A peep into the culture of maikos and geishas

Remember Chiyo, geisha’s are not courtesans, nor wives, we sell our skills not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word geisha means an artiste and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.” Words of wisdom, Mameha, Chiyo’s mentor, imparts as she trains her into becoming a geisha in the film Memoirs of a Geisha.

As Tomi Mori, the owner of Tomikiku, an ochaya (tea house), explained the Japanese culture and tradition of Maikos (Geisha apprentices) during a lecture-demonstration at the World Book Fair, she pointed to our cinematic and literary connection to the world of geisha’s, cautioning, “Though it was a well-researched work, it was but a work of fiction.

Maikos and geishas are not always from poor families. They come from all over Japan and go through rigorous training to become a geisha.” 

Still, when Ryoka and Tomitae, two Maikos, swayed and sashayed with their beautiful hand fans to the lilting sounds of Japanese music, we could not help but let the scenes from the film flicker through our minds. The two performed the traditional Japanese dance, where they celebrated the pine trees and depicted the transition of the four seasons in the city with their act ‘Gion Ko-uta’. Swishing their hand fans through the air, they used it as a prop to represent a table, mirror, bottle and many other things during the course of their act.

Geishas from the Gion district of Kyoto are famously known as ‘geikos’. There are three stages involved in the transition of a maiko to geiko- the first stage entails a three-year long training, the second comprises of two years and the third, two weeks. 

Tomi Mori elaborated upon the lives of maikos, saying, “Girls as young as 15 come with their parents and go through an interviewing process before they are selected to be trained as maikos under the okiya (maikos boarding houses) families.”

They join right after their junior school, and choose to stick to the career, aspiring to be geishas, or leave after some years for higher education or after getting married. She adds, “They start their training at 10 am in the morning and it goes on till 3 pm. Here they learn artistic skills such as shamisen (the three-stringed musical instrument), calligraphy, harp, tea-ceremony, the Kyoto dialect etc before visiting the tea house in the evening.”

There are strict rules of dressing for maikos, exclaims Tomi, “You can easily distinguish a novice maiko from a mature one based on their make-up alone. While a young one is usually more ornately dressed, she puts a lipstick on her lower lip in the first stage, the mature ones stand out on the basis of their skills.”

Quoting Mameha from Memoirs of a Geisha again, “Agony and beauty for us run side by side, your feet will suffer, your body will pain”, we were reminded of this classic dialogue as Tomi revealed to the audience, “A maiko visits the hairdresser for one-and-a-half hour per week to dress up her high-raised bun and maintains the same throughout the week, struggling through sleep and waking to settle her hair carefully for 30 minutes every morning.”And that is just a small glimpse! They also perform for six hours at a stretch wearing a 10kg heavy attire to entertain their guests.

“Before World War II, there were more than a 1,000 geishas in the city, now there are only 180 geishas and 60 maikos in Kyoto,” rues Tomi, adding that they want to open to a wider audience, beyond their exclusive list of patrons. “Maikos and geishas just do not entertain men with their dance, tea-ceremonies and conversations, they serve women as well,” adds Tomi unveiling the mysterious aura around their tradition.

For a chance to revel in the glory of this tradition, the maikos and Tomi invited the audience to visit Kyoto in the month of April when one of their biggest performances, Miyako Odori, will entrance the audience.

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