Geishas and maikos

The world pandemic made us stay in Japan, thus maybe it is also just a perfect time to learn a bit more of the Japanese culture.

In the first weeks we are staying around the Kansai region. We arrived here a week earlier than the cherry blossom, so got plenty of time to find the cheapest food options and the nicest cherry trees. The strolls on the empty streets took us to old Kyoto where we noticed a sign in a street – no pictures?

Don't bother the geishas!
No pictures.

The Japanese girls whom we asked about this later didn’t know which street we are talking about, but a European guy who lives in Kyoto immediately knew what did we see exactly. It turned out that this district is the place where young girls, under the age of 20 are learning the practices and secrets of becoming a geisha. This explains the sign – the city (and the okā-san) definitely doesn’t want the girls to be bothered. This sign is a pretty new addition, it has been put on the columns in November 2019, because some people wanted pictures with the girls in a too harsh way.

Even if many girls are wandering around in kimonos all around Kyoto (and also around this part of the city), we have been told that we shouldn’t confuse them with the real geishas and the geisha-in-trainings, these are just girls ready for the photoshoot for the Instagram profile. The experienced eye can tell the difference, but unfortunately, we cannot.

However, we managed to learn quite some interesting facts about their training and future life. First of all, the geishas are freelancers and due to this, their fame and networking skills are pretty important when they are young. They can start their training at the age of 15 and they finish at the age of 20 – if they start later, they still need to finish at 20, so it is in their best interest to start it on time. The earlier the oka-san starts their education, the more people the girls get to know, the more will hear about their talents and the more will invite them for the evening entertainments later.

The already mentioned oka-san, the mother is a former geisha, pledged to teach the new generation which costs them 500 000 USD per student. This however does not only include the accommodation and board, but all the twenty-something kimonos and the impeccable hairstyle. (While the geishas are wearing wigs, the students are using their own hair to create different nihongamis, ornated with kanzashi. In order to not to destroy their hair, their beauty sleep must be done on a takamakura (wooden block with a pillow). Ouch.

Girls sleeping on takamakura, so their nikongami (hairstyle) is not getting ruined

The apprentices are working from the early months of the training, this is how they gain reputation and future clients and this is how they pay back their teacher as well.

The place where they entertain is called the ochaya (tea house), while the place where they live is okiya. In Kyoto they live in a small quartier, so the name of the maikos can be found on a small wooden plate over the door of their house, so once their reputation precedes them, they can be easily found just by walking around in the quartier. Should you want to hire them, just knock on the door! (However, as a gaijin, your chances are pretty dim.)

17 meikos learning to be a geisha here
17 wooden plates, 17 maikos in training. If the logo is fading above their name, it means that they are studying there for years.

The girls are having very little free time, they spend the whole day in training and they work during the evenings – they dance, sing, play the shamisen (three stringed musical instrument) and serve visitors with tea or sake at the ochaya.

The Spanish guy taught us a great drinking game, the Konpira Fune Fune played by the maikos and their guests, while the geisha is accompanying them on the shamisen. Enjoy the video below where Luca plays (?) the guest after quite some sake!

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