The World of Geiko and Maiko
Westerners aren’t the only ones to have a romantic picture of the Japanese geisha. Even among the Japanese, catching a rare glimpse of a traditionally clad geisha – or geiko in the Kyoto dialect – can be as much a sport as birdwatching.
The geisha is a diminishing profession. At their peak in the 1920s, there were perhaps as many as 80,000. Today, there are fewer than 2,000 in all of Japan.
Kyoto’s Gion district, a 15-minute drive from Four Seasons, is one of the few areas where spotting these women in their exquisite kimonos is less of a rarity. You might see them walking in pairs between the okiya (geisha house) and the ochaya (tea house) to preside over a dinner meeting.
Part diplomat, part entertainer, part cultural preservationist, the geiko (the maiko is her apprentice) is the product of up to five years of training. “Geisha” translates best as “performing artist,” and her studies cover etiquette, all forms of Japanese music, dance, games, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and the fine art of conversation. In short, she is the perfect hostess.
How can you tell a geiko from a maiko? Look for subtle differences in attire, from head to toe. Here are a few.
First, the geiko will be wearing a stylized wig, while the maiko wears her own long hair, elaborately dressed with decorative pins.
Next, look at the neckline of her kimono. A geiko’s under-collar is pure white, while a maiko’s will be red, either plain or patterned.
Another difference is in the obi, or the sash around her waist. The ends draping behind the geiko’s obi will be shorter than those of her apprentice – as will the height of the wooden shoes she wears.
It’s still possible to experience dinner with a geiko, but it requires an introduction from a trusted source. Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto would be pleased to make arrangements.
We can also help you secure tickets to the fascinating geisha dances in spring and fall – or simply suggest the best places and times to do your own chance geiko spotting.
And, if you do happen to meet a geiko or maiko in the street, please be as gracious as she would be.