In the early Tokugawa period, geiko ("arts child": 芸子) were dancing girls who were too young to be called geisha (accomplished person: 芸者) but too old (more than twenty years of age) to be called odoriko (dancing girl: 踊り子). Although some geiko operated as illegal prostitutes, most were entertainers, not indentured sex workers (yûjo: 遊女). Geiko was a term preferred in the Kamigata region; however, by the nineteenth century, the term geiko became synonymous with geisha.
At first, in the seventeenth century, only males were geisha. Mostly, they were taikomochi ("drum carriers"), male comics and musicians of the pleasure quarters who danced, sang, told jokes, and recounted stories, often hired to entertain at parties with courtesans, maids, and female bathhouse attendants. Their name derives from the use of taiko (small hand-drums: 鼓 also 皷) often used as they entertained. The first female geisha was reputedly the yujô Kasen of the Ôgiya ("House of the fan") brothel in Yoshiwara,, Edo, who had paid off her debts and began an entertainment business around 1761. Geiko/geisha could not marry without sacrificing their careers, although some did have children through liasons generally of their own choosing. All were adept, of course, at pampering the male ego. Many Japanese viewed geiko/geisha as "more Japanese" than nearly any other group (and still do today). Geiko were often trend setters in deportment and dress. As entertainers, they were admired for a refined eroticism and sophisticated accomplishment in music, dance, tea service, poetry, and calligraphy, gained through years of disciplined education and practice.
Portraits of geiko ("arts child": 芸子) in Kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) printmaking are among the rarities in that region's production of ukiyo-e. This is even more the case with surimono, privately issued prints for notable occasions or in response to special commissions.
Two geiko are gathering pine branches for the New Year. The practice dates back centuries, at least to the late Nara (710-794) or Heian period (794-1185). The activity is called nenohi-asobi (Day of the Rat celebration: 子の日遊), or komatsu-hiki (pulling up small pines: 小松引). It was one of the traditional events just before or at the New Year held at shrines to celebrate hatsune (first Day of the Rat: 初子), although Yoshitaki's surimono might suggest a more homespun variation for the geisha houses. Participants would go into surrounding fields and uproot pine seedlings (as well as other young greens or herbs). The pine fronds were used as traditional New Year's decorations. Wishes were also expressed for long-life (kotobuki, 寿) at these ceremonies.
Very few surimono by Yoshitaki are known. This example appears to have been issued for a haiku circle (poetry club, or ren: 連).
This impression retains excellent color and is printed in double-ôban format, making it a most impressive design. The vertical creases are due to the original presentation of the surimono, which was folded and enclosed in a wrapper.