The very first step in becoming a geisha is to be legally accepted into an okiya, which may or may not be hard depending on the young woman's connections with the house. Most girls who come to live at an Okiya must be around the tender ages of 15 to 20 years old, for it is better for a geisha to begin her training at a young age as geisha etiquette takes a lifetime to perfect. So the younger a geisha begins her apprenticeship and artistry, the better.
An okiya will pay for all of the things a trainee needs: kimono, makeup, trips to the hair salon, the cost of class training, and amongst all the other expenses that goes with the karyūkai (Flower and Willow World) lifestyle. In the old days, girls would be sold to the geisha houses as young as 5 and six years old. Bought like prime pieces of meat, they would become the legal property of their geisha mother. Shackled in debt for their training, elegant Kimono and board and lodgings, these delicate flowers were virtual prisoners. Nowadays a geisha is no longer forced into becoming one by circumstance, but willingly goes into the job by choice.
All okiyas are owned by women who are called the okā-san ('mother' in Japanese). The okā-san takes the trainee under her wing and acts as a second mother to her. This bond will play a huge part in the trainee's life as she trains to become a successful geisha, first becoming a maiko. The other women also living in the okiya become her sisters and the okā-san manages all of their careers.
When the young woman moves into the okiya as a resident, she can be legally 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. When the okāsan dies, she will inherit the Okiya and become the new mother or successor.
When a new geisha recruit (or "geiko" in the Kyoto dialect) arrives at the okiya, she is called a maiko and must be obedient and work her way up by doing all she is told and honoring her senior sisters and respecting the rules of the house. She will also be introduced to others who live in the Hanamachi (Flower Town) and will meet other important residence within the local geisha community, such as dance and music teachers, other working geishas and the owners of the local ochayas (Teahouses) where geishas work and perform in. This usually happens before her formal debut ceremony. The geisha community is sometimes the closes a geisha will ever get to having a family.
The okā-san also provides hot meals and clothes for the residents of the okiya. 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.
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. This is also why most geisha never marry.
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 very secretive society that has existed for over 400 years. This is due to the geisha code of silence which is rarely (if ever) broken.