Japan’s Geiko/Maiko (Geisha) culture dates back to the 17th century. Today, there are only 200 geiko and 70 maiko left. Geiko & maiko work at Japanese teahouses that cater to a discreet clientele, mainly elite businessmen and dignitaries, and follow a referral only system. They are elusive, but the main reason is not just about money (though they are expensive), but more about trust. The teahouses need to know if a client is reputable before hooking him up with a geiko/maiko. We had our private session with our maiko booked in Kamishichiken, the oldest (and least touristy) geiko/maiko district in Kyoto.
Our private maiko, Ichitaka, at age 17, has been in the business for three years. When I say business, I mean the “Ichi family (okiya)”’s business. An okiya is a geisha house, each okiya is named after the owner’s last name. Ichitaka had left her own home to live with other geiko/maiko who also belong to the Ichi okiya. She does not get paid until she matures as a geiko, which takes about five years of maiko practice.
She paints her face pale with white makeup, and she would spend 40 minutes to an hour to do so daily, even if there were no clients booked on her schedule.
Her dresser wraps her up professionally with layers after layers of kimono before she heads to work.
“Guess how heavy my kimono is,” she said, as she refilled my glass with sake.
“Can you jump in it?” I asked.
She had bounced a few times before I guessed “2 kilograms (around 4.5 lbs).”
“10 kilos,” she replied. “The heaviest kimono can weigh up to 15 kilos (around 33 lbs).”
That is probably 1/3 of her weight.
“It is easier to be dressed in it than to carry it,” she added.
Her sash is wide and drapes down her back in an X shape, “this is kimono for maiko,” she explains. The ones folded in squares are for the geiko. Her hair is elaborately styled up into big buns and decorated with fancy ornaments. She will have a more subdued style when she turns geiko.
A professional hairdresser takes care of her hair once a week, and she keeps it up until the next appointment.
“Doesn’t it get itchy?” I asked as I swallowed my first piece of freshly sliced yellowtail sashimi.
“…Yes, but I have to deal with it,” she answered with a lovely smile.
Maybe I should’ve brought her some dry shampoo, I thought.
She then danced a story of a retired woman who misses her life working as a geiko, and thus still paints her face at home.
The homemade multicourse meal served by the teahouse was great, but we tried not to finish it as we had already booked another kaiseki ryori for dinner at Gion Maruyama, a Japanese restaurant that serves exquisite traditional Kyoto-style cuisine.
(Stay tuned for review on our kaiseki ryori experience at Gion Maruyama)
Our session cost about $750 but if you want to see a geiko/maiko perform without spending big bucks, Kyoto hosts several annual geisha events & shows such as Miyako Odori, where you can see all maiko/geiko perform on stage. I was told that a few traditional Japanese style hotels also arrange small group tours and dining experiences with maiko at a reasonable price.
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