When you talk to people in the West about Japan, the subject of Japanese geisha comes up sooner of later. These women and their mystique are a perennial favorite for many; yet the first thing foreigners must know is that Japanese geisha is not synonymous for "prostitute" in Japanese traditional society.
Many people outside of Japan believe that geisha are high-class call girls who sleep with old Japanese men for big money. There is also the book "Memoirs of a Geisha" which has influences many people's attitudes.
To understood geisha properly, you must understand them first as artists and preservers of Japanese traditional culture, and pretty girls with expert social skills second.
Japanese women enter Japanese geisha houses (now almost exclusively in the city of Kyoto) when they are young, and undergo rigorous training in dance, music, Japanese etiquette and the Japanese tea ceremony all under the supervision of strict teachers. Think of the young women who train to be Olympic gold medalists and you get the idea of the kind of life they lead - glamorous by no means!
Geisha (or maiko as they're known in the early stages of training) in their expensive Japanese kimono are primarily entertainers hired by groups of men who are, for example, meeting at a fine hotel or restaurant for business. During the course of the night, geisha will play the shamisen or koto (traditional stringed instruments) perform a highly stylized traditional dance in traditional Japanese makeup and then socialize by serving the men drinks, discussing the issues of the day with them and generally paying them lots of attention.
And when it comes to chit-chat, Japanese geisha are expected to be excellent conversationalists on a whole range of topics, everything from politics to travel. They are indeed not just pretty faces, but accomplished women who can hold their own with some of the most successful and distinguished men in Japanese society.
It's fair to say that they men who hire geisha enjoy both the Japanese traditional arts, as well as the company of attractive ladies wearing beautiful kimono.
And if you think the mystique and allure of the geisha has disappeared in Japan - think again. When a fully-clad geisha with Japanese makeup steps from a taxi at dusk to be whisked into an expensive Kyoto restaurant for a performance: you'll see modern-day Japanese yelp, scream and take pictures as if Marilyn Monroe herself had just strolled across the street.
Here is a fine site on Japanese geisha.