The first step towards becoming a geisha is to be accepted into an okiya, a geisha house. The okiya will pay for the training .This female owner of the okiya is the okami or okasan. Okasan is Japanese for "mother."
On average a trainee spends about six years studying the arts of music, dance, tea ceremony, language and being a first class hostess. During this time, and sometimes throughout her career as a geisha, she lives in the okiya, which is basically a boarding house for geisha and trainees.
The okiya is a major part of a geisha's life -- the women in the okiya are her geisha family, and the okasan manages her career.
A geisha pays a percentage of her earnings to maintain the upkeep of the house and support the other people living there including trainees, retired geisha and maids.
Geisha study at a kaburenjo, a dedicated school to the training of geisha. These schools sometimes double as a theatre where geisha give their rare public performances.
During her studies, a geisha learns how to play shamisen, a three-stringed instrument. She will play the shamisen at parties and performances, usually accompanying a geisha who sings.
Musical instruments form only part of a geisha's artistic repertoire. She studies singing, traditional Japanese dance (Nihon-buyoh) and tea ceremony (sadoh), all of which she will use to entertain. She studies flower arrangement (ikebana) and calligraphy (shodoh). A geisha can specialise in any one art form, such as singing or dancing, but a successful geisha is proficient in all of them.
As well as years of learning arts the trainee must also learn to carry herself with grace and elegance She will learn the to speak in the archaic dialect of the district where she works, to walk in a kimono without stumbling and to pour sake without catching her floor length sleeves. She will learn which guests to be attend to first, how low to bow, how to attend to all manor of people with equal grace.
Many of these aspects of her training take place during the time she is a maiko, an apprentice geisha. The apprentice period starts when a trainee finds an onesan ("older sister"), a fully fledged geisha who serves as a mentor. The ceremony (san san kudo) binds them together.
This is the same ceremony that marks the "marriage" of a geisha and her danna (patron). Geisha can engage in sexual relations with a customer with whom she has developed a special relationship, but this is not a requirement of her. It is also not a one-night stand.
A geisha's relationship with a danna is a long-term one: The ceremony binding a geisha to her danna is similar to the Japanese marriage ceremony, and when a geisha and her danna decide to end their relationship, they undergo another ceremony to make the "divorce" final
Each party takes three sips from three cups of sake. On becoming maiko , the trainee takes a new name that will be her "geisha name." This name is typically derived from the name of the onesan.
The Maiko then spends several years studying from her geisha sister learning the arts she can't learn in school. The maiko will attend parties, not to entertain but to quietly observe how geisha interact with guests and how to use their skills to keep everyone happy. The older sisters job is also to intoduce a maiko into geisha society, making sure everyone knows who she is. When a maiko makes her debut as a geisha, she should already have relationships with the customers and teahouses that will be her livelihood.
The ceremony that marks the transition from maiko to geisha is called eriage, which means "changing of the collar." At this time, the maiko exchanges her red, patterned collar for a solid white one, a symbol of her debut as a geisha. Now she officially starts entertaining.