What is Maiko?

The History of Maiko Culture

Maiko adds entertainment to the banquet with arts such as koto, dance, and shamisen. Most of the girls are between the ages of 15 and 20, and they belong to a store called “Okiya”, and they go to “tea houses” according to customer requests. There are several Japanese parlor rooms in a tea house, and customers can enjoy a time of entertainment while enjoying Maiko’s arts and sake / cooking.

Maiko’s roots go back to the Edo period about 300 years ago. At that time, there were thriving “Mizu-jaya” in front of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and Yasaka Shrine where travelers and visitors of shrines and temples stopped by. At first it was just serving tea and dumplings as the name says(Mizu-jaya means “water and tea shop” literally), but soon it also began to provide alcoholic beverages and dishes, so that the “tea serving girl” and “tea making girl” who work in the shop started performing dances, songs and shamisen. This was gradually systematized and became a maiko and geisha with unique customs.

Differences between Maiko and Geiko(Geisha)

“Geisha” is a word very similar to maiko. Many people may not understand the difference between the two. Actually, being a maiko is a training period for geisha, and over 5-6 years she will learn dance, shamisen, and song. After being trained enough, she can become a geisha around when they are 20. As a geisha, she still belongs to an Okiya.

In a banquet, you need two roles: “Tachikata”, who is in charge of dance, and “Jikata”, who is in charge of song and shamisen. Maiko is not well trained, so in many cases she is in charge of dance, and experienced geisha is in charge of song and shamisen. There is also a difference in clothes. Maiko is characterized by its cuteness such as a long “Darari-obi sash”, hairstyles of “Ware Shinobu” and “Ofuku”, and gorgeous kimono. Geisha, on the other hand, looks a bit more mature.

Differences between Maiko / Geiko and Oiran

Geisha/Maiko and Oiran both make customer service a living, but they are essentially different. Geisha/Maiko sold performances like song, shamisen, dancing, and talk, while Oiran sold their bodies and offered sexual services to male customers. If you explain it with a today’s word, Oiran can be described as a so-called high-class prostitutes. Geisha/Maiko did not do that with pride. You might expect geisha/maiko to be regarded as superior, but it is said in the Edo period when Yukaku flourished in Shinmachi in Osaka, Shimabara in Kyoto, and Yoshiwara in Edo, Oiran were actually superior. By the way, geisha/maiko takes their end of kimono when they walk. It shows their decision not to sell themselves since this makes difficult for anyone to take the kimono off.

Differences of the Names “Maiko”, “Geiko”, and “Geisha”

Maiko is the name only for Kagai(geisha/maiko districts) in Kyoto. In the eastern Kanto region such as Tokyo, the training period equivalent to maiko is called “Hangyoku.” In Kyoto geisha is called “Geiko” technically. The names of “Maiko” and “Geiko” is considered unique to Kyoto, even though they might be used in other areas occasionally.

Training of a Maiko Period

In the past, women who wanted to become maiko/geiko started training as early as 9 years old. At present, it is common to belong to an Okiya from around the age of 15 because you have to as old as junior high school students to start training.

As a training, you first enter a preparation period called “Shikomi”. The preparation is a period to acquire basic education to become a maiko. You must learn the Kyo-language (Kyoto dialect) regardless of your birthplace, and good manners as well as art. Also, during this period, you will have a sister geiko who will be in charge of the instruction and will take care of them like a real sister. The preparation period is about six months to one year.

Once you have a certain level of education, you will go to the banquet as an apprentice under the guidance of your sister. You can learn more about entertainment techniques and manners through this OJT. You will finally make a debut as a maiko at the show of “Misedashi”. The well-known white makeup starts here. By the way, the first year’s maiko only puts red on the lower lip (depending on the district she belongs to).

“Misedashi” of Fukuna-san
“Han-dara” (Half Darari Obi) for maiko 1 month before “Misedashi”

Of course, “Misedashi” is a start of real training as a maiko. Depending on Kagai(maiko districts) and Okiya(the house you belong to), you will have performing arts training in the morning and go to banquets in the evening. As an expert of entertainment, it is also necessary to make efforts to hone the appeal of women and become familiar with the world. Also, to prevent the hands from getting rough, you will not do water work such as cleaning, washing and washing dishes.

Life as a Geiko

This kind of training lasts for about five years and when everybody around you agree that it is “the time”, you finally become a Geiko. There is a ritual called “Eri-Kae(collar changing)”, in which the red collar of the Maiko period is exchanged for a white one. From now on, it proves you are a Geiko. As mentioned earlier, hairstyles and clothes change as training progresses, so your appearance will keep changing even as a maiko.

Special outfits just before “Eri-Kae”, like “Sakkou” hairstyle

Now you are a geisha, you are still aged only around 20. Your life flowers from now on, and you will play an active role at a variety of banquets. In addition, you have to give guidance to juniors just as you have been led by your sister. As the years go by, you will master the skill of customer service and performing arts, and you will be respected and loved by everyone.

The Number of Maiko and Geiko

When you have a Japanese parlor banquet, you will visit an “Ochaya”, and there are districts where a lot of them are gathered. They are called “Kagai” or “Hanamachi”. Currently, there are five “Kagai” in Kyoto: Gion Kobu, Miyagawacho, Pontocho, Kamishichiken, and Gion Higashi. These are collectively referred to as “Gokagai”. There is another Kagai in Kyoto called Shimabara, but here is Tayu, not Maiko.

In its peak, it is said that there were over 1,000 maiko and geiko throughout Kyoto. However, the number has been decreasing year by year, and now it is about 300 people. As the number of tourists increases, there are more opportunities for them to be called for a banquet. Kagai is trying hard to attract more for trainees and increase the number, even though quite a few give up with the training and strict rules.

For your information, most people who look like Maiko in the city of Kyoto are tourists who are experiencing “Maiko Makeover”. There are very few opportunities to see real maiko/geiko in the city, and there are not so many as the tourists might imagine.

What is in the Bag of Maiko?

When you look at the maiko costume, you will notice that she has something like a box. It is called a “Hanakago” (flower basket) or “Ozashikikago” (banquet basket) is a bag that holds what she needs in the banquet. Made of bamboo basket and drawstring, material and design of the fabric used are different according to the season.

The contents of the Hanakago are makeup tools, combs, pocket paper, towels, paper fans, socks, and namestickers, all of which are essential items for a banquet. There are shops in Kyoto that specialize in tools and goods for maiko. Of course, you can shop there and it is a good idea to take a look at those tools used by Maiko when you are in Kyoto.

How to Become a Maiko?

To become a maiko, you have to first belong to an Okiya. Okiya is like a production company in the entertainment world, and Maiko can learn arts by belonging to the Okiya. In the past, it used to be more difficult to apply. You should have a special connection and be introduced to an Okiya, for example. It is now easier, since Okiya and Kagai(maiko districts) are more and more serious about the fact that there are not enough human resources and the gate is widely open. If you want to be a maiko, you can make inquiries on the website of an Okiya. There are associations helping Kagai and they also accept inquiries and give you advice for your idea of becoming a maiko.