The word Geisha is composed by two kanji 芸妓. The first one means arts and the second one means person.
Literally, it could be translated as, artist or person who devotes her life to arts and entertainment.
It is believed that Geisha rose from one of the most ancient job in Japan, servants, around the year 600, young girls, known as saburuko (serving girls) used to pours sake and entertain the customers. Time passed and Japanese society refined very much their cultural taste. Elite and samurai were the main classes that appreciated artistic performances. So, they collaborated to improve and turn those performances more and more sophisticated. By the VIII century, the Saburuko had spitted in two groups, one originated the most popular artists, the Oiran; and the other originated tayuu.
Oiran offered more than artistic performances, they got famous for their erotic dances and for being allowed to have intimate relationship their clients. Otherwise, Tayyu were not and their skills were restricted to dance, playing instruments, singing, pouring the drinks and chat (very close to actual Geisha).
During the same time, male artists, who used to do a parody of Oiran, were also very popular and known as Geisha. This male Geisha gave a rise to the current kabuki theater. Moreover, it was only in XVIII century that female artists used to call themselves Geisha. Then the word popularized as a synonym of talent, success, and sophistication, consequently many women wanted to be Geisha.
After the war, a lot of things changed in Japan, and it is believed that the variety opportunity of jobs was the main cause of declining of Geisha in the whole country. Although, the interest for become a Geisha has decreased significantly in modern Japan, few girls still dream about it. For this purpose, they prefer to go to Okiya (house/school for Geisha course) in Kyoto. But there also similar places in other cities. They study hard for at least 3 years to learn music, dance, calligraphy, traditional games, tea ceremony, to play instrument (most likely Shamisen), to talk about everything, how to sit and stand, good manners and even how to smile. For some Japanese, Gueixas have the highest level of politeness and they aren`t seeing as common people, but as “alive flower arrangement”.
If you come to Kyoto you may have a chance to watch Maiko performance for free, as long as you have a meal in Ganko restaurant. Only one of the branches of this restaurant, located in Nijo street, offers a brief performance of Maiko. Every month they will come once a week, maybe at lunch or dinner time. Please check it out restaurant schedule and make your reservation. One of the good points about seeing them at Ganko is that pictures and conversation with Maiko are allowed.