What is a Maiko?

In Kyoto, the word maiko refers to an apprentice geiko (elsewhere in Japan, these entertainers are referred to as “geisha”)–a woman who has not yet completed the necessary training and ceremonies to become a full-fledged geiko, or entertainer.

16D03 Maiko (dress)

The training period for geishas actually begins around the age of 4 or 5 (and sometimes younger in medieval times). Younger girls go through two stages before becoming maiko. The first is called shikomi (“serving”) and the second, minarai (“watching”). During these early phases, girls received training in the fundamentals of important geisha arts like singing, dancing, and music, as well as instruction in etiquette, flower arranging, tea ceremony, and other traditional arts.

Assuming their abilities progressed as expected, young apprentices would officially become maiko at the age of 15 or 16 (in Kyoto – in other parts of Japan, apprentices become maiko at 18).

Maiko entertain clients alongside adult geiko, though their role is that of assistants rather than primary entertainers. A maiko might play the shamisen while a geiko (or geisha) sings and dances, or might pour tea or sake while the geiko entertains.

The maiko’s hairstyle, dress, and adornments differ from those of adult geiko (or geisha, outside Kyoto), making it easy to recognize maiko in performance or on the street. Where most geisha wear wigs, maiko do not; instead they have their hair arranged in seasonal styles and wear traditional decorative kanzashi (hair pins) and other adornments. This photo shows some of the spring and summer hair adornments traditionally worn by Kyoto maiko:

16D04 Maiko headdress spring and summer

Since maiko normally go to the hairdresser only once a week, they rest their necks on traditional wooden stands (known as takamakura) while sleeping. This way, the elaborate hairstyle remains in place.

Traditionally, geisha (or geiko) wear a white collar (han’eri) inside the neckline of their dress kimono, while the collar of a maiko is normally red. Also by tradition, a new or debuting maiko’s collar is not only red, but unadorned. Later on, elaborate embroidery is added–normally white in color–to signify her increased experience.

Kyoto’s maiko participate in a series of annual dances designed to highlight their skills, which also serve as debut performances for many young entertainers. During the medieval era, these annual dances were the maiko’s first official appearances, and highly anticipated by the men who enjoyed visiting Kyoto’s pleasure quarters.

16D03 maiko

Today, the tradition of maiko and geiko continues in Kyoto, as well as in Tokyo; women still live in geisha houses within the traditional pleasure districts, still perform traditional dances, and still act as private entertainers for men–and women–in special teahouses and restaurants, some of which require a private invitation to enter and allow reservations only for those on their highly exclusive guest lists.

16D03 Gion Private Restaurant

Now, as in the medieval era, geisha are not prostitutes. Their art is highly traditional, specialized, and difficult, requiring years (in some cases, decades) of training and practice. To many Japanese people, the geiko (and maiko) represent the traditional ideal of Japanese beauty, talent, and refinement–an embodiment of Kyoto’s ancient culture.