April 16, 2007
by Tomoyo Sawada
Legendary since medieval times, Gion is a district still known as one of the traditional and cultural places in Japan. Located in the eastern part of Kyoto city, this area has a special social system consisting of three parts: okiya (geiko house), ochaya (tea house), and shidashiya (exclusive Japanese restaurant). Many people, especially men, want to visit Gion, a neighborhood also known as a hanamachi, once in their lifetime to see the beautiful maiko and geiko working there.
What are maiko and geiko?
A maiko is a woman who works to entertain guests by dancing, playing music, serving sake, or having conversations with them. While there are a lot of people engaged in traditional jobs in Japan, maiko is one of the most famous and traditional. They usually wear a Japanese traditional kimono. They also perform traditional dances and speak traditional Kyoto dialect. Maiko are apprentice geiko and practice hard to become professional entertainers.
Geiko has the same meaning as geisha (professional entertainer), but it is the local term in Kyoto dialect. Geiko perform, at a high level, various Japanese arts, such as playing classical music on the shamisen (a three-stringed instrument), reciting poetry, and performing odori (dances). They are highly skilled at entertaining guests. Both maiko and geiko convey to us Japanese traditions.
How does one become a Geiko?
To become a geiko, a woman has to do strict tasks for several years. There are several steps, shown below.
Shikomi are at the first stage of training. They stay in an okiya or geiko house with other senior geiko for years. Senior geiko are called “onee-san” (literally, “elder sister” in Japanese). When girls first arrive at the okiya, they will be trained in various household chores like cleaning inside and outside of the house. The most recent arrivals wait up until the senior geiko return home, and they follow orders strictly. Every morning, they practice how to make a cup of powdered green tea. They learn a lot of things at their new home. Shikomi also go to classes in the hanamachi’s geiko school. They study Japanese traditional dance to pass a final dance exam.
Once shikomi pass, they are promoted to the second stage of training, and are called minarai. Minarai do not have to do housekeeping. For a month they concentrate on training out “in the field.” Wearing elaborate kimonos, they attend parties and sometimes ozashiki (banquets). Minarai work closely with a particular tea house, called minarai-jaya. Through practice, and with guidance from the oka-san (proprietor of the house), they have to learn special conversational and game-playing skills. These skills are not formally taught in geiko school.
Next they begin their third stage of training and are called maiko. Maiko learn directly from their senior geiko, accompanying them to all their engagements. Onee-san, senior geiko teach imoto-san, their juniors, everything about working in the “floating world.” They teach, for example, the serving of tea, the playing of shamisen, dancing, and casual talk with guests. These kinds of practices are vital for imoto-san to learn if they are to be in demand at social gatherings.
Passing four or five years as maiko, they at last have a special ceremony called erigae (literally, “the changing of one’s collar”) In this ceremony, maiko are permitted to be geiko. Even after they became geiko, the women contiue to study playing traditional instruments, drums, songs, dance, tea ceremony, literature and poetry.
It is not too much to say that geiko are one of the persons who pass on the torch of traditional culture. They mostly work at tea houses or ozashiki banquets at night. Although you may want to go there, it is very expensive. It may cost you about thirty thousand yen or more. To make matters worse, only people who are familiar with the professionals in hanamachi can go to a tea house or ozashiki. This is kind of traditional custom. However, there are some events where you can affordably enjoy watching and talking with maiko and geiko. Four types of recommendations are shown below.
The first is at a public event. From March through November, we can appreciate a maiko’s dance at Gion Corner (the Kyoto Traditional Culture and Art Museum) every day. From December through February, we can enjoy it on weekends as well.
The second involves using a plan at particular hotels and exclusive restaurants. Some famous hotels hold events with maiko and geiko or offer maiko and geiko if we apply for them when we make a reservation. We can enjoy talking with them or taking a picture with them.
Third is a beer garden at Kamishichiken, which is not in Gion but another geisha district a few kilometers to the northwest. Nowadays, this beer garden is becoming famous in Japan through the mass media. It is held seasonally from the beginning of July through the end of August. A feature in this event was that people can enjoy talking with maiko and geiko while drinking beer without constraint.
The fourth and last opportunity is the ochaya-bar. It is a type of bar but contains a tea house. Although it is not a real tea house or ozashiki, we can enjoy watching maiko dance while dining on tea-ceremony dishes at a reasonable price.
These events are less expensive, and the general public can go and have a good time with maiko and geiko. Gion and Kyoto always welcome you.