Teaching the Maiko

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!

No men!

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.

The Geiko-school:

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)

19 thoughts on “Teaching the Maiko

  1. What an interesting job and an interesting post! I hope you will post more about it 🙂 I can’t help but feel a bit sad about the schooling though. I feel like if they change their mind in the future it would be harder to find a job with the limited schooling. But I guess as I’m such an undecisive person with many interests, I just can’t imagine knowing what you want to for the rest of your life – or being forced by circumstances to do it. Its nice to get a different perspective on things and I do hope to hear more.

  2. Pingback: Teaching the Maiko | Frugalista Japan | TEFL Japan

  3. Hi there. I just recently subscribed to your feed, and I’m happy to read that you’re donating money to a Cambodian entrepreneur, but I’m going to discontinue my subscription. Let me tell you why.

    Although I thought most of this post was an interesting little insight into an aspect of the culture here, I just started reading your blog very recently. I’m a career English teacher, which means I came to Japan to teach English, and I’m not teaching English so that I can be in Japan. So when you said, “I hate teaching English, and I’m trying hard to move into a real career in computing…” I was pretty offended by your use of the oft-muttered comment that teaching English isn’t a real job. It’s people like you, people who teach English even when they’re not really interested in it or necessarily qualified to do so, that make it easy to think it’s not a real job.

    So anyway, I just wanted to let you know, in case you wanted to consider my point of view.
    .-= Christin´s last blog ..My Japanese Debut (but for real this time) =-.

  4. Hi Christin. Thank you for commenting, and I’m sorry you’ve chosen to unsubscribe. I’d like a chance to respond if I may, and I hope you do in turn.

    As anyone who has ever met me in real life will tell you, I’m not a particularly eloquent person. You’d be shocked to hear to my guttermouth london english. But when I write, I can usually write a lot better than I might say it. Sometimes my succinct speaking style creeps into my writing, and this is a case of just that. I guess because I didn’t feel that particular statement was so important to the post as a whole that I didn’t really consider it all that much, so please let me rephrase and put some thought into it.

    When I say “i hate english teaching”, what I actually mean to say is: While I have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences teaching english so far in my 7 years in Japan, I dislike the fact that I was recently made redundant from my university teaching position because they decided I was no longer qualified enough. It made me realise that I have no career teaching English here in Japan, and I really ought to start thinking about the future a little more.

    I’m quite hurt that from that one statement you deem me to be one of the bad teachers. I have spent the last 7 years of my life doing the best job I can, a road paved with high hopes and a strong desire to change what is wrong with the education system here (another oft-muttered statement I think). I revolutionized the JET program in Kyoto city by creating a central database of teaching plans that every ALT there eventually contributed and greatly benefitted from every day, only to have the BOE dismiss it because using a computer to create anything more that New Years cards was quite beyond them. I’ve taught every level from 3 year old children in daycare centre, 80 year old guys in English conversation school, elementary, junior, and senior high schools as well as in a private university. I’m certainly not a qualified teacher, just as 99% of the other “teachers” that come here on the JET program – but then it isnt actually about teaching, is it? Of all of these, I must say I’ve enjoyed elementary the most.

    I’m pretty sure I didn’t say english teaching isnt a real job – it just isnt a career, not here in Japan. If you think it is, then please come back in 5 years and tell me how your job position has advanced. No matter how qualified you are, you will never become a *real* teacher here in the eyes of the Japanese system. Which is exactly why most certified teachers end up leaving after a year of frustration and condescension from coworkers.

    I used to be just like you. I remember arguing with my parents even. They told me, in my second year here, that I ought to start thinking about a real career path. I was hurt that they thought I wasnt doing a real job, that this was just some kind of holiday for me, and I defended myself just as you are. I theorised that in a few more years I might have my own English school; my super curriculum might have been integrated into the local elementary english programs; that I might head my own summer camp program (that last one I did, actually, but then all my foreign volunteers went home after their JET holiday was up).

    I didnt actually come here to be in Japan, nor especially to teach. I just had the opportunity and I took it, knowing nothing of the strange land I was heading too.

    But I’m curious – how about you? You said you came here with the express purpose of teaching English, but from your blog it sounds like this is just another stop on your tour of Asia. Are you a qualified teacher, if so may I ask where you see yourself in 5 years time? I sincerely hope that you will be one of the few that actually make a difference here, instead of just coming for a one or two year holiday before moving onto the next Asian country or running home to America like most couples I’ve encountered in my time. In the meantime though, enjoy your time here!

  5. Thanks for posting this, really interesting read! May I ask something? I saw a guy today (January 13th) with blond hair, riding a bike along Hanamikoji Street and was surprised when two maiko stopped to greet him. I wondered whether it was you by any chance?
    .-= Michael´s last blog .. =-.

  6. Sorry, wasn’t me I’m afraid. I’m generally only down that way on the weekend. I expect he was just a regular customer of theirs. There are a lot of gaijin visiting the tea-houses nowadays.

  7. Pingback: TokyoBIT » Blog Archive » Newbie tutorial: How to read your favourite blogs without going to the site, automagically

  8. Pingback: Teaching The Maiko, part 2 | Frugalista Japan

  9. there is no career teaching english in japan…end of story..Ive been in Japan since 2004 and have seen no wage increase (atcually Im 1500 pounds down on last year!) no promotion with Interac.
    I’ve also taught adults and junior high school kids.
    I have to say I enjoyed Junior High School the most..Im currentlly teachiing elementary school kids…Very tiring!hate it!

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