This is an ongoing series of posts in which I talk about my experiences teaching English to a small group of Maiko in Kyoto’s traditional tea-house district of Gion. Part 1 can be found here.
A new Maiko-in-training came to the tea-house this week. She is just 14 years old and will now never graduate junior high school. For whatever reasons, she chose to abandon her home, family, school, and friends and dedicate herself to becoming a Maiko. She now lives at the tea-house 24/7 and accompanies the elder Maiko where appropriate, gets talked down to by everyone, and schooled in the super-polite language of Maiko. She hasn’t received an official Maiko-name yet, so I call her by her real first name. Her English is actually the best of all of them (still fresh from school) and during her first year before becoming a Maiko she will have a lot more free time so we’re hoping to start lessons twice a week. The elder Maiko are different in their goals for English – they just need to learn a set stock of phrases to be able to do their job – but for this young girl there is still hope that with my guidance she can get a firm grasp on a useful life skill. I hope to show her there is another way, that she can still be a part of regular society and perhaps travel abroad. As Carlie commented on part 1, I really want for her to have another option if she decides the Maiko life isn’t for her – beyond being a glorified hostess her whole life. Sorry if that offends some of you, but that’s essentially what these Geisha and Maiko are – they dance, sing, entertain customers, flirt, chat, play instruments. It’s good that the tea-houses take these girls in from what might have otherwise been a life of even less opportunities, but I can’t help but feel they are being exploited somewhat.
Now accepting application for next years Maiko!
I asked how the tea-house goes about choosing applicants for Maiko-training and who is given priority. Apparently, girls from poor families and remote areas are given priority over girls from richer families. You could look at that as being altruistic, but it is entirely self-serving. The fact is that girls from remote poor families are more likely to accept whatever scraps are thrown their way and are far less prone to running away. The girls from rich families just can’t hack it, and many have been known to run away. The life of a Maiko and pre-Maiko is not something to be laughed at. Imagine a life of pretty much zero free time – hurried between customers at the bar and tea-house, social engagements in town and often out of town, maiko school, changing kimono (no small feat), putting on make-up, getting their hair set… basic mealtimes and sleep are about all the free time these girls have.
Sister… in blood
In a particular facetious mood one day, I asked my wife (who also works at the tea-house) why the maiko refer to an older sister (onechan) when they clearly aren’t related. I know, this just part of the culture in Asia, and my wife does it too with friends in China leading to much desperate confusion when I find myself meeting sister upon sister and having to ask her if they are real sisters or just pretend sisters – but regardless, I was being facetious, okay? I said it makes no sense to call people family members when they don’t share the same blood. “Actually, they do share blood”, she said. I was quite taken aback.
“What do you mean? They’re not family!”.
“No, but they have drunk each others blood during the bonding ritual”
“Perhaps your Japanese is not up to scratch today, dear, as I’m pretty sure you just said they partake of each others blood during some sadistic ritual”.
“Yes”. She went on, “When a Maiko is taken in care by her big sister and given a maiko-name, there is a little ritual involved. In the ritual, they drop some blood into a cup of sake, exchange cups, and drink”.
I was pretty shocked at the time, but I guess it’s no worse than making a “blood brother pact” back home, where yourself and your best-friend each cut a finger and then smear them together (what, you didn’t do that?). In fact, I think the sake probably kills any health concerns you might have, though it still grosses me out a little.
No, not micro-loan, that isn’t a typo. The tea-houses of Kyoto are literally home to many Maiko and Pre-Maiko, but that doesn’t mean they don’t visit the other tea-houses too. There is an unspoken community contract through all the Kyoto tea-houses that if their own Maiko are already out on business and a customer wishes to partake in Maiko company, the tea-house will call around to find a Maiko going spare and borrow her for the night! That’s a Maiko-Loan~ *groan*. The same is true for Geiko, but it just happens that the tea-house I work with currently doesn’t have any Geiko. The last Geiko they had retired last year in order to help train the new batch of Maiko, as their big-sister. Next year, the Maiko will graduate and become Geiko and the cycle will continue.