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Everything You Need to Know About Geisha, Geiko, and Maiko

Geisha and maiko are known for their striking and glamorous appearance, including their intriguing makeup and beautiful kimono. For foreigners, these women are known as icons of Japanese beauty, but there are many people who don't know about the differences between maiko, geiko and geisha, or their history. This article will give you a thorough explanation about all of this, so keep reading to find out more!

What Does Each Term Mean?

Even most Japanese people would struggle to answer correctly when asked what the definition of geisha, geiko and maiko are. Firstly, here is a simple explanation of the differences between them.

Geisha, Geigi, and Geiko

There isn’t a big difference between each term, as each refers to a female entertainer who entertains guests by performing various artistic abilities at drinking parties, such as playing shamisen (Japanese 3-stringed lute), dancing, and singing, and is also trained in practices such as tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arranging). Although the exact definitions of these three titles can’t be distinguished, the usual way of thinking about it is that it depends on the region. Geisha is used everywhere except Kyoto, while in Kyoto it’s popular to use either geigi or geiko. The difference between geigi and geiko is subtle, and even in Kyoto the difference depends on the establishment. To make things more confusing, the characters for geigi can also be read as geiko, and usually both words are pronounced geiko when spoken aloud. Basically, all three can be thought of more or less as synonyms.

*For the sake of convenience, only geisha will be used for the rest of the article.

Bugi and Maiko

The ‘bu’ and ‘mai’ at the beginning of the words bugi and maiko mean ‘to dance’. As the names suggest, bugi and maiko mainly perform dance to liven up drinking parties. The main difference between them and geisha is that they are younger, often below the age of 20. After setting their sights on the path of a geisha, they spend 5 or 6 years in training before finally becoming a geisha. The training involves mastering arts such as the shamisen, tea ceremony and ikebana, on top of acquiring training in etiquette and behavior when hosting dinner parties. Bugi and maiko are practically synonyms and the characters for bugi can also be read as maiko, but the second character in bugi (which can be read as ‘gi’ or ‘ko’) means ‘woman’ while the second character in maiko means ‘child’. So, a common way of looking at it is that even among young women, the younger ones are called ‘maiko’ and the more experienced are ‘bugi’ (though both words are commonly pronounced ‘maiko’). In the Kanto region of Japan, young women training to become geisha are called ‘hangyoku’.

*For the sake of convenience, only maiko will be used for the rest of the article.

The Role of Geisha and Maiko

The main role of the above-mentioned women is to entertain guests by giving elegant dance and other performances at parties and places of merrymaking. Of course, in between performing they also do things like pour drinks and engage in conversation, as well as entertain the guests by playing traditional games with them. In other words, they are hospitality professionals. Another important role of these women is in communicating Japanese traditional culture by giving dance performances and so on at places holding international exchange events or ceremonies.

The History of Geisha and Maiko

Their origin dates back to around 300 years ago, at an establishment called Mizuchaya near the famous Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama, Kyoto. Mizuchaya is a place where travelers and pilgrims would have tea, and the tea-serving women who worked there were the original geisha and maiko. It is said that they originally served tea and dango (rice flour dumplings), but as sake and meals were added to the offerings, the girls who carried the food and drink out started mimicking kabuki performers by playing shamisen and dancing.

Japan’s Remaining Geisha Districts

The part of town where geisha and maiko live and where establishments in which you can see them are gathered are known as hanamachi or kagai in Japanese (as hanamachi is the most widely used term this will be used throughout the article). The roots of these places date back to the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). They used to be located all over Japan, but nowadays the number has significantly decreased. Among the remaining hanamachi, the famous ones are in Kyoto (Gion Kobu, Pontocho, and Kamishichiken) and Tokyo (Shinbashi, Akasaka, and Asakusa). Other remaining hanamachi areas include Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture, Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, and Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture.

Differences of Geisha and Maiko Makeup

The look of bright crimson lips on pure white skin is part of the geisha and maiko’s beauty. Both use the same base makeup as kabuki performers, a face powder mixed with water. It is applied to the face using a brush and sponge and is even spread to the nape of the neck and back. Then, the makeup applied to the eye and lip area is where the differences between geisha and maiko appear, but the makeup rules differ somewhat according to the hanamachi. Red is not just for the lips, it can also be used around the corner of the eyes and eyebrows too.

Geisha Makeup

Geisha makeup consists of sharp brows and eyeliner, and a more saturated lip color and bolder contour than maiko. The femininity and sensuality of the geisha is highlighted compared to the maiko.

Maiko Makeup

Compared to geisha, maiko makeup highlights their cute girlishness. In the first year following their debut, maiko only wear lipstick on their bottom lip. A maiko with lipstick on her upper lip will be in at least her second year of training.

The Appearance Differences of Geisha and Maiko

Aside from the makeup, there are some other differences between geisha and maiko.

Hair Differences

A maiko’s tied-back hair is her own. The style is decided according to her age and experience, but during important events such as festivals it is done in a special hair style. Another trait is the various flashy hairpins that can be worn. In contrast, it is customary for a geisha to wear a mainly unadorned wig rather than her own hair (image shows a geisha).

Clothing Differences

Maiko wear a furisode (a kimono with long sleeves worn by young unmarried women) with a comparatively showy design. Kyoto maiko also wear a sash that is over 5m long and weights up to 6kg, called a “darari no obi.” In contrast, geisha wear plain or sophisticated kimono in calmer colors, including black. Another difference is that for footwear, although geisha wear geta or zori (two different kinds of traditional Japanese sandal), maiko wear high-platformed geta (image shows a maiko).

Where Are the Geisha and Maiko?

Geisha and maiko commonly live in establishments called “okiya” where they are affiliated. During the day they engage in practicing various art forms, then at night they make their way to banquet halls or restaurants called “ozashiki (or ochaya)” to entertain guests. You may come across the geisha and maiko by chance in the above-mentioned hanamachi areas between dusk and night. However, be aware that the likelihood is not that high, and even if you do, they are usually walking quickly. It goes without saying that it is best to go get the ozashiki experience to properly meet them face-to-face.

Manners to Observe When You Encounter Geisha or Maiko

As mentioned earlier, even though you may encounter them by chance, don’t forget that they are usually hurrying in the interval between their practice and their work at the ozashiki. Trying to hold them up, or touch their obi or kimono, let alone their person, is unacceptable. The thing you need to be most conscious of relates to photography. Many Japanese people feel opposed to having their photo arbitrarily taken and uploaded to social media by other people. Please make sure to ask these women for their permission before taking a photo, whether you encounter them in the street or when being entertained by the geisha at the ozashiki.

What Happens at an Ozashiki?

At ozashiki, or ochaya located in a banquet hall, you can drink and eat with the geisha and/or maiko and enjoy their performances such as dancing and singing. This is commonly called “ozashiki asobi” in Japanese. This used to be seen as something only to be enjoyed by guests of high status, however in recent years it has become something that anyone can enjoy, as there have been many developments such as ozashiki experiences for tourists visiting Japan which include a translator guide. This is an experience that both men and women can enjoy!

Here Are Some Suggested Geisha and Maiko Experiences for Tourists Visiting Kyoto

Now that you’ve read up to this point you’re probably interested in geisha and maiko, so why not try visiting the most famous place for Japan's hanamachi? Naturally you can experience ozashiki asobi, but there are also photography studios where you can get your makeup done and be dressed up like a geisha or maiko! So here are some suggested places.

Be Transformed into a Geisha or Maiko at Maiko Experience Studio Yumekobo

This is a photography studio with three locations in Kyoto. They can transform you into anything you want, but it is recommended to try the maiko makeover plan. This includes having your makeup done by a professional makeup artist, dressing up and doing a photo shoot, which takes approximately 2 - 2.5 hours. It's even better if you’re going on a date to take photos together on the same day. After your transformation, you can take photos with your own camera (but only in the designated area for photography).

Maiko makeover plan cost:
Until September 30 2019: 10,800 JPY per person
From October 1 2019: 11,000 JPY per person
Language capabilities: English, Chinese

Be Transformed into a Geisha or Maiko at Maiko Experience Studio Yumekobo

Yumekobo Bldg., 511 Minamicho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Miyako Odori - Dance Performance by Geiko and Maiko

Out of all the hanamachi in Kyoto, the Miyako Odori dance performance by the geisha and maiko of Gion Kobu takes pride in being the biggest. Performances are held every year for about 1 month starting from April 1. In total there are 8 acts of dance representing the passing of seasons from spring until spring again. The theater where this usually takes place, the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo, is closed for improvements to earthquake resistance (as of time of writing in 2019), so the 2020 performances are expected to be moved to the Minamiza Theater (where kabuki performances etc. usually take place). There is an English explanation via a headset guide.

2020 performance: details pending
Expected admission fee: premium ticket 5,500 JPY (tax incl.), regular ticket 4,000 JPY (tax incl.)

Miyako Odori - Dance Performance by Geiko and Maiko

Shijo Ohashi East Side, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Enjoy Ozashiki Asobi With Maiko at BENGARA Japanese Cuisine

This is a Japanese restaurant where you can experience ozashiki asobi in a building that still has its original ochiya exterior. Greet the maiko of Gion and savor a seasonal Japanese course meal as you enjoy having your drinks poured, pleasant conversation, dancing, and simple games. As a general rule, make a reservation early for groups of 4 or more.

Example cost:
Special 5:00 pm start plan: 10,000 JPY (tax incl.) - 15,000 JPY (tax incl.) 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm plan: 18,000 JPY (tax incl.) - 23,000 JPY (tax incl.)

Enjoy Ozashiki Asobi With Maiko at BENGARA Japanese Cuisine

107 Tominagacho, Yasakashinchi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Gion Shinmonso Ryokan Offers an Ozashiki Experience

This is a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with over 70 years of history at Gion Hanamikoji in Kyoto. They have started offering an ozashiki experience plan that anyone can come here and enjoy. As maiko pour your drinks, you can enjoy conversation with them while feeling fully satisfied with a Japanese-style course meal (consisting of 7 - 10 seasonal dishes). The plan includes a song or two for you to enjoy at the end. This is a basic day trip package, but for an additional fee you can also stay a night at the ryokan.

Example banquet fee: 33,480 JPY (tax incl.) per person for two or more people. *You will be attended by 1 maiko

Gion Shinmonso Ryokan Offers an Ozashiki Experience

Shinmon-mae, Hanamikoji, Gion, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Geisha and Maiko Themed Films

Geisha and maiko appear frequently in many stories, including novels and manga (Japanese comics). Here are two particularly famous films. This is a simple introduction to each film.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005 American film)

This is the story of a young girl in poverty who is sent to work at an okiya, but she is a survivor who plays with fate and becomes a first class geisha. The main character, Sayuri, is played by the popular actress Ziyi Zhang. The highlight is the depiction of traditional Japanese beauty in a new way. This is a must-see for its many luxurious and gorgeous scenes. Produced by Steven Spielberg's production company and directed by Rob Marshall. Also starring actors like Ken Watanbe and Gong Li.

Maiko Haaaan!!! (2007 Japanese film)

This is a popular work written by Kankuro Kudo, who has been involved with numerous hit TV dramas and films in Japan. The main character is Onizuka, a salaryman who is crazy about maiko and has never experienced ozashi asobi. One day, he gets transferred from Tokyo to the branch office in Kyoto which kicks his passion into overdrive. His dream is to play yakyuken* with a maiko in Kyoto, so he puts his whole life on hold for it. This is a high tension comedy that will have you bursting into fits of laughter. Starring actors such as Sadao Abe and Kou Shibasaki

*A game based on rock, paper, scissors involving singing and dancing.

You’ve probably gotten a deeper interest in geisha and maiko after reading this article, so now you should try going to somewhere like Kyoto to actually meet one in real life!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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