Rare Animated Stereoviews of Geishas in the 1800s

Five geishas stop to smell the flowers.

Geishas are said to live in an alternate reality known as karyūkai, or the “flower and willow world.” It is a parallel domain, far from the banalities of everyday life, filled with beauty, art, music, and dancing. On the surface, this was the world of the geisha during their golden age, the Meiji era, which extended from 1868 to 1912. From the pouring of tea to the making of conversation, everything a geisha does is elevated to an art form.

A bridge over peaceful waters in Hikone Park

During this “golden age”, another quite different visual art form was also flourishing. The stereoscope was invented in 1838 by English scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone, and it was later improved upon by French inventor Jules Duboscq. The stereoscope produced images that appeared 3D when looked at through a double-lensed viewer – so think of it as a precursor to modern 3D movies.

Framed by lilies, this geisha looks so sweet and innocent.

The two disparate art forms, geisha and stereoscopy, collided when Japanese photographer Nobukuni Enami (known as T. Enami) began taking pictures of 19th-century Japan. Enami was one of his country’s most successful photographers, and his images have appeared in millions of bestselling books and magazines.

Featured here is a selection of his fantastic hand-colored geisha stereo views, which offer us a glimpse of a world that, even during the Meiji period, was mysterious and exclusive.


Geishas relax by the water’s edge in 1898.

Because it’s unlikely that you’ve got your own vintage stereoscopic viewer lying around, many of these images are animated GIFS that photographer Guy Thiophene has created to give you an idea of what they would have looked like in 3D. Thiophene converted the images into GIFS from stereo images found in the extensive collection of Rob Oechsle (known on Flickr as Okinawa Soba), who has been collecting the photographs since 1973.


Delicately perched on the edge

In this scene, a geisha in a lovely pink-colored kimono pours water into the hands of another geisha wearing an orange obi.

Geisha costumes are as costly as they are elaborate. Made largely from embroidered silk, the hikizuri, as geisha kimonos are known, can weigh as much as 44 pounds. Meanwhile, the obi, which keeps the garment together, is over 20 feet long and can be tied in different ways, depending on factors like age and where the geisha is from. Getting dressed in the morning is not something to be attempted on your own!

Another look at the tranquil grounds of Hikone Park

The smaller girls – on the bridge and in the right of the picture – are most likely apprentice geishas, known as a maikos.

Traditionally, maikos began training at ages as young as six years old, although now they finish school and are in their middle to late teens before training begins. While the maikos train, the geisha houses – or okiyas – to which they belong support and pay for their apprenticeships, which are expensive. Eventually, however, they pay their okiyas back through their earnings as geishas.


Don’t feed the ducks…

In this picture, two geishas in lovely floral patterned obis stop to admire the ducks. As in all the photographs in this set, the coloring is subtle and delicate.

“The process of hand coloring was very time consuming,” says Oechsle, who adds that it was “done under a magnifying glass using thin brushes – some as thin as a single hair. Enami’s stereoviews were by far the best in all of Asia, having the highest production values, and the greatest care for the ‘stereo window’ that correctly framed each print.”

Two men pull a convoy of young maikos.

Here, four maikos in rickshaws are pulled past an old Japanese inn called a ryokan.

Apprentice geishas like these were and are bonded with older geishas, who act as their mentors. From these mentors, the younger women learn important skills, such as the tea ceremony, making conversation, playing games, and dancing. Maikos also follow the geishas to parties and banquets so that they can learn by observation. This lasts until they become fully-fledged geishas themselves.


Geisha band practice in Meiji era Japan, circa 1898

Learning how to play a musical instrument is an important part of a maiko’s training. The traditional instrument is a triple-stringed lute known as a shamisen. The shamisen were (and still are) available with two different coverings: dog skin or the more expensive cat skin. Apparently, on your better quality shamisens, the cat nipples can still be seen. More recently, plastic has been used as a covering, as well. The pegs were originally made from ivory, but these days, plastic or wooden pegs are more common.

Incidentally, regarding this image, Rob Oechsle points out that “the bowl of sushi on the floor had to be microscopically colored by hand – twice – to near perfection, in order to merge into 3D deliciousness in the stereoscope.” Yet more artistry at which to marvel.

Even reading was done with style and poise

Here, a geisha sits beneath a round window reading a love letter. It’s a beautiful picture full of tiny details, such as the calligraphy on the letter, the silver tea service, and the butterfly pin in the geisha’s hair. According to Oechsle, it was also a difficult photograph to take without either overexposing the bright window portion or underexposing the darker interior. “With no light meter, and only a feel for the speed of the glass negative, I think he [T. Enami] did a nice job pulling it off, while preserving the mood,” he says. We’d have to agree.


The picturesque trees and rocks of Hikone Park frame this photo beautifully.

Next, geishas and a maiko approach a monument or building under the trees in Hikone Park. You can just make out the white socks and sandals of the geisha standing on the steps in the foreground.

While outdoors, geishas wear flat sandals called zōri. Inside, however, they only wear the socks, which are often a size too small to make their feet look daintier. Maikos, meanwhile, wear six- to ten-inch high wooden clogs called okobo, which keep their long kimonos from getting dirty on the ground.

More picturesque posing in Hikone Park

Here, two geishas enjoy a day in Hikone Park, near Kyoto.

As suggested, the Meiji era was a flourishing age for the geisha. They were seen as fashion icons, and women around the country tried to imitate their style.

Nowadays, there is controversy about whether being a geisha during this period was enslaving or empowering for women. At the time, however, it was one of the very few ways in which women could run their own businesses and enjoy relative freedom in their lives.


Balance, grace and composure

And here, two maikos greet each other at the gate of Hikone Park, offering us a look at those spectacularly high sandals.

The costume and make-up of the geishas, and the maikos in particular, are designed to reflect the ideals of Japanese beauty – dark hair and fair skin.

Enami and his geisha models couldn’t get enough of Hikone Park (1898).

This is the only un-colored photo in this article, but it’s such a great image that we thought we’d include it anyway. Three geishas and one small maiko stand around a lake in Hikona Park, their images reflected in the still waters. The water in this photograph has such a beautiful silvery quality that it almost seems like you could reach out and dip your toes in it – which is pretty amazing for a 100-year-old photo.


It’s hard work being this beautiful.

Today, there are still geishas keeping the tradition alive in certain districts of Japan, but their numbers are much smaller. Many of the old customs have also been adapted to modern times – for example, maikos may begin training at a much later age. The fascination with geishas, their costumes and their lifestyles continues, however, and thanks to collections like Rob Oechsle’s, we can look back at their heyday, over a century ago.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16