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A Okiya or Geisha House

An okiya, or lodging house, is where a maiko or geisha lives as she fulfills her nenki, the Japanese word for a geisha's contract with the particular okiya.

The first step in becoming a geisha is to be accepted into an okiya, which may or may not be hard depending on the young woman's connections with the house. An okiya is owned by the woman who will pay for all her needs, kimono, makeup, the cost of class training, and amongst other things,. The okiya owner is called okā-san ('mother' in Japanese). This okiya will play a huge part in the young woman's life as she trains to become a successful Geisha, first becoming a maiko, and also as the women in the okiya become her family and as the okā-san manages her career in the karyūkai (flower and willow world).


Japanese painting of a Geisha Okiya.

When the young woman moves into the okiya as a resident, she can be adopted as the okā-san's atotori (heiress), and she becomes her adoptive daughter from then on. As the atotori, she will live in the okiya permanently, all of her debts will be absorbed by the house, and her income will directly fund the household and all of its workers.

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A Geisha stepping out of her Okiya.

Maiko and geisha (or "geiko" in the Kyoto dialect) live in the okiya, a maiko must be obedient and work her way up by doing all she is told and honoring the rules of the Okiya. She will learn from their older sisters (other geisha) and the geisha attend events held at ochayas (teahouses), where they dance traditional dances, sing, and entertain their guests. It is not unlikely for there to be food or alchohol, but that is not always the case, especially for business meetings or professional events. A percentage of the earnings will go to maintaining the household and supporting the people who live there, that includes the retired geisha, maids, and the maiko. A licensed okiya does not always have geisha living there, but at the same time, another okiya may have more than one working geisha or maiko living there. A geisha who has fulfilled her nenki can choose to live independently, but will always have a relationship will the okiya, business-wise or personally.


Inside an Okiya

In the karyūkai, it is a predominantly female society in itself, the people there hold female children higher than male children as only females may carry on the traditions of a geisha. And as it is forbidden for men to live in an okiya, if a woman has a male child she must either move out or give him to a family member or up for adoption.

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Real Geishas inside an Okiya.

The karyūkai is a society which needs cooperation from people to run successfully. Women run it, they work in it, they live in it; it is their livelihood, and years ago it saved many from the toxic lifestyle of prostitution. And although geisha do have many male clients, women patronize them as well, it is an outdated idea that geisha only serve male clients and that they are prostitutes; they are not like oiran. It is a society which has lived for many years, but has seen a decline in recent years.

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