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A young woman's first step toward becoming a geisha is to be accepted into an okiya (boarding house), a geisha house owned by the woman who will pay for her training. The proprietress of the okiya is called okā-san (the Japanese word for "mother"). The okiya normally pays all expenses, including for kimono and training. The okiya plays a large part in the life of a geiko or maiko, as the women in the okiya become her geisha family, and the okā-san manages her career in the karyūkai (flower and willow world).
Geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) live in an okiya and work in a teahouse (ochaya), where there are music, dancing, partying, sometimes food, and plenty of alcohol. A geisha pays a percentage of her earnings to maintain the house and support all the people living there who are not working geisha, including maiko (apprentice geisha), retired geisha and house maids. Kyoto is the only place where the strict geisha training continues still and the geiko traditions are handed down.
There may be more than one geisha or maiko living in an okiya at any given point. Inversely, there are houses licensed as okiya but without any geisha. Generally, a geisha who has fulfilled her financial obligations to the house may choose to live independently but will remain affiliated with the okiya for the remainder of her career. Inside the small confines of the geiko communities, it is women who wield power: everyone hopes for girl children, so that they can carry on the line of geisha. If a woman has a boy, she must move out or give him up, as it is forbidden for men to live in an okiya. For all of their focus on men when they are at work, geiko and maiko live in a matriarchal society. Women run the okiya, women teach girls the skills they need to become a full-fledged geisha, and women introduce new maiko into the teahouses that will be their livelihood. Women run the teahouses, too, and they can make or break a geisha's career. If a geisha offends the mistress of the main teahouse where she does business, she may lose her livelihood entirely.
The okā-san of the okiya may adopt one of the geisha as her daughter (musume) and heiress (atotori). Henceforth that girl will live in the okiya permanently and all the money she earns will go to that establishment and other people who help to take care of the geisha's outfits, hairstyles and accessories. Under such an arrangement, the geisha's debts are absorbed by the okiya.