Culture, Japan, Travel

A glimpse in the life of a maiko, apprentice geisha

Maiko Kyoto Gion

A memorable moment during our recent travels through Japan, is a private dinner with a maiko in Kyoto. Maiko stands for apprentice geisha. Or, let me correct myself, apprentice geiko. The correct term used in Kyoto, geisha is Tokyo only.
The best place and time to spot these elegant and beautifully dressed young ladies, is in the historic district of Gion at the end of the day. Passing by in a cheerful hurry, on their way to an appointment. It amazes me to see how fast they walk in very small steps on their okobo platform wooden shoes.
Since there are only two hundred geiko’s and about one hundred maiko’s in Kyoto, most women you’ll see in a geisha style outfit are Asian tourists in a rental kimono. So, not to be confused with the highly educated and highly dressed maiko’s!

Maiko Geiko Gion Kyoto

Exclusive dinner with Maiko Kanohiro

I never knew it was possible for foreigners to book a private geisha dinner, but thanks to Talisman Travel Design we experienced this true essence of Japanese tradition.
‘Our’ maiko, named Kanohiro, is funny, smart and speaks pretty good English so we can have an animated conversation without asking too much help of our guide and interpreter. Kanohiro obviously enjoys our company, which is mutual. We talk about her choice to become a geiko, her kimono attire and her daily routine.
I can’t keep my eyes off her, and almost feel clumsy. Her refined good manners, her upright posture and the way she handles her chopsticks resembles a ballet performance. And that is her just talking and eating!
Between courses Kanohiro performs the historical kyomai dance in our private dining room. Almost endearing is the little portable cd player, operated by the waiter on her cue.

Maiko Gion Kimono

How does a maiko day look like?

It quickly becomes clear that sleep deprivation is her middle name, although she doesn’t complain. This really resembles top-class sport. Kanohiro lives together with other apprentices in a maiko dorm, lead by an okaasan, maiko mother. The alarm goes at seven every day and in the morning they attend several classes in dance, singing and learn how to play the shamisen instrument. They must also learn the old style Kyoto dialect and social graces.
On a busy day she might have 4 appointments of 2 hours on four different locations. A tight schedule and she will not be home before midnight. And then it takes her two hours to undress and cleanse her make-up before she tries to sleep with her perfectly coiffed head on a wooden pillow…

Maiko Gion Kyoto

Why did she choose this profession?

“Ever since my childhood when I learned about the geiko phenomena for the very first time, I instantly knew. I will become one. “

She grew up in a little village in the Southwest of Japan and performed extremely well on high school, one of the requirements. She did not tell about her plans to family nor friends and only revealed her new life after apprenticeship acceptance. When I asked the reason why she did not tell, she grinned and told us that she did not want to lose face in case of failure to attend.
Well, she did not fail and started her new life with her maiko mother at  the age of fifteen in Kyoto. Her training will take five years, all paid for by her maiko mother. Two times a year she may take a leave of absence for five days. There is no internet or iPhone in her life. But, very funny, she tipped some nice maiko Instagram accounts. Teenagers will be teenagers…

Maiko kimono gion kyoto

Is she wearing her own kimono?

No, the kimono collection belongs to the maiko mother and the average price of a kimono is approximately 1500 euros. She wears a designated kimono for about one month and then they change styles. More kimono trivia: the weight is almost 12 kilo! She is so small and fragile and when she dances is looks like her attire is weightless.
Her long sleeves, almost like scarves, fall to the floor. The ornament on her obi – 7 meter long sash around her middle – is antique as are some ornament she wears in her hair.
Speaking of hair, once a week the hairdresser does her hair and to keep it immaculate she has to sleep on the wooden pillow. Geiko’s wear expensive wigs and do not experience this discomfort during sleep.

We had an exclusive little insight in a mystic and fascinating culture. This is really the art of entertainment on the highest level, of true attention. The highly sophisticated geiko’s of Kyoto work until advanced age, the eldest geiko is even 83 years old.
Kanohiro made us feel important, her movements and words are a well-considered choice without being humble. She is a powerful and smart young lady who knows what she wants. To become the best geiko of Kyoto. Her apprenticeship is almost over and she anticipates the verdict by her maiko mother if she will be deemed good enough to become an independent geiko. We have no doubt at all.

Maiko Kyoto


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