The geisha is probably one of the best known symbols of Japan here in the western world. A painted woman who is the gateway to illicit and forbidden pleasures.
If that’s what most westerners think, then most westerners are wrong. Geisha are not prostitutes. Rather, they are women who are highly trained and skilled in the traditional Japanese arts of music, song and dance. They are also pretty rare, as I’ve read that there are estimated to be no more than 1,000 of them in all Japan.
On my three trips to Japan, including the one last month, I have only seen them in Kyoto, the former imperial capital. In the Kyoto dialect, they are called “geiko,” not “geisha.” There are also two ty
pes: “geiko,” who are full-fledged at their craft, while the newer, younger performers are called “maiko.”
I am certainly no expert on the subject, but having done some reading and gone on a walking tour in Kyoto, I have learned three basic ways to distinguish the two when seeing them on the street (if I’m lucky enough to see any, that is.)
A geiko wears a fairly short ‘obi’ (sash) on her back, while that of a maiko is much longer. I think a maiko’s kimono also has longer sleeves.
A geiko wears a wig, while maiko wax their hair and usually seem to have some kind of ornamentation hanging from it.
The back of a geiko’s neck is fully painted white, while a maiko has two flesh colored (that is, unpainted) points left on the back of her neck.
In Kyoto, the only place where I had seen any geiko or maiko going about their business of walking from one engagement to another has been Gion, the old entertainment district. On my first night in Kyoto this year, I walked about half an hour from my hotel to Hanami-koji, a cobblestone street which is probably the most famous in Gion, both sides of it being lined with teahouses where geiko and maiko perform (though as I read somewhere, people don’t there to drink only tea!)
I happened to get there at the right moment, as a geiko and two maiko were just leaving one of the most famous teahouses on their way to one around the corner. Somet
imes one can go to this area and not make any spottings, so I was fortunate to see three together on my first night in town.
That night, I also met an Australian photographer with a big SLR who told me he had published a book of geiko/maiko photos, so I jokingly called him a geiko paparazzo. I’ve read that tourists and others getting in the way of these women just to photograph them can be a problem (as they normally don’t stop for photos), so I kept a respectful distance and managed to get one decent photo, which can be seen at the top. Note the long sash and the ornamented hair, so it’s obvious that this girl is a maiko.
Later on, further down the street, with nobody else around, I saw a geiko dressed in a beautiful white kimono silently walk in my direction before making a right turn into a tea house. I didn’t even think of trying to get a photo. It was just a beautiful sight to see.
I made three more visits to Hanami-koji and Gion. The next time was with a woman from our tour who wanted to go there, so I acted as her tour guide. We did not see any geiko or maiko in Gion. A night later, on the rainy night that I went out photographing with my tripod, I finished up my rounds with a visit to Hanami-koji. I didn’t take any photos there, but I did see a group of three maiko silently walk by coming from a side street. Again, I just watched.
The last visit, though, was a big one. After having a nice dinner on our final night of the tour, our guide took u
s on a little walking tour of Gion. Starting with Hanami-koji, we spotted a geiko walking up the street toward us. I managed to get a photo (the second photo from the top here.)
Then, on Shinbashi-dori, another lovely street in the area, we saw a geiko (right, in the third photo) and a maiko (left) coming up the street! Again, as you can seek, a got a photo, though this one wasn’t easy, as I’d taken a spot directly in their path for the photo and had to jump out of the way at the last moment.
Finally, across the Kamogawa river from Gion, in a very narrow pedestrian-only street called Pontocho, we saw another maiko go wizzing by. I had never seen a geiko or maiko outside of Gion before, but I had seen a maiko hurrying around a corner to disappear down Pontocho, her obi flying like a cape behind her, on my first night in Kyoto this year. On this final night, however, I was able to get a photo (fourth from the top), and you can see that it looks rather like an action shot.
Incidentally, for those who may be wondering, seeing a geiko or maiko on the street may be a hit or miss proposition, but it’s still easier to see one that way than to attend a performance at a tea house. Being a guest at such an event costs hundreds of dollars, and even if you have the money, you’ve still got to know somebody. This is a world of referrals , and to be invited to see a geiko or maiko perform, you’d most likely need a letter of introduction from someone who is already known and on good terms with the management of each locale.