Onsen geisha (温泉芸者) is a term referring to Japanese geisha, or entertainers, who work in onsen (hot spring) resorts or towns. The term onsen geisha has a negative connotation in that the term has come to be synonymous with prostitute. This is due to several reasons.
In pre–World War II history, the term "onsen geisha" had a negative connotation, as geisha who lived and worked at hot spring resorts or towns were often regarded as the lowest of geisha, they were unbound by contracts and could move to any other onsen town, and thus had no "history" or professional genealogy. During this period, some onsen geisha were sponsored by businessmen who made yearly visits; these patrons were known as danna. Masuda Sayo, an onsen geisha in the late 1930s and early 1940s and author of Autobiography of a Geisha, the first book of any kind about the geisha lifestyle, wrote that a typical geisha's contract was bought out by a danna for about 30 yen (around 20,000 yen today) and never for more than 100. Interaction with other customers beyond party entertainment was common; therefore, the concept of onsen geisha as prostitutes was not entirely incorrect in pre-World War II days.
Masuda Sayo wrote that geisha in this time were taught some traditional geisha skills, but they were frequently pressured into having sex. Mizuage for onsen geisha always involved losing virginity, and geisha held onto a sense of pride amongst themselves for only having sex with their dannas. Even before debuting as full-fledged geisha, they practiced acting as sexy as possible to attract wealthier dannas, further bolstering the perception of onsen geisha as prostitutes. In addition, she wrote that many geisha had serious problems with alcohol due to the sake drinking contests they frequently participated in, which she said persisted in many geisha even after they retired.
Post-World War II
In the period following World War II, the abundance of prostitutes in onsen towns—such as Atami—who marketed themselves to tourists as "geisha" caused some misconceptions. However, true modern-day onsen geisha are accomplished dancers and musicians.
In Atami, the official registry office regards long-time, proven geisha as separate from those who have not yet completed their first year.
Geisha banquets in onsen towns are markedly different from geisha engagements in the traditional hanamachi of Kyoto and Tokyo. Whereas geisha parties in Kyoto are usually small affairs in teahouses with five or six geisha, onsen geisha usually entertain tourists in the banquet halls of large hotels, often with 60 or 70 geisha in attendance. The modern surge of tourism, expendable income, and capitalization has caused onsen geisha, who historically entertained groups similar in size to those in Kyoto and Tokyo, to increase to these large affairs.