As anime continues to gain popularity outside of nerd culture, it’s being increasingly used as a tool to educate and bring attention to various aspects of life that don’t usually receive much attention. Be it obscure hobbies or culturally relevant games, anime can be a fun medium to bring attention to something that might otherwise be hard to explain or document. Geisha are occasionally seen in pop culture but the apprentices, Maiko, very rarely make appearances. Maiko-san Chi to Makanai-san (Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House) makes one country’s traditional occupation more readily understood to the world. Through narrating with historical context and the close following of two friends within the Maiko House, we can come to know what it means to be Maiko.
A Brief Look at the History of Maiko and Geisha
Historically, Geisha were highly trained entertainers in traditional arts and entertained esteemed guests with music, dance, and singing among other things. Kyoto is famously known for its geisha districts and as the previous capital of Japan, it’s only natural that it would be so. The idea of Maiko came from the women at temples who would serve refreshments, not of the same level of refinement as geisha but skilled in providing tea and refreshing company to guests. While geisha were known for their beauty and allure, there was no sexual connotation to their entertainment.
Maiko in Kyoto Today
Maiko are usually girls aged 17-20 as 20 is the age when Japanese kids become adults. Girls even younger than that that aspire to be Maiko work in a Maiko training house called okiya. There they take lessons, assist their Maiko ‘older sisters’, and get used to living a communal lifestyle without any free time to themselves. They undergo strict training every day; taking lessons in the morning and afternoon and working at night. They must drill dances, poetry, songs, and even fan work into their heads so that they can perform all of these as if it were an effortless endeavor. Even outside the house, Maiko are held to strict standards. They cannot use cellphones in front of others, nor can they enter eating establishments. They must always carry an air of untouchable beauty and traditional accuracy in public.
Su-chan and Kiyo in the Okiya
Su-chan is an admirable young girl who, at just 16, gets to debut as a Maiko. She’s always seen running through her lessons in the daytime even after her Maiko sisters have stopped to take their meals or attend to some personal business. She’s often shown sweating with a fan in her hand, going through the meticulous movements over and over. Su-chan is nearly unrecognizable as most Maiko are from how they look when training. Her beautifully styled and decorated hair replace her tight braided twin tails and the characteristic white face and red lips cover her usually flushed cheeks.
Kiyo is the one who has to gather up and prepare all the food for those living in the okiya as none of the Maiko currently training can offer assistance, lest they tarnish their traditional image. Kiyo in Kyoto doesn’t give us a super close look at just what a Maiko’s training entails, but we can tell from Su-chan nearly pushing herself to the point of fainting that Maiko work is tremendously hard. One of the older ladies even refers to Kiyo as the clumsy one which Kiyo takes in stride. It’s not uncommon for girls to fail their training, but Kiyo certainly found her place at the okiya as the live-in cook!
It may be hard to imagine many teenage girls all living in a dorm of sorts training for an adult job for years away from their families and friends. Yet that is what it means to attain the prestigious title of Maiko, and, hopefully later, Geisha. Much sweat and tears go into being a Maiko but Kiyo in Kyoto focuses on the determination and triumph that results from strictly applying yourself to achieve your dreams. Let us know in the comments what most intrigues you about Maiko!