Geisha, Geiko, Maiko, Hangyoku and how to tell the difference.

While in Kyoto we had the privilege of attending a private Geisha/Geiko (see below for an explanation of the different terms) performance. I’d only seen such things in movies and it was truly mesmerizing. After the performance, we had the opportunity to speak with our performers and ask them questions. Turns out, the life of a Geisha/Geiko isn’t easy.  Our Maiko (Geiko in training and the one dancing in the photos below) wasn’t allowed to speak with or see her family; wasn’t allowed to wear pants or jeans in public on her “off” days; had to sleep on a special wooden “pillow” so as not to mess up her hair between weekly stylings; wasn’t allowed to take any form of public transportation; and certainly wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend or husband.

A few important notes:

  • In Kyoto, Geisha are referred to as Geiko (pronounced “gay-ko”) . A Geisha is literally “a woman of the arts”, who is trained in traditional dancing, music and singing. In Tokyo, these women are called Geisha, and in Kyoto they are called Geiko.
  • In Kyoto a Maiko (pronounced “my-ko”) is an apprentice Geiko. The word Maiko literally translates as “dancing child”. If you’re in Tokyo, an apprentice Geisha is known as Hangyoku.
  • A Maiko typically wears a colorful kimono with long sleeves and appears with her own hair worn up with a variety of extravagant hairpins.
  • A Geiko wears a plainer kimono with shorter sleeves and appears wearing relatively unadorned wigs.
  • Both maiko and geiko entertain guests and often appear together at various functions.
  • Maiko usually live at their okiya (geisha house) during their training period and are under the care of a kami-san (mother of the house). During this time, they are not supposed to enter into romantic relationships or marry. Our Maiko was also not allowed to see or speak with her family.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Geiko and Maiko are not prostitutes!  They are highly trained performers specializing in the traditional Japanese arts.
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