Tourism, Traditional & Culture

Is She a Geisha, Maiko, or Geiko? | Meet the Maiko of Kyoto

Maiko, geisha, or even geiko – these artisans have long been a part of preserving Japan’s traditional arts, and you can still meet them in Kyoto!

What Makes a Maiko a Maiko? A Geiko a Geiko? And Neither a Geisha?

Artisans, performers, entertainers, and more – movies and other media have been touching on the subject of “geisha” for years without showing the truth of this highly skilled Japanese profession. In Kyoto, a maiko generally begins her apprenticeship at the age of 15, after graduating from middle school. These new maiko will then move into an “okiya” to learn from their “older sisters,” and their training includes a wide range of traditional Japanese arts. Over the years a maiko will learn the steps to elegant dances, old-fashioned games, and the complicated Japanese tea ceremony. They take up the shamisen, train their singing voices, and learn to play a variety of Japanese instruments to accompany others. They also learn how to act like a proper professional: standing, sitting, walking, pouring drinks, and of course, speaking the Kyoto dialect. After four or five years, around the age of 20, a maiko will finally debut as a fully-fledged geiko, officially received as a professional artisan.

So when do they become a geisha? Well, in Kyoto, they don’t! When this profession was more common in other parts of Japan, other regions used the term “geisha” instead of “geiko.” But Kyoto sticks with either maiko or geiko throughout the artist’s career! In Japanese, “gei-sha” means “

Wondering about the risque part of the job? It doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, pop culture has not always treated maiko and geiko with respect (or devoted any amount of time to real research), but these women are artists who specialize in traditional culture. History can be murky, but modern-day maiko busy themselves with traditional performances and polished hospitality. If you want to learn about Japan’s classiest courtesans, you might want to look up the Wikipedia page for oiran instead.

Ready to finally meet a maiko or geiko? Well, first let’s learn how to tell them apart! With a little observation, maiko and geiko can actually be differentiated by their clothing and hairstyles. Maiko outfits tend to be brighter than the kimono worn by geiko, with striking patterns, longer sleeves, and longer obis around their waists. They get to wear much flashier kanzashi hair decorations too. Maiko and geiko both style their hair in very specific shapes, and for a maiko, that means setting their own hair once a week – the exact style varies depending on how long they’ve been in training. Geiko, on the other hand, get to wear wigs already styled in a hairstyle called the “taka-shimada.” Wearing a heavy wig might not seem like much of a privilege, but since it means that the wearer can take off the wig and sleep on a normal pillow without mussing their perfect hairstyle, it makes life a little easier for the geiko!

Lunch with Kyoto’s Maiko

Maiko and geiko will occasionally be hired for small get-togethers, and tour companies can sometimes arrange events with maiko just for tourists, but they’re most commonly seen at upscale banquets in Kyoto. And that’s exactly where the Japankuru team met these elegant entertainers, while joining in on a rather fancy meal at Saami, a traditional restaurant hidden away in the park next to Kyoto’s famous Gion neighborhood. Saami has not only been operating for over 160 years, but it’s also located inside a building originally constructed in 1615, giving it the kind of old-fashioned atmosphere where you’d hope to find a maiko around every corner.

Watching the maiko and geiko at work during the meal at Saami, the first thing that was apparent was their consummate professionalism. One member of the Japankuru team commented on how they were a little like flight attendants in first class – pouring drinks, engaging in comfortable small talk, and moving where they were needed with practiced grace. Their eyes scanned diners’ trays for drinks nearing empty, ensuring that guests’ needs were met before they even thought to ask. The stereotypical image of a geisha doesn’t usually include a very bubble personality, but the warm smiles of these Kyoto maiko and geiko were clear to see, even with masks covering their faces as a covid safety precaution.

Hiring a maiko for your get-together doesn’t necessarily mean that they will sing and dance, since an additional fee is sometimes required, but it’s a price worth paying. Each traditional performance is like a scene from a movie, happening before your very eyes. If you have any interest in Japanese dances, or are curious about the unique sound of a traditional Japanese ballad, these skilled artists have each spent years perfecting their performance skills, and these masters of their craft offer an ideal way to enjoy Japanese culture.

Meeting the maiko and geiko of Kyoto is an experience like none other, from the unerring hospitality provided by these symbols of Kyoto culture, to the beautiful kimono that each of them wears like an artisan’s uniform. And that’s not to mention their fabulous performances, which create a world of Japanese tradition and open the door for audiences to enter. An opportunity to meet these artisans in Kyoto should not be missed – and if you get the chance, don’t forget to ask them for their business cards, too!

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