In the 1920s, there were 80,000 geisha in Japan. Today, there are approximately 1,000, and under 200 live in the city of Kyoto (where they are called geiko).* Although they are still quite inaccessible, the best way for a foreigner to step into the world of the geisha is to spend the evening with a maiko, a geisha-in-training.
Still teenagers, maiko (“dance person” or “dance child”) are preparing for a career as a geisha. They typically train for five years without salary, having their expenses paid by their “mother,” the owner of the okiya (the private space where geisha live).
Custom requires them to wear a new kimono every month, and a separate one on special occasions, so costs add up substantially. Some are paid for by the “mother,” but others are deducted from future earnings. That can add up to half a million dollars over the years, including their lessons and training.
Daytime for maiko revolves around the traditional arts, dance being the most prestigious, but also calligraphy, tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, learning the shamisen (three-stringed instrument), Japanese drumming and flute playing. They must also learn to apply their white facial makeup and dress correctly, although there are often fitters who help wrap and tuck their kimonos.
By nighttime, maiko attend parties to watch geisha entertain small groups over dinner and drinks. Men who spend their evenings in the company of geisha most commonly pay with an expense account because the cost is so steep.
Having Dinner with a Maiko in Kyoto
For tourists visiting Kyoto, there is a way to sample what an evening with a geisha would be like by booking a “Maiko dinner.” The number of young girls interested in becoming geisha has been on the decline since the early 1900s, so the city of Kyoto, in its effort to maintain its status as the cultural centre of Japan, encourages ryokan (Japanese-style inns) to offer evenings with apprentice geisha for their guests.
While I was in Kyoto, I went to Gion Hatanaka, a ryokan in one of the Kagai districts (“Flower Town” where geiko and maiko live and work), for what they call a “Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko evening.”
A group of us arrived just after 5:30 pm and sat down at tables set on top of the ubiquitous tatami mat floor. Drinks were served and orders were taken before three maiko were introduced, two of them dancers and one of them playing the shamisen.
Watching them dance was like witnessing birds playing in slow motion, every turn of the head precise, each hand as delicate as a wing.
Japanese Drinking Games
After their performance, they chose a few Westerners in the audience to join them on stage for some drinking games. One was a version of rock, paper, scissors that involved one of us partnering with each maiko as we followed them in a dance and then acted out either a tiger, samurai or mother. My tiger was beaten by anothers’ samurai, so I had to down a glass of Sapporo beer while the maiko sang encouragement in Japanese.
The other game sat a maiko and competitor on their knees across a small table from each other. In rhythm, each tapped a small puck-like object with a flat hand and tried to trick the other by picking up the “puck,” to which the competitor had to respond by making a fist on the table. An incorrect hand position meant an immediate loss and more beer drunk. I won twice and was given a pair of chopsticks by my maiko partner as a reward (see video below).
After much beer was consumed by happy losers of the game, the maiko came around to each table so we could take their photos. An interpreter translated for us so we could ask them questions.
Becoming a Maiko
The maiko were 18 and 20 years old. My drinking game buddy had studied for one year without make up on to learn how to speak and behave “properly” and was now three years into her life as a maiko. Growing up in the Gifu prefecture, she had always been interested in Kyoto culture and moved here to become a geiko.
She said that the obi belt she was wearing was worth 30 million yen ($362,000 CAD), with her okiya (house) icon on the back to inform others which “house” she belonged to.
These dinners also give you a chance to taste traditional Japanese food. The evening costs about $215 CAN (including the meal, drinks, tax and a service fee). Note that a minimum of 10 diners is required, so sometimes the restaurant cancels 10 days in advance if they don’t have enough reservations.
QUIRKY FACT: The geisha profession was once in the men’s domain. The word “geisha” first came into use in the early 1700s and in 1750 was applied to a type of male companion. Within a generation, “women geisha” had outnumbered men considerably and have now primarily taken over the profession. (There are reportedly five male geisha left in Japan.)
* From the book Kyoto: A Cultural History by John Dougill (Oxford University Press, 2006).