It’s a muggy summer evening in the Gion district, Kyoto.
The night is dark, but the city doesn’t sleep.
The cobbled streets are illuminated by the gentle glow of street lamps, and the bustling inns and restaurants are alive with light and laughter.
It’s in the evening that the city really comes to life; the transition from day to night marking the commencement of the Kyoto’s most magical hours.
Colourful paper lamps are lit outside of restaurants, ponds and rivers sparkle in the moonlight, and if you’re very, very lucky, you could even catch a glimpse of one of Gion’s most famous, and elusive, denizens.
But on this particular evening I was extremely lucky, as I was not just going to catch a glimpse of one of these beautiful, mysterious figures. I was actually going to be granted the chance to meet one in person!
Before I get stuck in to the details of how this all came about, lets start off by talking a bit about geisha. Mainly about what geisha are, and what they most definitely are not.
Geisha – or Geiko, as they are known in Kyoto – are part of one of the oldest performing traditions in Japan. These exquisitely kimono-clad women are entertainers; skilled in classical dance, well-versed in the art of conversation, pouring drinks, playing games and other tasks befitting of a professional hostess.
Geisha are not prostitutes. This is a weird western misconception whose origin I remain clueless of, but its a complete misconception none the less.
Given the amount of training and financial costs that go in to this sustaining this prestigious art form, it’s no surprise that hiring a Geiko comes with an equally prestigious price tag. Certainly not something everyday travelers like me – and I’m sure many of you readers – could ever dream of affording!
Well this is where I was incredibly fortunate! Because much to my delighted surprise, the lovely ryokan I was spending the night at had actually organised just such a performance for guests that very evening! For free!
Okay, I won’t lie – I was absolutely ecstatic. There was simply no way I was going to turn an opportunity like that down!
Performing for us this memorable evening was a maiko; a trainee, or apprentice geisha.
So what’s a maiko? Before they can become a fully fledged geisha, any young woman hoping to do so must go through a period of intense training, during which they are known as ‘maiko’.
While working as a maiko they must carefully study and refine the many skills of their profession, under the close supervision of older, more experienced geisha. This period of training is very intense, and can last anywhere up to six years. That’s as long as it takes to become as a doctor!
As we all shuffled in slippered feet to the ryokans small performance room, we were greeted politely by our maiko for the evening; a pretty young girl dressed in a gorgeous yellow kimono, fastened with a long, trailing green obi.
After a brief introduction and a lengthy series of deep, formal bows, our maiko rised to perform the first of several short dances. It’s hard to describe traditional Japanese dance; it’s very slow, very graceful, with a lot of interwoven symbolism, to the point where it almost acts as a form of physical storytelling – a point I will return to shortly.
Following this brief performance she was kind enough to grant us a casual Q&A, during which I learned a number of interesting facts about geisha and maiko I’d not known before:
- In traditional Japanese dance, each gesture and action holds a specific, symbolic meaning. For example, one performance we were treated to apparently told the tale of the changing of the seasons. The sweep of an arm represented the flowing Kamogawa river, the fluttering of the fan the autumn leaves falling from the trees.
- The elaborate hair ornaments – or kanzashi – worn by maiko and geisha are changed every month. I knew that kanzashi held particular meaning and were changed frequently, but I was unaware that there was a specific one for each month! For example, this month she was a wearing a huge, glittering glass kanzashi, to mark the tanabata festival that had been recently celebrated.
- A maiko or geisha’s makeup takes around an hour at a time to apply. Woah. And this is without adding the time taken to get dressed, a task that is carried out by professional kimono dressers, known as otokoshi.
- Hours upon hours of practice are put in to even the briefest dances. For example, one two-minute performance we saw apparently took 10 hours worth of practice to perfect. The level of hard work and perfectionism that goes in to the profession is insane.
But truly the most interesting facts that we learned during these 10 minute Q&A bursts were about our hostess herself! First of all, I was shocked to learn halfway that she was, unbelievably, only fifteen! Fifteen!!
I’ll be honest here, back when I was fifteen me and my mates once planned to eat mentos and chug cola at the same time while filming the result for youtube.
OK, I think I was actually sixteen when this happened – and I’m pleased to say we did think better of it in the end – but my point is I can’t imagine being this mature at fifteen years old! To already be this dedicated and talented so young is a really amazing feat, and I was totally gobsmacked by the revelation.
I was also surprised to find that this was also the typical age for maikos to begin their training – straight after graduating middle school. Which does seem incredibly young, but given the amount of years it can take to become a geisha, does makes sense if a trainee hopes to attain this goal by their early twenties.
I was also told by the young, English-speaking maid who was kind enough to translate for me, that – unusually for geiko and maiko – our maiko was not wearing a wig. The elaborate, painstakingly arranged hairdo was all her own natural hair, which the maid estimated must have reached below her waist when down!
As the evening drew to an end we were given the opportunity to be served beer and have our photo taken with the maiko. One of the maids was kind enough to take my photo for me, and I was incredibly nervous! I’ve always dreamed of seeing a maiko or geisha, so actually having the opportunity to speak to and have a photo taken with one was a real-life dream come true!
Our time with the maiko lasted only about an hour, but it was one of the most magical hours of my life!
I’d expected to experience a lot of things in Kyoto, but a face-to-face meeting with a maiko was not one of them, and I did go to bed that night with a strange ‘did that actually happen?’ kind of feeling. Geisha and maiko have completely fascinated me for years, so this evening was a really, really amazing experience!
This was just one of my experiences in Kyoto, and I really look forward to sharing more with you all as time goes on! But in the meantime I have already made a number of other posts about my time in Japan, so if interested, please do check out the links below!
Has anyone else been lucky enough to meet a geisha or maiko while travelling in Japan? If so I would love to hear from you in the comments; I found my own encounter utterly fascinating, and would love to hear yours too!
But otherwise, happy travels, and I look forward to seeing you in the next post!
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