Geisha

‘Geisha’ Header Design
The white background in the first header for the site is from a photo I took of the back and neck of a maiko with her deep plunging traditional red kimono collar. Maiko are young apprentice entertainers incorrectly called geisha by westerners (and many Japanese).

[Oops, I have changed the header graphic already. Later I will add that photo or similar ones to this post so there are visual references for the text.]

This maiko was entering Japan’s most historically significant Kabuki theater in Kyoto’s Gion entertainment district during a 5 day event held each year at the beginning of December. The maiko wear small wooden decorations in their hair on the day their particular Hanamachi visits the theater. After the performances, the maiko have their wooden ornaments signed by their favorite kabuki actors.

Four of Kyoto’s five Hanamachi (flower towns) are located in or around Gion and close enough to my residence that I often end up cycling through their neighborhoods at night on my way home. The entertainers in these old Kyoto communities are considered the ‘hana’ (flowers) of these ‘machi’ (towns).

If you make the correct turns as you move through the chessboard streets and alleys of Kyoto at night, it is quite easy to see maiko (apprentices) and geiko (fully trained entertainers) coming and going along the idyllic neighborhoods of Miyagawacho, Gion Kobu, Pontocho and Gion Higashi. Kamishichiken, the 5th hanamachi, is not clustered together with the other 4 ‘flower towns’ and is a little outside of my regular routes in Kyoto.

The most visually intriguing area to me on a maiko in full wardrobe is the back of her neck just below the hairline. The white ‘paint’ is applied in a manner that creates alluring two-tone graphic effects that purposely leave a small portion of the neck completely bare. I’m sure I will later find excuses to share more maiko and geiko photos on the site along with the other images of Japan.

She’s Not a Geisha
The girl in the photo is not a geisha. Geisha is a misnomer in Kyoto. There actually are no geisha here. They are all maiko and geiko.

There are a few women correctly called geisha in other parts of Japan, but they are not quite the same thing as the more thoroughly trained and prestigious maiko and geiko of Kyoto.

Many seemingly authoritative sources online and in print incorrectly describe the difference between geisha and maiko/geiko as nearly irrelevant semantics, as if it is a local dialect that determines the use of one word over the other. However, the differences are much greater than that.

I am not an expert on this subject, but I have learned a little from a few Japanese persons whose main hobby is photographing and documenting this aspect of Japanese culture.

By chance I also once interviewed a maiko when my date and I were unexpectedly invited by strangers to join a private party with a maiko performer. One of my Japanese housemates in Kyoto a few years ago was even dating a maiko, though I got the impression that was a particularly delicate and necessarily secretive activity for the maiko.

You will see promotions in English connected to events with ‘geisha’ when you visit Kyoto, but that is only because they are marketing to tourists who all know the word geisha and likely don’t know the words geiko or maiko.

Interestingly, many Japanese people not from Kyoto, or those who are not so interested in this aspect of their country’s culture, don’t really know the difference between geisha and geiko either.

It is not such a terrible faux pas to use the incorrect word geisha when you are in Kyoto, but many people will appreciate it if you make an effort and show interest in the culture by using proper Japanese vocabulary when you try to say something in Japanese.

I should tell you that once during a much earlier visit to Kyoto, I used the term geisha inappropriately at a maiko/geiko photo exhibition. Multiple voices all chimed in to strongly correct me. That was the last time I mistakenly referred to maiko or geiko as geisha. :-)

-Kin’en

Kyoto Guitarist Japanese Word(s) of the Day

Geisha (げいしゃ) – Traditional Japanese female entertainers, sometimes wearing white makeup, not found in Kyoto.

Geiko (げいこ) – Traditional Japanese female entertainers, sometimes wearing white makeup, only found in Kyoto, and connected to 1 of 5 Hanamachi (flower towns) within the city.

While the training is said to be more extensive and elaborate and the protocol more strict, perhaps the most notable differences between the geisha in other regions and the geiko/maiko of Kyoto are the more elaborate neighborhood rituals and the many culturally significant events that are carried out throughout the year by each Hanamachi in Kyoto.

Maiko (まいこ) – Traditional Japanese apprentice female entertainers, sometimes wearing white makeup, only found in Kyoto.

There are several notable differences between a geiko and a maiko in appearance when in full makeup and wardrobe. The most noticeable one to me is the hair.

A young maiko-san’s hairstyle is a mandatory design made with their own hair. Geiko wear traditional wigs that are very different and easy to detect, even at a distance, with their unnaturally perfect shape and symmetry.