I can’t recall how we found the Geisha tour, but we somehow found it and decided that it was a must do while in Kyoto. Everyone has watched or read Memoires of a Geisha and has some preconceived notions of what a Geisha is and is not, this tour certainly set us straight.
For our 90 minute tour we met in front of a pastry shop in the evening and waited for the set departure time. Our kimono clad guide quickly collected 1000 yen from each attendee and we were on our way. Since this was a walking tour, we headed in to the cobblestone streets of Gion. Our first stop was directly across from the bridge that is featured in the movie Memoires of a Geisha (you know, the lollipop scene!).
There are actually two types of Geishas: Geikos and Maikos. All Geishas start as a Maiko and then progress to a Geiko.
What is a Maiko?
A Maiko is an apprentice studying to be a Geisha (or a master: Maiko). The typical Maiko begins her training at age 16 and then apprentices for 5 years before she becomes a Geiko. During these years the Maiko undergoes intensive studying and training.
Each Maiko lives in a boarding house or okiya. Okiya is a boarding house for those training to be a Geisha. The woman who owns the okiya will pay for all training and attire of the aspiring Maiko (but she will also take all of the money a Maiko earns in order to repay this debt). A typical boarding house holds between 5-7 girls. As you walk through Gion you can tell which houses are an okiya by the placards on the wall above the door, these are actually the names of the Geishas which live inside.
In the okiya the Maiko will be assigned an “older sister”. The older sister acts as a mentor and is expected to help with the training of the new Maiko. An older sister will often allow a Maiko to accompany her to a party to watch the ways which she must master.
A Maiko also doesn’t wear a wig, therefore they have weekly appointments to get their hair styled. Once this styling is complete they must not doing anything to mess up this hair as the cost of the styling is $150 per week. In order to keep their perfectly coiffed hair a Maiko will sleep on a pillow that props only her neck, thus ensuring that her hair is suspended in mid air.
What is the typical day like of a Maiko in training?
Maikos wake at 9am and then attend lessons until later in the afternoon. They are typically given some free time between 2pm-4pm, where they can have a coffee with their fellow classmates. At 4pm they head back to their okiya and being prepping for their evening party. The typical evening out can begin as early at 6pm and end as last as 1am. A Maiko then goes home, removes her make-up and elaborate costume, and will be in bed by 3pm. Gion has passed a special exception to the age limit for drinking so that Maikos in training may participate in a party, therefore they are permitted to drink as long as they are in training (even if they are only 15).
What is a Geiko?
A Geiko is someone who has mastered the skills required of a Geisha (and no, they are not prostitutes!). These skills include dancing, tea serving, and entertaining guests with conversation, games, or jokes. As a Geiko a woman is able to set her own schedule and anything she earns is hers to keep.
Additionally, the style of dress for a Geiko varies from that of a Maiko. A Geiko wears a sash which is shorter in the back and she typically wears a wig.
Geikos are highly valued and the top Geiko made as much money as the CEO of Toyota. Finally, you don’t really age out, but instead can continue to work as long as you please (currently the oldest Geiko is 80 years old).
What does a Geiko or Maiko wear?
The typical attire of a Geisha includes a kimono and a sash (obi). If the Geisha is a Maiko she will wear an obi that reaches to the ground, while a Geiko will wear a sash that is much shorter. In addition to these items, there are very ornate hairpieces that each wears, which can cost upwards of $1,000 per hair piece. These kimonos and hairpieces change with each season. One final distinguishing feature reserved for a first year Maiko is the sound of bells, which are placed in her shoes so that as she walks you hear the jingle.
I want to see a Geiko or Maiko!
Your best bet for seeing a Geiko or Maiko is to pay to attend a party. We did not do this. The cost for a party is $1,000 and permits up to 6 people to attend. Your $1,000 will get you 1 Geiko, 1 Maiko, Sake and Beer, 30 minutes of travel time for the Geiko/Maiko, and 1 hour of entertainment. This entertainment includes conversation, games (rock paper scissors) and traditional dance.
You could take another route and just mill about in Gion and hope that you encounter a Geisha. Be warned, they are moving very quickly and are rather difficult to photograph (it is also not acceptable for you to get in their way, as they are on a schedule)
Good luck spotting a Geiko or Maiko!