Nov. 07, 2017 UPDATE
Time to change to a kimono and go for a walk in Gion!
First, a little bit about the Gion of the geisha and maiko, hanamachi
Gion is one of the most famous areas for sightseeing in Kyoto, and indeed in Japan. There are many traditional Japanese restaurants in machiya-style town houses in Gion, so it’s no wonder this traditional area is on everyone’s list when they come to Kyoto. Gion is also one of the main hanamachi in Kyoto, meaning that it is a geisha district. So you stand a real chance to see a maiko or a geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) in Gion. But do you know what the history behind maiko and geiko is? Or how do you distinguish them? We are going to find out!
Gion got its name in the Edo period (1603-1868). The shrine of Yasaka was an important landmark in Gion, and many people came to the shrine to worship, and so there, of course, had to also be many restaurants and hotels for those people. This gave birth to the busy Gion we know today. Those restaurants then started hiring beautiful young women to promote their businesses, and the nightlife in Gion was born. The rest is history.
When the Edo period turned to Meiji, the style of the district was kept the same, but many new restaurants began offering their new take on cuisine in Gion. This street, Hanamikoji, is an especially famous example. The restaurants lining it are visited by the cream of the crop in Japan, and the prices are as expensive as you’d think.
The rules of the hanamachi
There are currently five hanamachi in Kyoto, Kamishichiken, Ponto-cho, Miyagawa-cho, Gion Kobu, and Gion Higashi. The hanamachi in Gion is divided into two parts, Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi, and of these Gion Kobu is the bigger one, actually the biggest one in Japan. The people entertained in each hanamachi belong to different classes, and the hanamachi in Gion get the cream of the crop, the politicians, and CEOs.
In a tea house you get to listen to the maiko play the Japanese stringed instrument shamisen and to watch her dance, but most of these tea houses don’t let in people who don’t already know a patron. So you usually need to know someone in order to gain access.
How do teahouses operate?
The teahouses usually have an outside caterer who makes their course meals, and the teahouse itself only provides alcoholic drinks. The geisha and maiko live in an okiya, a lodging house, from where they go to work in teahouses.
What’s the difference between maiko and geiko?
Maiko are girls who are still underage (under 20) and who thus have not yet become geikos, but are training to become one. In order to work as a maiko, they have to learn ikebana and how to play shamisen. The difference between maiko and geiko is easy to notice: of the two, maiko are the ones who stand out. The youngest maiko are the ones whose clothes and accessories are the most eye-catching, when they continue on the path to geiko, their look gradually gets simpler. This is because a geiko doesn’t need to use her clothes and accessories to get the attention of the patrons.
The easiest way to spot the difference is to look at the kimono collars: the more experienced the maiko, the simpler the collar gets. If you see a geisha wearing all-white, you’ll know she’s the highest level a geisha can get to. Compared to the almost gaudy obi sashes of maiko, the one's geiko use are extremely simple (but still very expensive). If you see a maiko with only lipstick on her lower lip, that means that she hasn’t yet completed her first year of training. She will also use a pearl hair accessory.
After reading about maiko and geiko, I'm sure you'd also like to wear a kimono. Luckily there are many shops in Gion that offer kimono rentals, and in the next part we're going to take a look at them!