Training to become a geisha takes as long as it does to become a doctor, but for Koaki, an 18-year-old maiko (trainee geisha) from Kyoto, she can’t imagine doing anything else. Koaki (her performance name) is one of a growing number of young women in Japan who are making the choice to return to the highly regarded traditional art form as her livelihood. Prior to World War II, there were about 80,000 geisha, but that dwindled in the decades that followed to just a few hundred. However, in the past decade, it’s said to be slowly rising as a new generation reconnects with their culture.
Two maiko make their way to a performance in Gion district, Kyoto
A pause between performances at Kenninji Temple in Kyoto
Life as a geisha
Quite simply, a geisha (also referred to as geiko in Kyoto) and maiko, are highly-skilled traditional performers. This art form has evolved over the centuries, and given the time in training, it’s not surprising they are accomplished musicians, dancers and conversationalists. You can distinguish the two because maiko wear colorful kimono with long sleeves and extravagant hairpins, while geisha wear plain kimonos with shorter sleeves.
Kyoto is known as the heart of geisha culture in Japan, where there are five hanamachi (geisha districts), the largest being Gion and it’s rare to see a geisha or maiko outside of these districts. The most traditional way to see them perform is in ochyaya (teahouses), where you are also served Kyo-kaiseki (traditional, seasonal Kyoto cuisine) and sake, and you need to book via a tour, as they only perform on customer request.
However, if you go to any of the five key geisha districts in the peak tourist seasons of spring (March/April/May) and fall (October/November), you are likely to catch a glimpse of them on the streets of Kyoto as they rush to an appointment.
A maiko in yukata in old town Kyoto, Japan
From the mouth of a maiko
Koaki performs at Kaden teahouse in the Gion District. Her dance is specific to Kyoto and differs depending on the season. When we meet, she is wearing a traditional kimono designed 200 years ago. Her black hair is pulled back in the wareshinobu style, with two wings and a bun in the front. She wears layers of snow-white makeup and scarlet lipstick. Koaki says she decided to be a maiko after encouragement from her mother. “My mother was a great fan of maiko, and she wanted me to do it. It will be a long task, but I don’t think it’s very tough.” She says, laughing.
Although, that’s debatable. It takes up to six hours a day to hone her craft and the preparation alone is a lengthy one. Close to one hour to put her make-up on, and dressing in the customary kimono is a job that requires assistance.
Maiko ‘Koaki’ says it’s a privilege to share her culture with international travelers
“It is very important that international customers understand the dance… and when they do that, that makes me very happy.”
For Koaki, while she still has another five years to become a geisha, she is enjoying the experience and says it offers much for both her culture and for her personally.
“I am very happy to do this. I think it is a great way to ensure we keep the culture alive, and it broadens my mind to other cultures too.”
I ask if she has any advice for international travelers to make the most out of the experience.
“It is very important that international customers understand what the dance is, and see that it’s specific to Kyoto and the season, and when they do that, that makes me very happy.”