Having been unemployed for a few months or so, I managed to somehow score some interesting private students – teaching the Maiko-san (Geisha/Geiko in training) of a particular tea-house in the Gion district of Kyoto. I won’t go into details of where or how I managed to get this job, but suffice to say they are real Maiko, in a real Gion tea-house (Ocha-ya) – and I thought it might be interesting for you all to read about how the lessons go and learn about Maiko in the process.
For the record, I didn’t want this job – I hate teaching English, and I’m trying hard to move into a real career in computing – but what the hell, I thought. I am not an obsessive gaijin that stalks these girls around Gion, and I don’t really find the make-up so attractive either. But I am unemployed, and it is a chance in a lifetime that I doubt many foreigners here will ever get to experience, so I may as well tell somebody about it!
Background to the tea-houses:
The tea-houses in Kyoto, or Ocha-ya as they are formally known, are basically just high class cafes where you can have Maiko or Geiko for an additional cost. They operate on an invitation-only basis, and are extremely expensive. You can have a Maiko there for about ¥10,000 for one hour – they will perform some kind of dance, play an instrument or sing for about 10 minutes before joining you for dinner and conversation. Patrons are traditionally high-up company execs, and there are increasingly visiting staff from foreign branches also being brought along – which is why the Maiko nowadays need to speak English!
I should note that no men are actually allowed in this part of the tea-house; it is the private living quarters of the Maiko. The only other man that sets foot here is the special tailor who outfits the girls with their Kimono’s.
The white faces!
I am treated to cheese cake and tea before the girls come in. I am shocked to see one of them is wearing full make-up, all of them in kimono and all with their hair set in that particular little bow pattern. I’m feeling quite shy and taken aback at this point – I was expecting a regular couple of high school girls off-duty from their Maiko-job, but there is no off-duty for these girls. The one in full make-up has already been out working today having been hired to accompany some business people to an enkai the whole morning. What about the hair I ask? This is normal – they have it set for whole week before washing and resetting it – it’s just impractical and takes far too long to do it each morning – this is how they sleep! My third student is still sleeping – exhausted from a week of work, study and practice – their only free time being sleeping. I can’t imagine why any 15 year old girl would choose this life – so I ask them later…
Maiko / Geiko / Geisha – what’s the difference?!
Our first lesson was almost entirely on how to explain the difference between the various types of Geisha out there, so I’m feeling pretty clued in now. Firstly, Geisha is not a word used in Kyoto – Kyoto Geisha are special (legally, in fact) and are called Geiko. Other than that, Geisha and Geiko are the same thing. A Maiko is a Geisha or Geiko in-training. Girls come here to become Maiko from the age of usually 15, at which point they leave their homes and come to live in the tea-house. They also leave formal education, and start attending special Geiko-school – more on that later. Though they claim to have come here on their own volition, it seems that for many of the Maiko it is an escape from a harsh family life. Many travel from far away and rarely see their parents. They adopt a new name – a Maiko stage-name – given to them by their new big sister at the tea-house.
Kyoto Maiko are also special in another respect – although the legal drinking age nationally is 20, Kyoto Maiko have a special legal permission to drink from 18 for the purpose of their work – and this is the only exception to the law throughout Japan. Maiko in other places are not excepted, only Kyoto.
Maiko, my student explains, are children. Their hair is set in a particular pattern, and it is their own. In their first year as Maiko, they only wear red lipstick on the bottom lip. Once Maiko become a Geiko, the hair style changes and a wig must be worn. This signifies adulthood. In the same way, the Maiko wears a Kimono with long, flowy sleeves and Obi – apparently this is “cuter” and more childlike. When they become a Geiko, the Kimono and Obi both shorten. Those are the only visual differences.
There is of course a difference in wages too – Maiko don’t get paid. They receive boarding and meals and perhaps around 500 yen in pocket money every day, though my students seem to not mind. Their Kimono too are bought by the tea house or received from generous patrons.
Once a Geiko however, they keep their wages (presumably the tea-house they perform in gets a certain cut), but must also pay for their own boarding as well as purchase their own Kimono’s etc. Once a Geiko, they also get to choose their appointments.
Both Maiko and Geiko wear the white face paint, though in modern times the paint has become thicker. The reason for white was so that in ancient times their beautiful face could still be seen by the moonlight or candlelight. The tradition is simply continued nowadays. The back of the neck has two little “V” shapes left unpainted, as this apparently makes the neck look longer and therefore more beautiful.
Basically a traditional performing arts college, the Geiko school is a lifelong learning and practice centre for the art of being a Geiko. There is no math, no PE, no sciences – but instead they study traditional Japanese art forms: dance, singing, shamisen, taiko, tea-ceremony etc – the kind of thing foreigners (and Japanese) drool over when they come to Kyoto. It saddened me to learn that they learn nothing of sciences or foreign languages.
Anyway, that’s it for now, so I hope you’ve learnt something. I’ve certainly a little more respect, or should I say pity, for what these girls have to go through. But to draw conclusions after just a few hours of talking them might be a little pre-emptive, so we’ll see how it goes. Please look forward to part 2 and Soc my post if you’ve enjoyed it! Thanks~
(Note: the picture associated with this post is not my own. It is not a picture of the Maiko I teach either, as I felt that would be inappropriate. Maybe next time. If you wish to claim credit for the photo please leave a comment)