December 16, 2004
where maiko & geisha live & perform
by YONEO Kazumi
Maiko and geisha are the living image of Kyoto. Even Hollywood films featuring them in leading roles are being produced, so these colorful, kimono-clad figures will continue to draw attention from all over the world.
Maiko, which literally means “dancing girl,” are apprentice geisha, and geiko are fully fledged geisha. These cultured women live as boarders in hanamachi — literally, “flower towns,” which are special districts where maiko and geiko practice and perform their dancing and other traditional arts. Kyoto has five hanamachi: Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Pontocho, Kamishichiken, and Miyagawa-cho.
To become a maiko, a girl graduating from junior high school at age 15 gets an introduction through an acquaintance who has a relationship with a geisha house, known as an o-chaya (or okiya) In other words, she starts to train when her compulsory education finishes. In an interview with the applicant, the o-chaya’s head lady, or okami, explains what the challenging work will involve, such as years of training and strict rules, and if the girl still wishes to become a maiko she leaves the parental roof and begins to live in the hanamachi. She will begin her apprenticeship by doing the chores of her house and by learning Kyoto dialect for about 11 months. Every day she also practices Japanese dance, the shamisen (a stringed instrument), tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy and Japanese poetry, in addition to learning about kimono.
When 11 months have passed, the okami decides the time of the girl’s debut as a maiko.Now, one of the geisha living under the same roof will become her oneesan — an elder sister who teaches her all of the manners in the parlor, the special etiquette and social graces of the geisha’s world. She will also get a new name. When being given new names, maiko usually receive one Chinese character from the oneesan’s name. For example, if the oneesan’s name is 豆千代, the new maiko’s name will be 豆花. You can see from this how very deep their relationship will be.
When four or five years of intensive training have passed, the young woman graduates from the maiko class and becomes a geiko. This event is called erikae. Eri means collar, and erikae means to change the color of her collar, because while a maiko wears a red-collared kimono, a geiko wears a white one. After she becomes a geiko, the woman will also begin wearing a wig instead of making a Japanese coiffure with her real hair. Lucky for her, she can now shampoo every day without any hesitation!
There must be many people living in or visiting Kyoto who would like to meet maiko and geiko. In the hanamachi, however, there is a traditional system for handling customers which is called ichigen san okotowari, in which customers who visit for the first time with no introduction from a regular client are refused service. It’s the most famous system of hanamachi and although it may sound cold or mean, the o-chaya do this for good reasons: first, because they will ask customers to pay their bills one month later by sending someone to the customer’s house; and secondly, because an o-chaya has to know their customers’ preferences to provide them with a truly warm welcome. So, ichigen san okotowari is a good system in the hanamachi.
To tell the truth, however, there is also a method of meeting the maiko and the geisha even if you know no acquaintance who can vouch for you in the hanamachi. The maiko and geiko hold a lot of events throughout the year, and there are some in which even the general public can participate. These are where their dances can be seen. In April, the Miyako-odori (known in English as the “Cherry Blossom Dance”) is held in Gion from April 1st to 30th. The Kyo-odori is held in Miyagawa-cho from the first through the third Sunday in April. The Kitano-odori is performed in Kamishichiken from April 15th to 25th. In May, the Kamogawa-odori is held in Pontocho from May 1st to 24th. In the autumn, the Gion-odori can be enjoyed in Gion Higashi from November 1st to 10th. Details are available by clicking on this link to the Kyoto City Tourists’ Association’s “Event Web Magazine”: http://www.kyotojoho.co.jp/english/index.html#
If you come to Kyoto on a day when none of the above events are scheduled, please wait in front of Ichiriki, the most famous o-chaya in Gion, between 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. You’ll find it on the corner of Shijo and Hanamikoji streets. During this hour you surely can see maiko and geiko entering Ichiriki. Of course, you cannot talk to them even if you try, because they are going to work. However, you will be unable to take your eyes off of them, because their appearances and the way they walk are very beautiful and elegant.
One last tip: If you are a woman, Kyoto’s Higashiyama area has a lot of shops that can offer you the service of dressing and making you up to transform you into a “maiko” or “geisha” (at least in appearance!) for a day. The price is about 10,000 yen. How about adding this experience to the fond memories of your trip to Kyoto?