, the terms ohana (お花) and hanadai (花代), meaning "flower fees", are preferred. The customer makes arrangements through the geisha union office (検番 kenban), which keeps each geisha's schedule and makes her appointments both for entertaining and for training.In 2007, the first Caucasian geisha debuted under the name of "Sayuki", in the Asakusa district of Tokyo